Enjoyed your post about “Buzzard Pete.” I believe that is Mr. Peter Briggs (1828–1912). I discuss him (with a photo) on page 89 of my book The Corner. You’ll notice the excerpt on that page from the student newspaper College Topics on his passing (October 5 issue), includes this line:
Two generations of students remember the slight, under-sized figure with his bowed legs, the cheerful laugh and Rebel Yell and buzzard dance.
And the picture Barefoot published? Uncle Peter by Rufus W. Holsinger, a detail of which you can see above. According to Barefoot, Briggs was born into slavery on December 25, 1828, just south of the university, and after the Civil War worked as a gardener on Grounds. Upon his death in October 1912, students paid for a funeral and published the obituary Barefoot mentioned in his note. It reads:
The death of Uncle Peter removed from the University life one of its most interesting familiar figures. Two generations of students remember the slight, under-sized figure with his bowed legs, the cheerful laugh and Rebel Yell and buzzard dance. With the approach of old age and its attendant ills, Uncle Peter became a public charge of the University community and has been for several years a general favorite of the students and professors. Although there is not a single case on record of him having begged, he received frequent tokens of regard from his University friends.
He regarded every student as his friend and saluted you with a deep bow, a raising of his cap and an inquiry as to your health. The high esteem in which he was held by his boys was evidenced by the liberality with which they subscribed to his burial fund. His last words to his wife were characteristic of the man: “What are you crying for? I’m all right, I’m safe.” May the kind, suffering old soul rest in peace.
Several things stand out from all this: One, the sentence that Barefoot quotes sets off all kinds of alarm bells for historians who have read widely on the depiction of African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War. The “faithful slave” is an all-too-familiar trope—cheerful, loyal, childlike, and non-threatening—and one that during slavery days served to soften the edges of an inherently violent institution and then, post-emancipation, to justify white supremacy. Who but a faithful slave, a black Confederate, would make himself known for his rebel yell at a time historians have identified as the nadir of race relations in the United States?
Two, none of this says anything about who Buzzard Pete actually was but only how he was depicted by white people. And those depictions can, simultaneously, be sincerely loving and borrow from traditions that dehumanize black people.
Three, what’s interesting about the Holsinger photograph above, as opposed to the picture that appeared on the photoblog Shorpy, is how it resists all of that racist baggage. The coat is a bit tattered, true, but otherwise “Uncle Peter” could be a university professor.
Four … except for the fact that he is identified only as “Uncle Peter.” True, many people depicted in the Holsinger collection, both white and black, go unnamed or only partially named. But slavery too often rendered African Americans either nameless or singly named. A plantation was filled with field hands named Billy and Peter and Moses, making it difficult—and not by accident—to carve the individual man out of the slave.
All of which is to say—five—that we owe Coy Barefoot thanks for giving Buzzard Pete/Uncle Peter a full name: Peter Briggs. It’s not just that this makes research so much easier (immediately I was able to find him in census records and even in the Charlottesville telephone directory); it’s that it gives him humanity. That’s no small thing, even a century and change after his death.
UPDATE: Learn more about Peter Briggs here.
IMAGE: Detail of Uncle Peter by Rufus W. Holsinger (Holsinger Studio Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)