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Uncle Peter and the Rebel Yell

April 11th, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe · 6 Comments

Detail from "Uncle Peter" by Rufus W. Holsinger, undated (Holsinger Studio Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)

Yesterday I received an e-mail from Coy Barefoot referring to my speculations about the identity of one “Buzzard Pete” and what he may have meant to the University of Virginia community:

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)

Tags: Holsinger Collection · Visual History

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael C. Lucas // Apr 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Why does this set 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?”

    The greater alarm is the ignorance in the distortion that the majority of Slaves were not devotional, the distortion that slavery was and is always inherently violent, or that African American and Anglo-American relations were never amiable. What is your objective truth or maintaining hypocrisy? These generalizations as any other are an inherent fallacy that sow conflict for future generations.

  • 2 Brendan Wolfe // Apr 11, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the comment, as always, Mr. Lucas. I didn’t say anything about “the majority of Slaves.” But yes, slavery is an inherently violent institution. Such a thing is self-evident; without the threat of violence, let alone its regular application, slavery was impossible. That you think otherwise, and that such a view is so completely at odds with generations of scholarship, suggests that the burden is on you to make an argument and to provide some evidence. You’re always welcome to do that in this space.

  • 3 Michael C. Lucas // Apr 11, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Slavery is not always inherently violent, in fact in many cases people willingly enslave themselves even contractually everyday indenturing themselves into perpetuity. Thousands of people are processed through modern slavery everyday as a result of their impoverished circumstances, they willingly contract themselves to subjugation for their survival. Once within that circumstance they accept it, violence occurs only if the dominant master is brutal or unless they meet resistance to their order or control, or when the enslaved choose violence as course for their own dominance or self control. Not ever dominant person has to be violent in order to be oppressive, a drug dealer doesn’t have to force drugs on users, they only have to supply them with the sustenance of their needs to control them. Society is controlled as long as they have the illusion of freedom and the benefits that sustain them for what they need or think thats what they need or want.

  • 4 Brendan Wolfe // Apr 11, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Mr. Lucas, you write: “Slavery is not always inherently violent, in fact in many cases people willingly enslave themselves even contractually everyday indenturing themselves into perpetuity.”

    One, I would say we’re not talking here about all kinds of slavery in all places in time; we’re talking about the institution of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the United States.

    Two, we’re talking here about an institution as a whole and not every individual situation within that institution.

    I make these points so we can dispense with talk about drug dealers or poverty or “society” or brutal versus kind masters.

    Enslaved African Americans (with only the tiniest number of exceptions) were not enslaved voluntarily. Regardless of the dispositions of their masters, they were not welcome to just pack up their stuff and strike out on their own. The consequences of doing so was violence. Were the consequence something else—say, a perplexed harrumph or an eloquent declamation on the civilizing benefits of bondage—then the whole jig would have been up.

    You admit as much when you say that violence only occurs when masters “meet resistance to their order or control.” Since slavery is defined by that control—I’m the master, you’re the slave—then it follows that violence is inherent in the system.

  • 5 Michael C. Lucas // Apr 11, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Maybe the problem for society as a whole is that we’re not talking about all kinds of slavery in all places in time, though everyone should be in this discussion. It’s my opinion based on the overwhelmingly ignored documentation, that not every African American was personally enslaved by violent means.
    Millions were born into it, and certainly millions never tasted the sting of a lash, or were otherwise chained and to suggest generalizations that they all were or not, by violent means is a distortion. Chattel slavery does not necessarily follow that violence is inherent in the system anymore or less than nonviolent incentives of persuasion; chattel only designates entitlement of ownership. Slavery was institutionalized just as much through amiable persuasion and not solely because of inherent violence, but certainly inherent domination. If African American slavery had been as violent as it is too often overtly misinterpreted, then it would not have endured as long as it did. That does not mean violence did not occur or that it was the only recourse for emancipation or manumission.
    It is a documented fact that incentives other than the lash, including monetary gain, even manumission were predominant factors in maintaining the institution. That doesn’t lessen the violence that occurred or the inhumanity of slavery, but those factors have been ignored because they do not play into immoral anti-slavery abolitionists propaganda, or the politically correct dogma used to attack white Southerners, Confederate Americans.
    Coating slavery with a broad violent even inhumane brush distorts the complexity of circumstances of the reality of it in antebellum America and even today. What is inherent is how slavery permeates throughout societies around the world, even to this day and time. The cold hard reality is that every human including you and I are equally subject to being the slave or the master depending upon our circumstances even without violence and certainly willingly for incentives for our own interests needs or desires. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”……….

  • 6 Afi Scruggs (@aoscruggs) // Apr 15, 2013 at 1:57 am

    Mr. Lucas, you write:The cold hard reality is that every human including you and I are equally subject to being the slave or the master depending upon our circumstances even without violence and certainly willingly for incentives for our own interests needs or desires.
    ___________________
    But American slavery had little “free will” to exercise. You can’t compare “enslaving” oneself for personal “interests, needs or desires” to the situation Blacks endured during the ante-bellum years. If nothing else, you are legally a human. They were legally commodities. For another, they had no rights a white man was bound to respect.
    In that way, if no other, the system was inherently violent. The threat of violence – whether physical, mental or emotional – was often used to keep slaves in line. On the other hand, slaves often exercised violence against their masters/mistresses.

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