Beacon Street Diary blog

"They looked not at the color of my skin…"

The Congregational Library & Archives is perhaps best known for its stories of white Puritans. But our collection also holds many more diverse voices from across history.

On the third floor of the stacks, there is a box filled with pamphlets and small books from the early nineteenth century. The thin, yellowing volumes contain the first-person narratives of former slaves. The narratives offer portraits of individual men: the violence, heartbreak, and suffering their narrators faced as slaves punctuated with the overwhelming joy of freedom, and fascinating reflections on the United States.

The earliest narrative, first published in 1798, told the story of Venture Smith, who was about nine years old when he arrived in Narragansett, Rhode Island. He remembers violence in his native Guinea that led to his being captured, and he remembers the slave ship crossing the Atlantic.

Religion makes an appearance in several stories as an instrument of oppression. James Mars remembers one master who was a pastor in Connecticut, who taught his congregation that slavery was right and sanctioned by God. Mars was agonizingly aware of the irreconcilability of pro-slavery opinions and Christianity, but his master was hardly alone in his beliefs. The narrative of Henry Watson recalls the twisted gospel preached to slaves, which emphasized quietly bearing suffering for the reward of Heaven. There were many such pastors: back in the library shelves, near the box of slave narratives, we have a collection of pamphlets and sermons advocating for slavery.

The narratives contain plenty of secular hypocrisy as well. For example, Mars' enslaved father fought for freedom in the American Revolution, but remained in captivity after his service. The land of the free, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, was not a welcoming place for escaped slaves. Several stories deal with the decision to leave the United States.

After Henry Watson escaped from captivity Virginia and made his way to Boston, he met William Lloyd Garrison, who advised him to leave the country. It was in Britain that Watson finally felt free. "Wherever I went [in England,] I was treated like a man. They looked not at the color of my skin, but judged me from my internal qualifications."

Josiah Henson's narrative tells about how he decided to make his way to Canada.

"I determined to make my escape to Canada, about which I had heard something as beyond the limits of the United States; for, notwithstanding there were free states in the union, I felt that I should be safer under an entirely foreign jurisdiction."

After traveling on foot from Kentucky to the lakeside town of Sandusky, Ohio, Henson travels by boat to Ontario. He remembers the presence of "Kentucky spies" who watched all the boats sailing across Lake Erie, looking for escapees. To Henson, arrival in Canada feels nothing short of miraculous.

"When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighborhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free. "O," said he, with a hearty laugh, "is that it? I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand before." It is not much to be wondered at, that my certainty of being free was not quite a sober one at the first moment; and I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round, with a vivacity which made them laugh as well as myself."

The narratives' descriptions of freedom are all just as touching, and their reflections on life are powerful. After saving up money from side jobs and off-season labor for other farmers, Venture Smith earned enough to buy freedom for himself and his family, and settled on Long Island. Looking back on his difficult life, he says,

"Amidst all my grief and pains, I have many consolations. Meg, the wife of my youth, whom I married for love and bought with my own money, is alive. My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal."

The narratives continue to be interesting after the men become free, because they are detailed stories of the lives of free black people in the early 19th century. Smith went into the shipping trade after he was freed, and found moderate success. Once, one of Smith's white associates cheated him, and Smith wanted to sue. He remembers that no lawyer would take the case, because they believed that the white man was in the right simply because of his whiteness.

James Mars stayed in the same Connecticut town where he had been enslaved, and became part of the community. Mars joined the same church as his former master's family and they had some social relationship. The family suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune, and Mars was the only person at his former master's bedside when he died. Mars found consolation for his suffering in his good health and good social standing in his community.

Henson stayed in Canada, and watched as the number of black people in southern Ontario increased to what he estimated to be around 20,000. In Canada, Henson met Hiram Wilson, a Congregational minister from Massachusetts, and the two started a vocational school for the newly-arrived Canadians, which opened in 1842.

These powerful stories of individuals are not often heard, and as part of our collection serve to make people of the past more human. Just as the relations of faith illuminate early New England, the slave narratives in our collection bring nuanced individual perspectives to ugliest chapter of American history.