On June 19, 1865, Sarah Tate was living about 160 miles west of Galveston, Texas, on the homestead of James and Selah Edgar. She was the only enslaved Black person in their household of up to 12, where she did domestic service work ensuring this farming household ran smoothly. But in 1865, she began to earn wages for her labor. Tate saved up the first dollars she earned as a free person to buy herself a fine white cotton fabric that she later sewed into a fashionable dress. This was Tate’s emancipation dress signaling her new freedom as a Black American woman.
Tate’s emancipation dress, brought by her last white employer to the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, in 1926, was among several of her belongings the museum identified as “relics of slavery.” Among these “relics” were a pair of her mother’s scissors, her bead necklace, her mid-1840s wedding dress, her daughter’s 1853 baby dress, and Tate’s Bible. Every item listed in the museum’s original record of this material archive tells a story about Sarah Tate and her family.
Her Bible, printed in 1867, reveals the genealogical information of Tate and her family. There one finds Tate’s hand-written records. She wrote her birth date of February 26, 1824, her daughter Nancy Emily Jane’s name and birth date of January 19, 1853, and the names and birth dates of her brothers Edmond (March 11, 1814), Silas (February 1, 1817), Charles (July 24, 1822), and Harry (August 28, 1827). While it was common practice in the nineteenth century for people to keep a family record of birth dates in their Bible, for Sarah Tate it was an act of resistance. She wrote her love for herself and her enslaved family members into the historical record without knowing her Bible would one day be in a museum. But Tate’s Bible communicated more than dates. In conversation with Tate’s other belongings, the collection, as a whole, adds texture to better understand Tate’s intimate journey of love and loss as a Black enslaved human being.
Tate had not lived in the same household as her brothers since April 21, 1827, when she was sold to James Edgar by his father-in-law. But she carefully wrote their names and birthdays into the Bible she acquired decades later. Tate was also separated by either distance or death from her husband, whom she married in the mid-1840s based on the cut and style of her wedding dress. She brought this dress with her from Tennessee along with a pair of scissors that belonged to her mother. She was separated from her family in 1853 when the Edgars moved from Maury County, Tennessee, to DeWitt County, Texas. Her daughter Nancy, born at the beginning of 1853, came with her on the overland journey, but died as an infant shortly after the move. Tate saved a colorfully printed dress that belonged to her baby girl, clearly feeling the loss of her child for the rest of her life.
In preserving these things, Sarah Tate used curation to resist racism by honoring herself and her family in saving their heirlooms. The root meaning of the word curate is “to care for.” It was particularly related to someone who cared for souls, such as a priest. Tate collected and saved objects belonging to her family as a method of honoring their soul value. Daina Ramey Berry describes her concept of enslaved peoples’ soul value as one that “defied monetization yet spoke to the spirit and soul of who they were as human beings.” 1 Enslaved people demonstrated outward expressions of their own and their loved ones spiritual selves and a belief in freedom beyond their earthly experiences in many different ways. For Tate, who was no longer in the physical presence of her family members, preserving their things and sharing their stories became her way of remaining connected to their spirits and fortifying her own.
Tate used the power of consumerism to adorn her body in celebration of her freedom in a manner that can be considered as a sartorial expression of her own soul value. Her act of buying herself a fashionable dress with the first money she earned as a free person is one example of the ways emancipated people chose to commemorate their freedom. She did not buy herself something necessary, but something desirable. The value chosen for celebration was not utility, but joy. A close examination of the dress shows signs of care, including careful mending, demonstrating that she wore it often and treasured it for many decades after it was no longer fashionable.
Embedded within her family’s artifacts, Tate brought memories of enslavement with her into her experience of freedom from it. The museum’s 1926 designation of these items as “relics of slavery” indicates the museum’s white record- makers /archivists were interested in saving these things as items of a bygone era. The phrase discounts what Sarah Tate was doing when she carried some of these items with her from Tennessee, and then from place to place over the decades as she moved with her white enslavers and employers around south-central Texas. For forty-one years she lived as an enslaved domestic service worker, laboring for a white family while trying to maintain ties to her own kin in a system that separated her from them by sale, displacement, and death. When she was emancipated in 1865, she did not leave these people or their things behind. She carried them forward with her for the remaining fifty years of her life, keeping their things safe in the harsh Texas climate and retelling the stories of her family’s heirlooms.
Sarah Tate died on June 19, 1915, the 50th anniversary of Juneteenth. For nine decades she lived a quiet life that must have been lonely at times. She was the only black person living in white households, spending her days working to feed, clothe, and nurse them. But the things she saved tell a story of how Tate related herself to her family in her role as a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. They speak to Tate as a thinking and feeling human being. Sarah Tate infused love for family and for self into these objects she acquired. While she labored in slavery and freedom to care for white people and their homes, she resisted a system that tried to tell her that her family and her life did not matter. When she saved up her first wages to buy herself a dress, she spent her dollars in celebration of the beauty of her own body and the glory of her freedom.
Sarah Tate participated in consumerism when she used her first wages to buy herself a dress. For her it was a way to use her wages to dress up for her own self-love pleasure and to join in communal celebration of the legal recognition of her freedom. In keeping this dress and her family’s belongings over the next five decades, she curated her story in the truest sense of the word by caring for things that represented and valued their connected souls. In 2021, there are surely “curated collections” of Juneteenth products available for sale. As we confront the hyper-consumerism and faux activism of today’s market, we should consider if the people who selected a group of things to be marketed for Juneteenth this year did so in a manner that cares for the souls whose freedom is being honored. With her beads, scissors, Bible, wedding dress, baby dress, and emancipation dress, Sarah Tate proclaimed, “I am a daughter, sister, wife, and mother. I am a beautiful black woman. My family matters. My life matters.”
- See Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 6–7 (quotation page 6). ↩