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From Slave to Statesman

The Life of Educator, Editor, and Civil Rights Activist Willis M. Carter of Virginia

In the 1980s, Willis McGlascoe Carter’s handwritten memoir turned up unexpectedly in the hands of a midwestern antiques dealer. Its twenty-two pages told a fascinating story of a man born into slavery in Virginia who, at the onset of freedom, gained an education, became a teacher, started a family, and edited a newspaper. Even his life as a slave seemed exceptional: he described how his owners treated him and his family with respect, and he learned to read and write. Tucked into its back pages, the memoir included a handwritten tribute to Carter, written by his fellow teachers upon his death. Robert Heinrich and Deborah Harding’s From Slave to Statesman tells the extraordinary story of Willis M. Carter’s life. Using Carter’s brief memoir--one of the few extant narratives penned by a former slave--as a starting point, Heinrich and Harding fill in the abundant gaps in his life, providing unique insight into many of the most important events and transformations in this period of southern history.
Carter was born a slave in 1852. Upon gaining freedom after the Civil War, Carter, like many former slaves, traveled in search of employment and education. He journeyed as far as Rhode Island and then moved to Washington, DC, where he attended night school before entering and graduating from Wayland Seminary. He continued on to Staunton, Virginia, where he became a teacher and principal in the city’s African American schools, the editor of the Staunton Tribune, a leader in community and state civil rights organizations, and an activist in the Republican Party. Carter served as an alternate delegate to the 1896 Republican National Convention, and later he helped lead the battle against Virginia’s new state constitution, which white supremacists sought to use as a means to disenfranchise blacks. As part of that campaign, Carter traveled to Richmond to address delegates at the constitutional convention, serving as chairman of a committee that advocated voting rights and equal public education for African Americans. Although Carter did not live to see Virginia adopt its new Jim Crow constitution, he died knowing that he had done all in his power to stop it. From Slave to Statesman fittingly resurrects Carter’s all-but-forgotten story, adding immeasurably to our understanding of the journey that he and men like him took out of slavery into a world of incredible promise and powerful disappointment.
1. My Lot Being That of a Slave
2. Desired Glories
3. Opened School
4. One of the Best Known Citizens of Virginia
Appendix 1: “A Sketch of my Life and our family record” by Willis M. Carter, transcribed by Deborah Harding 
Appendix 2: Transcript of Handwritten Tribute to Willis M. Carter from the Teachers at Public School No. 2 in Staunton
Appendix 3: “COLORED MEN TO PROTEST: Paper That Will Be Presented to the Constitutional Convention,” Richmond Dispatch, June 20, 1901

Robert Heinrich is Assistant Editor of the American National Biography project for the American Council of Learned Societies and Oxford University Press as well as a non-resident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Deborah Harding is an art and art history research specialist, the former editor for several national magazines, and the author of four books on American folk art.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic and the author of over a dozen books.

Praise for From Slave to Statesman

“A wonderful service to African American history.”—Lois Horton, author of Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom

“By dint of unceasing dedication and perseverance, Willis McGlascoe Carter rendered his life a tale ‘from slavery to statesman.’ A man known to many of his late nineteenth-century Virginia contemporaries but long since lost to posterity, Carter left a sketchy record of his remarkable life in a slim handwritten memoir. He now comes back to full-figured life in this richly researched, well-told book. It restores to history an African American life of compelling significance.”—Ezra Greenspan, author of William Wells Brown: An African American Life

“Carter’s bare-bones autobiographical sketch has been ably authenticated and enhanced by Robert Heinrich and Deborah Harding. The authors also pick up where Carter's narrative ends, telling of his role as a political activist, seeking to guarantee voting rights for African Americans in Virginia (a worthy objective that regrettably was not met until years after Carter’s passing). In addition to telling Carter’s story, From Slave to Statesman provides important historical background that contextualizes the impressive life and career of this notable individual.”—David Fiske, author of Solomon Northup’s Kindred and coauthor of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story

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