The Diaries of Emilie Davis

“A remarkable historical source came to light in 1999, when the Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired pocket diaries for 1863, 1864, and 1865, kept by a young African American woman in Philadelphia. These are small, preprinted books, three dates to a page, that Emilie Davis fi lled with notes about herself, friends and family, the preachers, teachers, and doctors in her community, the lectures and concerts she attended, and the Civil War.
“Although it is rare for someone to be such a faithful diarist for just three years, and despite evidence in the diary that Davis also wrote countless letters to friends and family, so far the three wartime diaries are all that we have of Davis. Their survival is highly unusual; that they open a new door into Philadelphia’s midcentury African American community makes them invaluable; and that they give voice to a young, literate woman who, in many respects, owns the city streets makes them extraordinary.
“With good reason, Emilie Davis’s diaries attracted attention as a source that would find a wide audience, and now, readers have her daily notes available in three versions. Two handsome print editions of the diaries are on the market. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, intersperses years of the diary among chapters about Emilie’s life. Judith Giesberg and the Memorable Days Project, Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865, delivers the diary’s text with minimal explanatory notes. In addition, and free of charge, anyone with Internet access can visit Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries, a site by the same people who prepared Emilie Davis’s Civil War that presents images of the original handwritten pages alongside transcribed and annotated text.
“It is unusual to have multiple editions of one historical document published at the same time; to transcribe a handwritten source in order to render it accurately in modern type is painstaking work. Many people may ask, why do it twice? It is more unusual still to have editors simultaneously publish distinctly different texts from the same source. Here is Emilie Davis’s entry for January 2, 1865, as it appears in the three publications:
  • Variant A: lovely day home all morning very busy i wrote to brother and sister yesterday and tomy to night comes off the long gatherd of Celebration by the […] it was very grand (Memorable Days site)
  • Variant B: lovely day home all morning very busy i wrote to brother and sister yesterday and tomy to night comes off the long talked of Celebration by the banneker institute it was very grand (Emilie Davis’s Civil War)
  • Variant C: Lovely day. Home all morning. Very busy, I wrote to Father and Sister yesterday and Tomy. Tonight it comes off, the long awaited Celebration by the Banneker Institute. It was very grand. (Notes from a Colored Girl)

“Woe is she who finds occasion to quote that passage. The editors did not see the same things on the page. Did Emilie write to her brother or her father? Did she think the celebration was “long gatherd,” “long talked of,” or “long awaited”? Adding confusion are disagreements between the editors about basic data. They differ as to the name of Emilie’s father, and that is just the beginning.

“These divergent results are unsettling. Is history usually this wobbly? Are words on historical pages this uncertain as a rule? These are not the differences of interpretation and viewpoint that historians embrace as intellectual exercise and self-improvement. In this case, the raw elements of history, its primary sources, have gone through competing refi neries with inconsistent output. How does this happen?”


Learn more in “Getting History’s Words Right: Diaries of Emilie Davis”by Ann D. Gordon, originally appearing in the April 2015 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. The essay won the Boydston Essay Prize from the Association for Documentary Editing.

The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (PMHB), HSP’s scholarly journal published since 1877, is one of the country’s most prestigious state historical journals. PMHB is a benefit of membership and is also available to individual and institutional subscribers in print & digital formats.

HSP’s collections document the experiences and representations of African Americans from the colonial era to the present. HSP’s archivists created a subject guide to these materials – including manuscripts, books, pamphlets, serials, prints, broadsides, other graphics, and microfilm – to help researchers navigate the collections.

Join HSP for a free workshop on March 9, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. exploring new resources available for genealogists researching African American ancestors.

Stay tuned as we share more stories throughout this year’s Black History Month.


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