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. Continue reading

Giving Thanks, by Harry Herman Roseland

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

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Source: Liveauctioneers.com

This painting, titled Giving Thanks, is the work of Brooklyn, New York artist Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was a noted painter who received many awards for his work in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia, “Roseland was primarily known for paintings centered on poor African-Americans.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Black Soldier to his enslaved children: “be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life”


African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In February of 1864, Spottswood (AKA Spotswood or Spottwood) Rice, a slave in Missouri, made a momentous decision: he fled bondage and enlisted in the Union army. Rice’s story is discussed in the previous blog post. Army enlistment gave Rice his freedom, but it did not free his children. But he was determined that he would have them.

One of Rice’s children, whose adult/married name was Mary A. Bell, was “owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.” Back then, members of slave families might have different owners, and that could complicate the process of reuniting them.

By September 1864, Spottswood Rice had apparently made attempts to get his children, but was frustrated by his lack of success. He wrote two letters, one to his daughter Mary, the other to owner Katty (Kitty) Diggs, to let them know his plans. The letters, dated September 3, 1864, were written from Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri, where Rice was recovering from chronic rheumatism.

Three things are striking in these letters. The first is Rice’s contempt for, and indignation at, the idea that he could “steal” his own children from their slaveowners. He tells Kitty Diggs “you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them.” Anyone who tries to prevent him from getting his children, he tells Diggs, is his “enemy.”

The second things that is striking is the sense of power and empowerment Rice has gotten from being a soldier. When Rice comes to get his daughter – and he says forcefully that he is coming – he warns that he “will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child… this whole Government gives chear to me.”

And finally, one cannot help but be struck by the religious language employed by Rice. He tells Diggs that his daughter Mary “is a God given rite of my own” and that “the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell.” He tells his daughter that Diggs “is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage.” Although in fact the idea that slaveholder property rights trumped the slaves’ family rights was a common belief of most white southern Christians at the time. Unsurprisingly, Rice became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M. E.) Church after the war.

Rice speaks with a righteous voice that proclaims, with God and government behind me, I shall prevail. His daughter would fondly recall many years later that she loved army men, and any man who would “fight for his rights.” And, she might have added, she loved men who fought for their children, just as her father fought for her.

This is Rice’s letter to his childrendated 9/3/1864:

My Children I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you

Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you Give my love to all enquiring friends tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing I you father have a plenty for you when I see you Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

[Spotswood Rice]

This is Rice’s letter to Katty Diggs, also dated 9/3/1864:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow

I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs

now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

Spotswood Rice

Notes:

[1] Slavery was abolished in Missouri in February, 1865. The13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified in December 1865.

[2] The two letters from Rice were forwarded to Union General William Rosecrans, Commander of the US Army’s Department of the Missouri, by F. W. Diggs. Diggs was the brother of Kitty Diggs, and owned one of Spottswood Rice’s children. Diggs wrote to the general, “I write this to ask the favour of you to send the scoundrel that wrote (the letters) down to the army  I do not think that he should be allowed to remain in the state… to be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” All of the correspondence is in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867; Series 2, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; pages 689-691.

The Blackville Gallery, late 1890s


Image Description: 1897 Picture of the Blackville Gallery. Elegant hand colored wood engraving titled,”The Blackville gallery,” from Leslie’s Weekly. Shows scene of a rehearsal of the Blackville Choir. 11 x 16in. $150
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.

These are several of the “Blackville Gallery” photographs by Knaffl & Bro. studios of Knoxville, Tennessee, that in appeared in Leslie’s Weekly in the late 1890s.

Per Wikipedia, Leslie’s Weekly, born as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, was “an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1852 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie… Throughout its decades of existence, the weekly provided illustrations and reports – first with wood engravings and Daguerreotype, later with more advanced forms of photography – of wars from John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and the Civil War until the Spanish-American War and the First World War.”

In 1897/98, the magazine featured a set of photographs called the “Blackville Gallery” series. The photos show contemporary African Americans, presumably from Knoxville, engaged in various aspects aspects of domestic life, such as attending church or weighing a young child to check its growth. Some might say the photos are caricature-ish, and close to being minstrelsy. But as I look at the pictures, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that these amateur models (and these are staged images) bring to the photo shoots. They seem to be having fun with it. It’s as if they are comfortable with poking fun at themselves, and don’t see every attempt at humor at their expense to necessarily be degrading or insulting. Or so it seems to me.

The photographs were produced by Knaffl & Bro. of Knoxville, Tennessee. Wikipedia talks about Joseph Knaffl (October 9, 1861 – March 23, 1938) here.

These images are (or were) being sold as prints at the “Prints Old & Rare,” site. I have included the description of the images at the site, as well as their selling price, to give an idea of the current value of these pictures.


Image Description:1897 Photogravure featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “The Blackville Gallery, — No. III.” Caption reads, “The Blackville Cotillon, — “Mr. Johnsing, Turn Me Luse!” Image shows a small jazz ensemble playing for some dancers as a man claps to the rhythm of the music. The sign above his head reads, “Welcum.” Copyright by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tennessee. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.


