Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Slavery and Freedom
The First Person Narratives of the American South collection includes several slave narratives, many produced before the Emancipation Proclamation. During this time, abolitionists published numerous slave accounts to arouse public sentiment and to refute the claims of pro-slavery activists. Firsthand accounts are valuable to contemporary researchers because, whether transcribed by a sympathetic mediator, or written by the fugitive's own hand, they offer a rich emotional sensibility that personalizes an issue all too often treated as an abstract, or essentially political issue by histories of the era.
A search on slavery yields dozens of documents including Harriet Ann Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl (1861). For seven years, Jacobs hid from her cruel master and mistress in a cramped attic until a chance to escape to the North presented itself. In the following passage, she describes her feelings upon learning that her freedom had been purchased by abolitionist benefactors in New York:
My brain reeled as I read these lines. A gentleman near me said, "It's true; I have seen the bill of sale." "The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.
Pages 300-01, Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl
- What conflicting feelings does Jacobs have regarding her manumission papers? Why?
- What can a researcher learn from this passage that would not be available simply by looking at Davis' manumission papers?
- What can a researcher learn from this narrative that would not be available in secondary source materials written about slavery?
- How might fugitive slave accounts differ from one another? How might they differ from accounts written by African Americans who never fled the South?
The slave narratives in this collection vary according to the circumstances of their authors. In Fifty Years in Chains (1859), Charles Ball relates his experiences as a slave, his escape, and his situation as a fugitive hiding in Philadelphia. Solomon Northup, on the other hand, was born a freeman in New York City, but in 1841, he was kidnapped by slave traders and sold into bondage in Louisiana. In 1853, Northup was rescued from his misery and published his story, Twelve Years a Slave.
Northup's account is particularly valuable in that he begins life as a free person and, as such, is able to offer a rare perspective on the South's peculiar institution. Southern planters believed that African Americans born freemen made poor workers and generally avoided using them as slaves for lack of a clear, legal hold on their person. In the following passage, Northup has accidentally informed a prospective buyer that he has spent time in New York, although he does not reveal his status as a freeman. When the kidnapper threatens death if such a mistake is repeated, Northrup observes:
I doubt not he understood then better than I did, the danger and the penalty of selling a free man into slavery. He felt the necessity of closing my mouth against the crime he knew he was committing. Of course, my life would not have weighed a feather, in any emergency requiring such a sacrifice. Undoubtedly, he meant precisely what he said.
Page 61, Twelve Years a Slave
- How does Northup characterize his value to his kidnapper?
- How do you think that Northup's perspective differed from that of African Americans that were born into slavery? How does the passage reflect this?
- What reasons might explain the necessity of kidnapping free African Americans?
- What assumptions about freedom are shared by Jacobs and Northup?