An Easter Remembrance by John Thompson, Fugitive Slave

Late 19th century photograph of former slave quarters at St. Mary’s Manor, St. Mary’s County, Maryland. John Thompson, whose slave narrative is discussed below, worked on tobacco plantations in Maryland prior to liberating himself from bondage.
Image Source: National Council on Public History, Project Showcase: “All of Us Will Walk Together” at St. Mary’s City, Maryland

John Thompson was born into slavery in Maryland, in the early part of the 19th century. He escaped captivity and wrote a slave narrative, published in 1856, titled The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself. Slave narratives were a popular type of non-fiction during the antebellum period of the United States; this Wikipedia article discusses the genre:

The slave narrative is a type of literary work that is made up of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada, and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets.

From the 1770s to the 1820s, North American slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves, as most were born in Africa.

From the mid-1820s, writers consciously chose the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasm for the abolitionist movement. Some writers adopted literary techniques, including the use of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families, and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful. As this was the period of the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South through the internal slave trade, the experiences of auctions and break-up of families were common to many.

In his book Thompson says that “my parents had seven children, five sons and two daughters. My father and mother were field hands. My younger sister was house girl and ladies’ maid, while the elder was given to one of the sons… The first act of slavery which I recorded in my memory, was the sale of my elder sister, who belonged to Henry Wagar, brother to J. H., and who lived three miles from our plantation.”

Thompson goes on to talk about an especially memorable Easter day during his enslavement. This excerpt touches on such topics as: the slaves’ religious beliefs; the impact that differences in denominational belief (in this case, Protestantism versus Catholicism) could have on the relations between slave and master; slave resistance; the use of the court system to resolve cases of slave resistance; and differences between master and slave concerning the nature of God and justice. This is from chapter IX of his book:

The following year, I was hired to Mr. Wm. Barber, a Catholic himself, as were also his slaves, all except myself. He adhered strictly to his religious profession, praying three or four times each day, and every Sunday morning calling up his slaves to attend prayer, to which call I refused to respond. This refusal in me, caused in him a strong dislike to me, insomuch that he seemed to dislike me, and hate to see me worse than the devil, against whom he prayed so devoutly.

I was very fond of singing Methodist hymns while at work, especially if I was alone, the sound of which threw him into spasms of anger. He accordingly treated me worse than any other slave upon the plantation, all of whom were treated bad enough. Our allowance was a quart of meal and two herrings per day. Our dinner was sent to us in the fields, both in hot and cold weather. None of our friends were ever permitted to come to the farm to see us.

On Easter, it being holiday among the slaves, a negro belonging to Mr. Charles Gardner, not knowing our master’s rules, called to see his mother and sister, whom Mr. Barber had hired, and whom he had not seen for a long time. Our master happening to get a glimpse of this negro, pitched upon him and endeavored to collar him. The black, being a strong active fellow, and understanding what we call the “Virginia hoist,” seized and threw his assailant over his head to the distance of five feet, where he struck the ground so that his nose ploughed the earth some distance! Before the discomfited master could rise from the ground, the slave had effected his escape.

But poor David’s back must smart for his dexterity. Master imagined that I invited David to our plantation for the purpose of retaliating some of my grievances, so I must share his fate. A difficulty now arose, for as master professed to be a Christian, he could not consistently whip without a cause, which he could not readily find, since he could not prove that I was in any way implicated in David’s crime.

Still, he could not rest satisfied until I was flogged, and therefore tried every way to find fault with me, which I knowing, did my best to prevent. But all effort to please, on my part, was useless. He sent me, one very cold day, a mile from the house to cut rails. The snow was about six inches deep. I had shoes and stockings, but still, as I had no chance to warm my feet from break of day until night, my dinner being sent me, which I was obliged to eat frozen, my feet were nearly frozen, and I was completely chilled. Mr. Barber watched me the whole day, except while away at dinner, which he hastened through as fast as possible, that he might not long lose sight of me.

When it grew dark he started for the house, bidding me follow, as it was time to feed the cattle. As I was so cold, I thought I would kindle a fire and warm me before going. I did so, and then started for the house. When passing through the yard, on my way to the cow-pen, I met Mr. B. returning, he having been there waiting for me. He, being a holy man! did not swear directly, but said, “Confound you, where have you been?” accompanying the question by a blow from a four foot stick across my head.

I tried to explain the reason of my delay, but he would not listen, and continued beating me. At last I caught hold of the stick, wrenched it from his hands, struck him over the head, and knocked him down, after which I choked him until he was as black as I am. When I let him up, he ran for his gun; but when he returned I had fled to parts unknown to him. I kept away about two weeks, staying in the woods during the day, and coming to the quarters at night for something to eat.

Mr. Barber, however, needing my services, as it was a very busy time, told the slaves, if they saw me, to tell me to come home, and that he would not whip me. This was to me a very welcome message, for I was tired of my life in the woods, and I immediately returned home. I went to work, as usual, thinking all was right; but soon found myself very much mistaken.

