“It” can speak!: Frederick Douglass and the “brand new fact” of the articulate slave

Frederick Douglass at Age 29
Frederick Douglass, perhaps at age 29.
Image Source: By Unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is well-known as a 19th century runaway slave, abolitionist, author, publisher, orator, and civil servant. After escaping from bondage in Maryland at the age of 20, he gained early fame in the 1840s as a speaker for the abolition movement, working with abolitionist luminaries such as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and John Collins of the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.

Writing in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – one of his three autobiographies – Douglass recalled his early experiences as a speaker for the abolitionist movement in the northern states. It’s useful to note that large portions of the North had few if any African American residents, much less enslaved African Americans; but white northerners were aware of all kinds of (stereotypical) representations of slaves and negroes in the media of the day.

In that environment, Douglass felt himself something of an oddity in front of white audiences. In the book Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, Maurice Wallace suggests that Douglass was seen as “circus curiosity” by white audiences.

Douglass observes that many whites simply refused to believe that an articulate person like himself could be of “very low origin”; perhaps to them, enslavement meant that the man or woman was culturally irredeemable. Eventually, Douglass felt the need to establish his bona fides as a former slave; in doing so, his status as a runaway slave was exposed, and he left the country to avoid re-enslavement. But Douglass was driven to prove that the slave could yet be a man; or perhaps, his honor demanded that he put to rest any rumors about the facts of his life. (While in exile in Britain, enough money was raised so that Douglass could buy his legal freedom, and return to the Unites States.)

This is Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, from the website Documenting the American South (DocSouth):

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks (of the abolitionists), was to travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers to the “Anti-slavery Standard” and the “Liberator.” With him I traveled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts.

Much interest was awakened–large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel”–a “thing”–a piece of southern “property”–the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Continue reading

Monuments to the Civil War-era Freedom Colonies in coastal North Carolina: the Hotel De Afrique

Outer Banks History Hatteras Island’s Hotel De Afrique
Monument to the Hatteras Island’s Hotel De Afrique, a freedom colony in North Carolina; Image was taken during the dedication of the monument in July 2013.
Image Source: Blog for OuterBanksVacations.com.

The role of African American soldiers in the American Civil War has received a goodly amount of attention in the past several decades. The 1989 movie Glory, about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, and the recent four-year Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, cast a spotlight on black soldiery that was practically a forgotten memory when I grew up in the 1950s-1970s.

The experience and role of African American civilians during the war has, unfortunately, garnered much less attention. But in North Carolina, at least, they are getting the attention they deserve. Two monuments in the state commemorate “freedom” communities that were created after the Union occupation of several portions of the Carolina coast. It is wonderful to see this remembrance of our history in public spaces.

This post focuses on the monument at Hatteras Island, NC, which commemorates the interestingly (dubiously?) named “Hotel De Afrique” freedom colony.

Early in the war, military operations by its navy and army enabled the Union to seize ground in areas with sizable populations of slaves along the Atlantic coast. In May 1861, in Hampton, Virginia, General Benjamin Butler implemented the so-called “contraband” policy, under which the Union government offered asylum to thousands of runaway slaves in southeastern Virginia. The formerly enslaved men and women formed communities which some called contraband camps; others referred to them as “freedom colonies” or “freedom villages.” (Some people – such as Frederick Douglass – objected to calling these men and women “contraband”; it was a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.) Butler’s contraband policy was soon authorized by the Union government, and other freedom refuges sprung up throughout the South, filled with escaped/self-liberated slaves.

In North Carolina, Hatteras Island was an early site of freedom. As noted by Drew Pullen, writing at the web site Emerging Civil War,

The capture of the Confederate forts located at Hatteras Inlet on August 29, 1861, provided the first Union victory of the Civil War. Almost immediately fugitive slaves began arriving on Hatteras Island in search of freedom. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of War Cameron, dated September 18, 1861, General John Wool inquired, “tell me what I am to do with the negro slaves that are almost arriving daily at this post [Hatteras]…” Union occupancy and control of the island provided for the beginning of the creation of a haven or colonies for fugitive slaves seeking that freedom. Hotel De’ Afrique goes down in history as the first of such encampments in North Carolina.