Image Description: 1898 Photogravure by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tenn. featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “Weighing the Christmas Baby in Blackville.” Authentic portrait of a family at home trying to weigh a baby with their makeshift scale. A woman at left pours some water from an old kettle which was heated in the stovepipe as a child has a bite to eat at center. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.
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Henry Bibb’s Christmas Wedding: Love, Hope and Heartbreak in the Age of Bondage

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The Christmas Week, by Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863.
Philadelphia artist Henry Louis Stephens produced a series of Civil War period cards that “illustrated the journey of a slave from plantation life to the struggle for liberty, for which he gives his life, as a Union soldier during the Civil War.” This card above shows slaves reveling in the Christmas holidays, when many slaves were given time off from labor.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2527, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05453, LC-USZC4-6677

Henry Bibb, a 19th century African American Abolitionist, was born a Kentucky slave in 1815, and died free at the young age of 39 in 1854. His father might have been James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator; but Henry Bibb never knew his real father. Wikipedia says that “as he was growing up, Henry Bibb saw each of his six younger siblings, all boys, sold away to other slaveholders. (After escaping slavery and becoming an abolitionist he) traveled and lectured throughout the United States. In 1849-50 he published his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself which became one of the best known slave narratives of the antebellum years.”

The Christmas holiday figured prominently in Henry Bibb’s life: he was married and escaped bondage during separate Christmas holidays. He tells the story of his 1833 wedding to Malinda Jackson, also a slave, in his autobiography:

Malinda’s mother was free, and lived in Bedford, about a quarter of a mile from her daughter; and we often met and passed off the time pleasantly. Agreeable to promise, on one Saturday evening, I called to see Malinda, at her mother’s residence, with an intention of letting her know my mind upon the subject of marriage. It was a very bright moonlight night; the dear girl was standing in the door, anxiously waiting my arrival. As I approached the door she caught my hand with an affectionate smile, and bid me welcome to her mother’s fireside.

After having broached the subject of marriage, I informed her of the difficulties which I conceived to be in the way of our marriage; and that I could never engage myself to marry any girl only on certain conditions; near as I can recollect the substance of our conversation upon the subject, it was, that I was religiously inclined; that I intended to try to comply with the requisitions of the gospel, both theoretically and practically through life. Also that I was decided on becoming a free man before I died; and that I expected to get free by running away, and going to Canada, under the British Government. Agreement on those two cardinal questions I made my test for marriage.

I said, “I never will give my heart nor hand to any girl in marriage, until I first know her sentiments upon all important subjects of Religion and Liberty. No matter how well I might love her, nor how great the sacrifice in carrying out these God-given principles. And I here pledge myself, from this course never to be shaken while a single pulsation of my heart shall continue to throb for Liberty.” With this idea Malinda appeared to be well pleased, and with a smile she looked me in the face and said, “I have long entertained the same views, and this has been one of the greatest reasons why I have not felt inclined to enter the married state while a slave; I have always felt a desire to be free; I have long cherished a hope that I should yet be free, either by purchase or running away. In regard to the subject of Religion, I have always felt that it was a good thing, and something that I would seek for at some future period.”

After I found that Malinda was right upon these all important questions, and that she truly loved me well enough to make me an affectionate wife, I made proposals for marriage… (eventually we) entered upon a conditional contract of matrimony, viz: that we would marry if our minds should not change within one year; that after marriage we would change our former course and live a pious life; and that we would embrace the earliest opportunity of running away to Canada for our liberty.

Clasping each other by the hand, pledging our sacred honor that we would be true, we called on high heaven to witness the rectitude of our purpose. There was nothing that could be more binding upon us as slaves than this; for marriage among American slaves, is disregarded by the laws of this country. It is counted a mere temporary matter; it is a union which may be continued or broken off with or without the consent of a slaveholder, whether he is a priest or a libertine.

There is no legal marriage among the slaves of the South; I never saw nor heard of such a thing in my life, and I have been through seven of the slave states. A slave marrying according to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house or houses of ill-fame.

Henry_Bibb

Henry Bibb, from his autobiography “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself”

Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. Will any man count, if they can be counted, the churches of Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia, which have slaves connected with them, living in an open state of adultery, never having been married according to the laws of the State, and yet regular members of these various denominations, but more especially the Baptist and Methodist churches? And I hazard nothing in saying that this state of things exists to a very wide extent in the above states.

I am happy to state that many fugitive slaves, who have been enabled by the aid of an over-ruling providence to escape to the free North with those whom they claim as their wives, notwithstanding all their ignorance and superstition, are not at all disposed to live together like brutes, as they have been compelled to do in slaveholding Churches. But as soon as they got free from slavery they go before some anti-slavery clergyman, and have the solemn ceremony of marriage performed according to the laws of the country. And if they profess religion, and have been baptized by a slaveholding minister, they repudiate it after becoming free, and are re-baptized by a man who is worthy of doing it according to the gospel rule. Continue reading