Ear­li­er this week, Sabra Wald­fo­gel wrote about Raphael Moses, one of the most emi­nent Jews in Geor­gia in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. She has recent­ly pub­lished Slave and Sis­ter, a nov­el about Jews and slav­ery in ante­bel­lum Geor­gia, and will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Council. 

Clara Solomon was a typ­i­cal teenag­er. In the pages of her diary, she wrote about gos­sip­ing with her friends, tend­ing to her younger sis­ters, yearn­ing for pret­ty clothes, and fret­ting about her appear­ance. But her cir­cum­stances were far from typ­i­cal. Clara Solomon kept her diary as the Civ­il War broke out and as the Union Army occu­pied New Orleans. She also wrote about the pri­va­tions of the war; her wor­ries for her father, work­ing as a sut­ler for the Con­fed­er­ate Army; and her pas­sion­ate defense of the Con­fed­er­ate cause.

In 1860, on the eve of the war, the Solomons were a well-to-do New Orleans fam­i­ly. The fam­i­ly was part of the long-estab­lished and assim­i­lat­ed Sephardic com­mu­ni­ty spread through­out the Unit­ed States. Clara’s father was a mer­chant, worth $1,000 in per­son­al prop­er­ty, and he owned two slaves, 28-year-old Lucy and her 4‑year-old daugh­ter Dell.

Dell was the pet of the fam­i­ly. Her duties as a ser­vant were light. As Clara told it, Dell occa­sion­al­ly answered the door; on a hot sum­mer after­noon, she fanned Papa Solomon as he lay on the floor, to the whole family’s amuse­ment; and she kept Josie, the youngest Solomon daugh­ter, com­pa­ny as they con­va­lesced togeth­er from the measles. She romped with Josie and was pun­ished with her when they were naughty. When Clara’s moth­er bought dress­es for her­self and for her daugh­ters, she bought one for Dell, too.

Lucy’s posi­tion in the fam­i­ly was more com­pli­cat­ed. Through Clara’s eyes, she was a pair of capa­ble hands, mak­ing a deli­cious bis­cuit or skill­ful­ly arrang­ing Clara’s hair. She was trust­wor­thy enough to take mon­ey to the mar­ket to buy shrimps for din­ner. But she could be inso­lent to Clara’s moth­er and obdu­rate about telling lies.

Lucy had a life of her own, one that Clara glimpsed and com­ment­ed on. Lucy had a friend named Jack­sine, a free black woman, who came to vis­it. Jack­sine brought Lucy a gift from a man named Solomon, who was crazy to see Lucy; he thinks the world of her.” Was he Dell’s father? Could he and Lucy mar­ry, as Clara spec­u­lat­ed they might?

For Clara, Lucy came into sharpest focus as all of them — Clara, her moth­er, and Lucy her­self — con­tem­plat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Lucy might run away to seek pro­tec­tion from the Union Army that occu­pied New Orleans. Clara put it self­ish­ly, but she rec­og­nized that Lucy might yearn to be free: There are many instances in which house-ser­vants, those who have been raised by peo­ple, have desert­ed them, though they have received the kind­est treat­ment at their hands; but they imag­ine no sac­ri­fice too great with which to pur­chase freedom.” 

Lucy was faith­ful,” but she was also capa­ble of betray­al. The thought angered Clara so much that she wrote, Should one of mine [act so], I would inflict severe pun­ish­ment, and should dis­card them for ever.”

Was Lucy a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly? Or a snake in its bosom, to be dis­trust­ed and feared? Or both?

In 1870, Clara was back home, hav­ing been wid­owed after a brief mar­riage. Lucy had not left, either. Now sur­named Lewis, she, her daugh­ter Dell, and her son Robert, born in 1863, were still part of the Solomon house­hold. For all of them, it seems, the famil­iar bonds were too hard to break.


The Civ­il Diary of Clara Solomon, edit­ed by Elliott Ashke­nazi (Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), and the Fed­er­al Cen­sus­es of 1850, 1860, and 1870.

Sabra Wald­fo­gel grew up in Min­neapo­lis and received her Ph.D. in Amer­i­can His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta. Her short fic­tion has appeared in Six­fold Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine. Read more about her and her work at www​.sabrawald​fo​gel​.com.

Relat­ed Content:

Sabra Wald­fo­gel earned her B.A. inHis­to­ry from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and a Ph.D. inAmer­i­can His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota.She is cur­rent­ly writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Her nov­elSlave and Sis­ter, about a Jew­ish woman in Geor­giawho owns her slave half-sis­ter, was pub­lished ear­lierthis year.