Samuel Williams

Samuel Williams pictured with grandson, Walter G. McClain (lower left), circa 1940 and circa 1980 respectively. Image is courtesy of the McClain family.

Almost no one knows the real story of Sam Aleckson, a Charleston slave born into bondage, even though he wrote it all down.

When his memoir "Before the War, and After the Union" was published in 1929, the autobiography came without fanfare. Today, just 27 surviving copies can be found in libraries nationwide.

Yet Aleckson knew his story held historical weight. So when an illness threatened to take his eyesight, he suddenly began documenting his journey from his time as child slave in South Carolina to a free man living in Vermont, usually writing at night and usually by candlelight.

"It is a remarkable fact that very many of the immediate descendants of those who passed through the trying ordeal of American slavery know nothing of the hardships through which their fathers came," Aleckson wrote at the time.

The aging author would not let his story — a rare one of urban slavery in the South — fade along with him. 

There was only one problem. 

His story was incomplete.

The historical cliffhanger was discovered in 2009 when Clemson University's Susanna Ashton found Aleckson's memoir while researching slave narratives specific to South Carolina.

"He wrote from a world that told him he was nothing," Ashton said. "In the United States, we don't have that many firsthand written narratives by people who survived slavery, and this one was quite obscure. Only a couple of scholars had noted it."

Among his recollections, Aleckson wrote about the Great Charleston Fire of 1861 in which 145 acres of the peninsula burned. After the fire, the family who owned him, his mother and his siblings needed money. Since slaves were considered property, Aleckson and his family were then appraised, sold and were separated.

"Several gentlemen came out into the yard. The people stood up, and the gentlemen went among them asking questions. One of them placed his hand on my head," he wrote of the experience. "Well, my boy,' said he, 'What can you do?’ ‘I can ride, Sir,' I answered, whereupon my mother gave me a gentle nudge which meant, 'Hush."

His writings would ultimately end up in Aston's book "I Belong to South Carolina," an anthology of narratives she compiled and researched. But his chapter, she said, became a frustration and then, somewhat of an obsession.

When his memoir ended, so, too, did any record of his life.

She wanted to know more.

The unique spelling of his last name name, usually a boon for historical research, turned up nothing about the man called Sam Aleckson.

"Sometimes history doesn't do what you want it to do," she said.

It took someone from the present to give her the clue she needed.

When The State newspaper of Columbia published an article about her book, she received a handwritten letter from one of his descendants, saying no one had ever heard about the autobiography outside of their family.

The post-script, though, changed everything. 

"P.S.- His last name wasn't really Aleckson. Of course, you must really know by now that it was Williams," they wrote.

"I could have fallen on the floor," Ashton said of the revelation. "There was almost nothing out there in the world, and certainly no one had ever identified that."

When she heard the news, she realized the copyright of the book was to none other than Samuel Williams, the very author of the book.

Suddenly, the historical archives of his life sprang to life. She enlisted a team of 11 undergraduate students to help track down information about Williams. 

With the help of Williams' descendants, including Erika Jimenez, slowly a living portrait of Williams emerged. He chose the name Aleckson as a nod to his father, whose first name was Alexander.

His life is now being featured in a new digital exhibit at the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History initiative.

The online exhibit is reportedly the first time his identity has been published. Ashton hopes the digital exhibit will reach a larger audience.

Ashton said she and her students also realized Williams had a propensity for changing the names of others in his writing. There are many reasons why he changed names and details, including his age and that some figures in the book may have still been alive at the time the autobiography published.

Ashton said that unlike the writings of former slaves like Frederick Douglass, Williams grew up in a different era.

"Samuel Williams grew up in this era of Reconstruction, and through the Gilded Age. He grew up in a world where you didn't need to fight against the idea of slavery. He's not an abolitionist, however, what he's trying to write against is more subtle," she said. "He's writing against forgetfulness."

"There is nothing good to be said of American slavery," Williams wrote at the time. "I know it is sometimes customary to speak of its bright and its dark sides. I am not prepared to admit that it had any bright sides, unless it was the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln."

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Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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