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