Hotel D'Afrique Image Edited
Drawing from the February 15, 1862 issue issue of Harper’s Weekly. This image is displayed on the front face of the monument which is noted above.
Image Source: From the website Under Both Flags: Civil War in the Albemarle North Carolina, courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center Continue reading

Henry Bibb’s Christmas Wedding: Love, Hope and Heartbreak in the Age of Bondage

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, 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

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal (being built in the Swamp). A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. Fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856; image of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 22 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

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Betrayed by a Fortune-Teller, He Dresses Like a Woman: An Odd Tale from the Underground Railroad

Generic crystal ball/fortune teller like image

Lewis Williams… dude, what were you thinking?

Lewis Williams was a slave to one Marshall, in the State of Kentucky. He escaped when he was quite a boy, and stopped in the city of Cincinnati for several years. It was thought by some of his friends not necessary to send him to Canada, because, having escaped at an early age, he would soon grow out of his master’s knowledge. So he was permitted to remain with a friend, a short distance outside the city limits. When he came to manhood, he became acquainted with a girl, to whom he became much attached. He paid every attention to her, and thus evinced his own love; but not being very certain as to whether he was loved in return, he thought he would ascertain this piece of information from a Dutch woman, who was known in that city as a “fortune-teller.”

He proceeded to this woman’s place of business, and said to her he wanted his fortune told. She said she must first have the sum of 4s. 2d., or one dollar, before she could tell anything; and it must be paid in silver, or the cup would not turn well. Lewis at once advanced the sum required.

She then commenced by asking him to tell his origin. He began as follows:–“I was born in the State of Kentucky, and was held as a slave until a few years ago. I escaped, and came to this city.” To this the fortune-teller listened with profound attention. She asked Lewis to tell his master’s name, which he did. After further details, she was made acquainted with the post-office address of the master. She then informed Lewis that he would be successful, and that the girl was deeply in love with him. Besides, she told him in three months’ time he would be married to her. This was encouraging news to Lewis. He felt that his money had been spent for useful information.

As soon as Lewis left the house, however, she told her husband of Lewis’s revelations, and they immediately addressed a letter to Mr. Marshall, Lewis’s master, saying if he would pay them the sum of 200 dollars they would tell him where he might find his slave. Lewis’s master was glad to accept the proposal, and came immediately to Cincinnati, and paid the fortune-teller the sum required. Lewis was soon arrested by one of the marshals of the United States, and brought before Commissioner Carpenter, of the said city.

But Lewis had help in the name of Rev. William Troy, a local abolitionist. Troy notes that fortunately for Lewis, they all look alike:

The news of the arrest was soon noised abroad; and, as I went out to see what was the matter, I met the marshals having the boy in custody. I went immediately to a lawyer, John Jolliffe, Esq., who is always ready to plead in such cases, without any charge whatever. He, without delay, repaired to the court house, in order to appear as the boy’s counsel.

I went to spread the news among the coloured people of the city, in order that some plan might be devised to get the boy out of the court house, if possible. We became a sort of committee of ways and means. At last, we concluded that our best plan would be to crowd the court room, and get the prisoner free by some stratagem. There was a man in our company who was very like the prisoner in complexion, and it was arranged that he should occupy the prisoner’s place temporarily, while he should put his own hat upon the prisoner’s head, and thus allow him to make his way to freedom. The wink given Lewis was understood; the hat was placed upon Lewis’s head, and he immediately moved slowly out of the chair, and this other person took his place in the chair.

The attention of the marshal at this time was attracted by certain points in dispute between the counsel, and the prisoner by this time had made his way through the great crowd, on his hands and knees, to the door, and out he slipped and made to the forest. He went as though he was on the most urgent errand. When the point in dispute was partially settled, the marshal missed the prisoner. He exclaimed, “Where is the boy?” Some person standing at the door out of which the boy had passed, said, “The child left some time ago; no use to look, for the creature is going to the Queen; he don’t like this country,” &c. This was quite tantalising to the marshal; but the fact was, the boy was gone: and great excitement consequently prevailed throughout the city.

But Lewis was not yet gone. How would he escape? There’s always the old cross-dressing trick:

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