First she was told about a grain sack dating from around 1851 that had these words  embroidered on it:

My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my LOVE always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Ruth Middleton
1921

Taken in by its story and the sack itself, which apparently elicits raw, sudden and spontaneous tears in those exposed to it, Tiya Miles was compelled to write a book about it and the women’s stories that briefly appear on it: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.

In so doing, she uncovers and recovers the herstory of enslaved mothers and daughters, the long trajectory of a strong Black culture in the US, the emergence and story of Charleston, South Carolina as a hub of the worst kinds of crimes against humanity, the location and ecosystems of pecan trees and the importance of their nutrient rich seeds in the survival, folk history, and eventually, food culture of Black Americans, and much more.

I loved this book. I love the approach Tiya Miles takes: researching each line and filling in the multitude of blanks between the lines. Through her research, so full of heart as well as sharp intellect, she is able to locate the women who were Rose, Ashley and Ruth. She is able to piece together their heartbreaking stories, while also reconstructing the untold story of  Black women. In Rose’s ability to find a way, any way she could, to care for, prepare and support her daughter Ashley under such heinous conditions and circumstances, Miles blows the cover off the myth that the enslaved were not active (to the best of their abilities under the circumstances) in their narratives. Somehow Rose found a way and it was mindful, intentional and clear. How many more invisible acts of this kind were there that we have never and will never hear about. The erasing of the stories of women who were unfree adds to the massive effort at dehumanization they were up against. We must take Miles’ lead to regain, reclaim and tell their stories to give them back in part what was taken from them and do whatever small part we can toward restoration and remuneration. Telling their stories and offering respect can be part of those efforts.

“Rose’s packing highlights an essential element of enslaved women’s experience. Black women were creators, constantly making the slate of things necessary to sustain the life of the family. . . These made things included clothing, brooms, quilts, meals, medicines, and an array of mementos, like buttons and beads, that might one day be pressed into the palm of a parting loved one’s hand. Black women fashioned and gathered these things into emotional nets that affirmed their love for self and others, channeling visions of perseverance through the work of their thoughts and hands, often at their own risk”(103).

In this book, Miles tells the intimate and untold story of women who were unfree, women who were legally enslaved in the United States of America. The only records that are mostly available about them are their names recorded in ledgers on the dates they were bought or sold. Sometimes people find letters, if they are lucky. By finding their  names recorded on the sack and matching them to names on ledgers with dates and locations, Miles is able to piece together the realities of the lives of Rose, Ashley and Ruth. She accomplishes this by researching the history of the time and location. By researching the choices Rose made about what she put into the sack, researching the story of women’s relationship to cloth in general, to clothing, to sewing, to grain sacks, to fabric, she adds more. By finding other Black women at the time who did manage to speak or write their stories, she is able to further cull the story and fill in the details. Miles’ process in writing this book creates a strong model for how to write about what has been erased, excluded and removed from history in general.

Ashley’s sack was discovered by a white woman “in a bin of old fabrics at an outdoor flea market near Nashville Tennessee”(31) in the early 2000s.  It is now housed in a case at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, on loan from the Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, SC.

Miles informs us that the history of South Carolina has its roots in the British landowners and the slave economy from England through Barbados,“the largest, most comprehensive, most lucrative slave society all the English colonies”(43). Apparently this economy along with its worldview and citizens migrated to Charleston, where Ruth ended up and Ashley was born.

“There is a prologue to Ruth’s family story that traces back to colonial South Carolina, the darling of coastal planters, and its bustling, bedazzling seaport city: Charleston. Restarting our story then and there grounds the unfolding drama of the sack and its carriers in the historical evolution of Lowcountry slave society.

If the old cotton sack is synecdoche for American slavery, Charleston represents the same for eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century South during the long reign of rice and the bright rise of cotton, staple crops dependent on rich, abundant land, and cheap, plentiful labor. Over a few short decades, people rendered as things by law became fundamental to the establishment of this colony and metropolis”(42).

Miles explores and relays facts and anecdotes about the Charleston of that time so we can get a real feel for the place, customs, beliefs and treatment of the unfree Blacks there. It is in the context of this Charleston that the first two lines of the sack unfold, where the daughter is ripped from the mother—an event that without  Ruth’s documentation on the sack, we would never know anything about. And yet it happened all the time. A completely normalized event for the enslavers and white people of the time, but one that was never normalized for those to whom it was happening. The tearing apart of families and other relationships was one of the worst crimes of the enslavement of Black Americans.

“How did we end up here, with the memory of a tattered dress and yet another Black mother’s daughter on an auction block? How did South Carolina become a place where the sale of a colored child was not only possible but probable? The answer lies in the willingness of an entire society to bend its shape around a set of power relations that structured human exploitation along racial lines for financial gain. While vending Black people to underwrite material pleasures, South Carolina sold its soul”(165).

There are many women named Rose in the ledgers of unfree people in Charleston around 1850. The defining feature to find the Rose mentioned on this sack is that her daughter is named Ashley, not a common name for Black female children of the time. Miles finally locates a Rose and an Ashley in the inventory of Milberry Place Plantation, a country estate of a man named Robert Martin. When Martin died, his estate was liquidated and thus the mention of the sale of Ashley. 

