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Pensacola History Woven Into New Fiction For Youth

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Sandra Averhart
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Local author Georgia McCorvey Smith has written several publications on Pensacola's African American history. Now, the retired teacher is unveiling a new book titled Elizabeth Finds Freedom for Christmas that weaves local history into a fictional story aimed at middle school students.

The central characters in the book are Elizabeth and her mother, who are slaves of Master James.

“They live on the island of St. Helena, an island near Charleston, where Master James and several other masters became rich growing cotton and rice,” Smith said. “And, since Mama is a very skilled seamstress, he rents Mama to work in Charleston, where she makes lovely dresses for the young Charleston maids.”

As the story unfolds in Charleston, South Carolina, states from the north and south appear headed toward Civil War over slavery. This possibility of war has a significant impact on the developments to come. Smith explains in this passage from the book:

Though Mama had heard talk of a war, which could bring freedom, she felt she could not count on a war which may never happen to bring her freedom. Mama knew northern abolitionists, the white people who helped slaves to run away, thought slavery was wrong. She also knew southern masters thought slavery was right. Twice she had heard Master James say to Master Pete, he was willing to fight a war to keep his slaves. She simply did not like Master James’ war talk. Freedom was what she liked. Freedom was what she wanted and she wanted it as soon as she could get it.

As a skilled seamstress, Mama has been saving up to buy some red velvet fabric to make special Christmas dresses for her and her daughter. But, in a major turning point, that dream is shattered when she’s not paid for her work.

“And, when her cousin comes in and sees her crying, her daughter explains Mama’s crying because Master James did not pay her any money for making Miss Sara’s dress,” said Smith. “He hugs Mama. He hugs Elizabeth and he tells Mama as he has told her many times before. In fact, he has a little speech that he tells her and her husband, that every slave can come to Pensacola and find freedom.”

Of course, Cousin Alex knows this because he’s the pilot of Master James’ boat and has been to Pensacola several times transporting supplies to and from the Panton Leslie Trading Post.

Alex, according to Smith, is very familiar with the free people of Pensacola. He has been to their homes. He has been to their shops. And, he knows that with Mama’s skills as a seamstress and her husband’s skills as a carpenter, they'll be able to prosper in this city on the northern Gulf coast.

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Prior to Elizabeth Finds Freedom for Christmas, Smith authored a few publications that focused on the area's black history. This one is a fictional account that she wrote with her middle school granddaughter in mind.

“She doesn’t like history; she loves math,” Smith said. “But, I thought that if I wrote a detailed text with colorful pictures and that that would get her attention. And, I’m hoping will get other children’s attention too.”

Also, Smith has augmented her fictional story with plenty of real life historical references, including the fact that the Spanish government did welcome slaves to Pensacola, in part to keep their soldiers happy and to help the colonies grow.

The book reflects another bit of history in the reference to the use rented slaves in Pensacola, particularly in the construction of many of the city's coastal fortifications.

“All the forts that we have here, [including] Ft. Pickens and Ft. Barrancas, they were built by New Orleans slaves,” Smith said. “When William Chase came here to build the forts, there were not many slaves here. So, he sent for his friend’s slaves, I think they belonged to his friend Jasper Strong, he rented them.”

As noted earlier, the Panton Leslie Trading Post was mentioned in the story, as well as real life Pensacola resident Julee Panton. Panton was a free woman of color, who in 1805 bought the Julee Cottage that’s now in Pensacola’s historic district. She made a living selling candles and by baking.

“And, my character Alex, the pilot of the boat, he could hardly wait to get to Pensacola to get some of Julee’s apple pie, especially at Christmas time,” Smith said.

All of the historic facts on which the story is based are listed in an extensive appendix.

As a retired school teacher, Smith is hoping Elizabeth Finds Freedom for Christmas one day will be available in local public schools.

The book will be unveiled this Saturday, June 20, 1 p.m. at the Cobb Community Center.