His was a life of contradictions.
The escaped slave fighting a war to eliminate slavery, serving the Union Army in the segregated U.S. Colored Troops. The honored veteran barred from interaction with whites—especially former Confederates—during commemorative ceremonies.
This was Ephraim Slaughter, an upstanding citizen of Harrisburg and a Civil War veteran who lived to see World War II. His long life and community standing brought him recognition in his lifetime. After death, his name lived on through the Ephraim Slaughter Post 733 American Legion. Now, his legacy continues through the National Civil War Museum’s latest exhibit, an overview of his life and times.
Ephraim Slaughter was born into slavery in Hertford County, N.C., in 1846—maybe in January, but he wasn’t sure. In 1863, he escaped slavery and found refuge in a Union Army enclave along the North Carolina coast. He served under an assumed name, Ephraim Newsome, for three years with what would become the 37th USCT.
In 1869, Slaughter, by then using the name of his slave owner, moved to Harrisburg. He worked in the legendary Lochiel Hotel near the Capitol, where pols smoked their cigars and made their deals. He owned property. He co-founded A.M.E. Zion Church on N. 6th Street. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful organization for Union Civil War veterans.
He was married twice, first in 1880 to a South Carolina woman named Carrie. That marriage lasted until her death in 1935. By then, in his old age, he made a fond but practical match with Georgiana Williams Mitchell, a widow 43 years his junior. She was an entrepreneur whose ventures included a boardinghouse for traveling African-Americans blocked from registering at whites-only hotels. They agreed that she would take care of him, and he would leave her his property.
Slaughter died on Feb. 17, 1943, at the age of 97 and was buried with military honors in Lincoln Cemetery in Penbrook. He had asked to be buried there next to Carrie and his brother, Dave. Georgiana honored that request.
Slaughter’s story came to the attention of the National Civil War Museum when CEO Wayne E. Motts contacted historian Calobe Jackson, Jr., through the Historical Society of Dauphin County.
The museum had always wanted an installation featuring an African-American soldier—not a generic figure, but “an African-American soldier we could wrap a story around,” says Motts. Jackson said, “I think I have just the person.”
The exhibit, unveiled in late May, features a lifelike figure of the elderly Slaughter in his GAR uniform. Slaughter’s long life provides the fabric for sharing many threads of the African-American experience before, during and after the Civil War, says Motts. About 200,000 African-Americans served in the Army and Navy, but their tales rarely take center stage. Slaughter’s life “allows us to put a local face and local story to reach to the community at large,” he says.
For instance, enlisting in the Army wasn’t as easy as taking a pledge at a hometown recruitment center.
“This man had to escape slavery first,” says Motts. “Then he fought in the Union Army. Overcoming these obstacles is another story you can tell the young folks here. And becoming a bright, productive and well-known member of the community after the Civil War, that’s also a good story.”
Even Slaughter’s active membership in the GAR illuminates “a very powerful lobbying group and advocacy group for veterans’ affairs right after the Civil War.”
“If you were the president, if you were the governor, if you were a congressman, if you were a senator, you better listen to the folks in the GAR,” says Motts.
Ahead of Their Time
Much of Slaughter’s story comes from the genealogical research of Sharonn Williams, Slaughter’s great-granddaughter by virtue of his marriage to Georgiana. Preserving his memory is crucial, “especially in the African-American community, where kids are so disconnected from their history,” says Williams.
“They don’t know each other and don’t know their history or where they came from,” she says. “Ephraim’s story was someone who was born into circumstances that nobody should be born into—nobody—and he was somebody who turned that around, who flipped the scales. He went out in the world and made just what of it he could.”
Williams’ mother, J. Yvonne Mitchell Pittman, is Georgiana’s granddaughter. She has faint memories of her gentle, quiet grandpop. Walks to the corner tavern, where Slaughter would have a glass of port wine with the owner. Riding in Memorial Day parades and selling poppies. Her grandparents “had an understanding,” Pittman says.
“He valued her for her strength, and he trusted her,” she says. “He respected her. I think they were way ahead of their time.”
From his escape from slavery to his “coming north and making it work for him,” Slaughter was a wonder, says Pittman. “What man that was a slave owns all the houses he acquired? I don’t know how he did that. I admire the things he did. I know my grandmother would be happy about the honor.”
At his death, Slaughter left property worth a substantial $10,000 to Georgiana. In his later years, he was often honored as one of the rapidly vanishing connections to the Civil War. His photo appeared in newspapers, and he was chief marshal for Harrisburg’s 1941 Memorial Day parade, with fellow veteran John Barton who served as chief of staff. They were, as a newspaper wrote, “both negroes.”
In 1938, Slaughter was invited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dedication of the Peace Memorial at Gettysburg. He and Barton were chauffeured to Gettysburg, but African-Americans were barred from any part of the ceremony involving interaction with whites. When blue and gray came together, shaking hands in brotherhood, Slaughter and Barton were not there.
Ephraim Slaughter thrived despite the era’s overt racism, says great-granddaughter Williams. He gave to the community, and the community gave back, honoring his service and providing comfort in his old age. The latest honor, bestowed through the Civil War Museum exhibit, shows that he was meant to be remembered, she says.
“My great-grandmother is smiling because she made an agreement to take care of him, and now we’re preserving his memory.”
The National Civil War Museum is located at 1 Lincoln Circle, Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org.