I worked about three weeks, during which I accomplished six weeks labor. One day, while busily engaged, hoeing up new ground, I saw two men coming towards me, whom I soon recognized as constables, both of whom I well knew. Upon approaching near me, the constable for our district said, “John, you must come with me.”

I dropped my hoe and followed him. When I reached the house, I found poor David standing bound like a sheep dumb before its shearers. We were put up stairs to await Mr. B’s orders, who was not then ready. The rope was tied so tight around David’s wrists as to stop the circulation of the blood, and give him excruciating pain. He begged to have the rope loosened, but the officer having him in charge, would not gratify him. The other constable, however, soon come and relieved him.

Mr. Barber being ready, we set off for the magistrate’s office, which was about three miles from our house. David and I were tied together, his left being tied to my right hand. On the way the constable said to me, “John, I always thought you was a good negro; what have you been doing? You ought to behave so well as not to need whipping.”

I replied, “I have done nothing wrong, and if I am whipped, it shall be the last time on that farm?”

“What will you do?” asked Mr. Barber. “Run away,” I answered. “When we are done with you, you will not be able to run far,” said he. “Well sir, if you whip me so that I am unable to walk, I can do you no good; but if I can walk, I will take the balance of the year to myself; and go home to my mistress, at Christmas.”

He did not relish this kind of talk, for he did not wish to pay my wages and not have my service, so he told me to shut my head or he would break it. Of course I said no more.

We soon arrived at the dreaded place, and were left seated in the piazza awaiting our trial, a constable being present to watch us. I asked him for a drink of water, when he said, “Would you not like a glass of brandy?” a drink very acceptable on such occasions. I replied in the affimative, when he brought out a half-pint tumbler nearly full, of which I drank the whole. This roused my courage, and I felt brave. My expected punishment was not half as much dreaded as before.

The court being ready, we were brought before his honor, Justice Barber, uncle to my master. David was tried, declared guilty, and sentenced to have 39 lashes well laid upon his bare back.

My case was next in order, but Mr. Barber, instead of preferring any charge against me, told the Judge he would forgive me this time, as he thought I would do better in future. Upon this the old man, raising his spectacles and looking at me, said, “Do you think you can behave, so as not to have to be brought before me again?” “Yes sir,” I answered quickly. “Well sir,” he said, “go home to your work, and if you are brought before me again, I will order the skin all taken from your back!”

The rope was taken off my hands, and I was told to go in peace and sin no more. I waited to see the fate of poor David. He was taken to the whipping post, strung up until his toes scarce touched the ground, his back stripped and whipped until the blood flowed in streams to the ground. When he was taken down he staggered like a drunken man. We returned together, talking over the matter on the way. He said, “O, I wish I could die! I am whipped for no fault of my own. I wish I had killed him, and been hung at once; I should have been better off.” I felt sorry for him.

I determined then, if he struck me again, I would kill him. I expected another attack, and accordingly planned where I would conceal his body, where it would not readily be found, in case no one saw me perform the act. But God overruled. He had his destiny fixed, and no mortal could resist it,–no mortal arm could stay his mighty purpose. But I must hasten to the close of the year.

Mr. Barber had a most luxuriant crop of tobacco nearly ripe and ready for the harvest. Tobacco is so delicate a plant, that it will not stand the frost, and if exposed to it is thereby rendered nearly useless. Our crops had all been gathered except two fields, when by a sudden change in the wind to the north, it became so cold as to threaten a frost, which would probably destroy the tobacco remaining in the field. Mr. Barber feared this, and notwithstanding it was the Sabbath, ordered his slaves to go and secure the remainder of the crop.

Soon all hands were in the field at work. No other farmer in the neighborhood went out, all, excepting Mr. B. being willing to trust their crops to Him who had given them; although many had larger quantities exposed. Being angry with the great Omnipotent for this threatening arrangement of his providence, Mr. Barber fell to beating his slaves on the Lord’s day. But his suspected enemy did not come; his fears were groundless. The night cleared off warm, and no frost came.

“God moves in a mysterious way,
“His wonders to perform;
“He plants his footsteps in the sea,
“And rides upon the storm.
“Deep and unfathomable mine
“Of never failing skill;
“He treasures up his bright design,
“And works his sovereign will.
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
“The clouds ye so much dread
“Are big with mercy, and shall break
“With blessings on your head.

“Judge not the Lord with feeble sense,
“But trust him for his grace;
“Behind a frowning providence
“He hides a smiling face.
“His purposes will ripen fast,
“Unfolding every hour;
“The bud may have a bitter taste,
“But sweet will be the flower.
“Blind unbelief is sure to err,
“And scan his works in vain;
“God is his own interpreter,
“And he will make it plain.”

We worked until midnight on Sunday, and secured all the crops, as Mr. B. thought.

From The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself; electronic version from the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South (“DocSouth”) site. The document may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.


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