“Ashley is listed among one hundred unfree people in the inventory of Martin’s enslaved property taken in the year 1853. Her attributed value of $300, in comparison to that of other women listed at $500 and $600 in the cotton boom decade of the 1850’s, suggests that she may have been a younger or relatively unskilled worker”(69).

Things were bad enough for unfree people but the disruption that came like a tsunami through their lives when an enslaver died and his property was sold was a fear most carried and trembled at the thought of. Unfree families were always being torn apart in the time that slavery was legal and allowed in this country, but when estates were being divided up, it became particularly excruciating and this is what came to pass for Rose and Ashley. 

“Martin’s house in town was inventoried in a separate appraisal upon his death. Here, he owned pricey china, fashionable carriages, a pair of horses, one cow, stocks and bonds in numerous companies, and seven enslaved men and women, one whose name was Rose.

This Rose, listed with the value of $700 beside her name, was the most expensive woman on Martin’s urban estate. She must have been in her prime age of life. She may have been highly skilled. However much we hate to confront it, she may have been priced this amount because of her sexual appeal to white men”(70). 

What we learn from the above is that by this time already, Rose was in the town house and Ashley was in the country plantation. They were separated by distance before Ashley was sold. Still, they may have seen one another now and then or at least heard tell of one another. Upon Martin’s death, Rose knew the delivery of the sack could very well be the final act she would do for her daughter. She planned and plotted and was able to create and fill the sack as well as get the sack to her before both of their impending sales. 

I am sure there was hope in both of their hearts that they would somehow be able to see one another again at some point but we read on the sack that never happened. And so it is even more important to know that Rose’s efforts were successful in getting at least something to Ashley for some kind of amelioration, mitigation and comfort for what was in front of her. And something to remember her, Rose, with. Something to make Ashley confident that she was dearly loved.

“Ashley, the inheritor, then became a standard bearer for the survival of her kin. We might even see Ashley as a mythic heroine: the seed carrier who totes a sack and plants new story lines. Much of our cultural lore lionizes male heroes wielding weapons of death, but an alternative archetype exists in history and myth the world over. Novelist Ursula Le Guin describes this second sort of protagonist as a gatherer instead of a hunter, a collector of wild plants rather than a shaker of spears. This alternative figure totes a bag as her principle object and tells stories as her primary mode of communication”(276).

Within the chapter about locating Rose and Ashley, Tiya Miles makes a statement of such importance and a plea of such worth that we must stand up and take notice. We must follow its direction:

“We know so much about Martin from his records and the imposing house he built. Historians follow paper trails. Since Rose left none, it is easy to let her fade into the margins of this record driven chapter, to let the Martins take center stage in our time as in their own. There is a centrifugal pull, in reconstructing enslaved lives, toward telling the stories of their owners primarily or instead. This is a default we must resist—but how? Not one record in the Martin family papers describes Rose or the life she lived. Her cares and her kindnesses, fears and frailties, fade behind a wall of silence. Can we scale it? 

. . . We cannot know Rose but we can draw on resources at our disposal —documents, cityscapes, architectural records and the built environment she inhabited, slave narratives, and Ruth’s inscription on the sack—to picture the woman she might have been and summon the shape of her daily life”(78).

This is the main thesis and mission of #Nastywomenwriters: to not fall into the default that erases everything and everyone except white men in its wake. We must tell the whole history, the whole story. We must include those who are not included, reintroduce those who are erased on purpose or by omission. As Miles urges we must draw on resources at our disposal to replace the distorted history we tell ourselves, our children, the world; to tell instead the truth and wholeness that includes all voices, all experiences, all races, sexes, classes and sexual orientations. In this case, history is told by and about the enslavers. We must resist this default, Miles urges. Though we have more information on them, more records and so it is easier to construct, it does not tell the truth. 

“Who was Rose? We know at least this: Rose refused to submit to the lie that said she had no right to love her daughter. Instead, she claimed her child, sought to shield Ashely, and provided a priceless inheritance, which she folded into a sack. Rose’s radical stance, obfuscated in the archives, reveals to us the potential force of human will against the odds”(90). 

In this book, Miles offers us a template of how to tell the stories: using “documents, cityscapes, architectural records and the built environment she inhabited, slave narratives, and Ruth’s inscription on the sack” is how she did it. Writers, artists, painters and historians, can do the same for their subjects.

Tiya Miles is the author of five other books including a novel The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts. She is a professor of history at Harvard University. She created ECO Girls: an environmental and self-esteem building program for girls in Urban Southeast Michigan. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Learn more about Tiya Miles here.

Miles does an amazing job finding, locating and describing the women’s stories hidden in the male narrative. She discovers that Ruth moved to Philadelphia from South Carolina and had one daughter named Dorothy who died in 1988 “with no known lineal descendants. Afterward the textile was lost, perhaps boxed, dated, or sold with other items once attached to these lives as ephemeral as our own. But the bag Rose packed, the cloth Ashley kept, and the tale Ruth told live on to declare the staying power of love’s ties and women’s stories”(264).

Tiya Miles is a #NastyWomanWriter

© Theresa C. Dintino

Works Cited:

Miles, Tiya. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Random House, N.Y. 2021