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LAC 118 - Caribbean Society and Culture - Textbook

Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro

by Samuel Ward Ringgold

(Selection: Chapter 1)


From the Internet Archive



I was bom on the 17th Octoljer, 1817, in that part of the State of Maryland, U.S., commonly called the Eastern Shore. I regret that I can give no accurate accomit of the precise location of my birth- place. I may as well state now the reason of my ignorance of this matter. My parents were slaves. I was bom a slave. They escaped, and took their then only child with them. I was not then old enough to know anything about my native place ; and as I grew up, in the State of New Jersey, where my parents lived till I was nine years old, and in the State of New York subsequently, where we lived for many years, my parents were always in danger of being arrested and re-enslaved. To avoid this, they took every possible caution: among their measures of caution was the keeping of the j children quite ignorant of their birthplace, and of their condition, whether free or slave, when bom ; because children might, by the dropping of a single word, lead to the betrayal of their parents. My brother, however, was bom in New Jersey; and my parents, supposing (as is the general presump- tion) that to be bom in a free State is to be bom free, readily allowed us to tell where my brother was bom ; but my birthplace I was neither per- mitted to teU nor to know. Hence, while the secresy and mystery thrown about the matter led me, most naturally, to suspect that I was bom a slave, I never received direct evidence of it, fr'om either of my parents, until I was four-and-twenty years of age; and then my mother informed my wife, in my absence. Generous reader, will you therefore kindly forgive my inability to say exactly where I was bom ; what gentle stream arose near the humble cottage where I first breathed — how that stream sparkled in the sunlight, as it mean- dered through green meadows and forests of stately oaks, tiU it gave its increased self as a contribution to the Chesapeake Bay — if I do not tell you the name of my native town and coimty, and some in- teresting details of their geographical, agricultural, geological, and revolutionary history — if I am silent as to just how many miles I was bom from Bal- timore the metropolis, or Annapolis the capital, of my native State? Fain would I satisfy you in all this ; but I cannot, from sheer ignorance. I was bom a slave— where? Wherever it was, it was where I dare not be seen or known, lest those who held mj parents and ancestors in slavery should make a claim, hereditary or legal, in some form, to the ownership of my body and soul.

My father, from what I can gather, was de- scended from an African prince. I ask no parti- cular attention to this, as it comes to me simply from tradition — such tradition as poor slaves may maintain. Like the sources of the Nile, my ances- try, I am free to admit, is rather difficult of tracing. My father was a pure-blooded negro, perfectly black, with woolly hair : but, as is frequently true of the purest negroes, of small, handsome features. He was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, of good figure, cheerful disposition, bland manners, slow in deciding, firm when once decided, generous and unselfish to a fault ; and one of the most consistent, simple-hearted, straightforward Christians, I ever knew. What I have grouped together here con- cerning him you would see in your first acquaint- ance with him, and you would see the same throughout his entire life. Had he been educated, free, and admitted to the social privileges in early li.(e for which nature fitted him, and for which even slavery could not, did not, altogether unjit him, my poor crushed, outraged people would never have had nor needed a better representation of them- selves — a better specimen of the black gentleman.

Yes : among the heaviest of my maledictions against slavery is that which it deserves for keep- ing my poor father — and millions like him — in the midnight and dungeon of the grossest ignorance. Cowardly system as it is, it does not dare to allow the slave access to the commonest sources of light and learning. After his escape, my father learned to read, so that he could enjoy the priceless privilege of search- ing the 'Scriptures. Supporting himself by his trade as a house painter, or whatever else offered (as he was a man of untiring industry), he lived in Cumberland County, New Jersey, from 1820 until 1826 ; in New York city from that year until 1838; and in the city of Newark, New Jersey, from 1838 until May 1851, when he died, at the age of 68. In April I was summoned to his bedside, where I found him the victim of paralysis. After spend- ing some few days with him, and leaving him very much better, I went to Pennsylvania on business, and returned in about ten days, when he appeared still very comfortable ; I then, for a few days, left him. My mother and I knew that another attack was to be feared — another, we kiiew too well, would prove fatal ; but when it would occur was of course beyond our knowledge ; hntMe hoped for the best. My father and I talked very fi-eely of his death. He had always maintained that a Christian ought to tave his preparation for his departure made; and completed in Christ, before death, so as when death should come he should have nothing to do but to DIE. " That," said my father, " is enough to do at once : let repenting, believing, everything else, be sought at a proper time ; let dying alone be done at the dying time." In my last conversation with him he not only maintained, bat he fe% the same. Then, he seemed as if he might live a twelve- month ; but eight-and-forty hours from that time, as I sat in the Eev. A. G. Beeman's pulpit, in New Haven, after the opening services, while singing the hymn which immediately preceded the sermon, a telegraphic despatch was handed me, announcing my father's death. I begged Mr. Beeman to preach ; his own feelings were such, that he could not, and I was obliged to make the effort. No effort ever cost me so much. Have I trespassed upon your time too much by these details ? Forgive the fond- ness of the filial, the bereaved, the fatherless.

My mother was a widow at the time of her mar- riage with my father, and was ten years his senior. I know little or nothing of her early life : I think she was not a mother by her first marriage. To my father she bore three children, all boys, of whom I am the second. Tradition is niy only ^ . authority for my maternal ancestry : that authority I saith, that on the paternal side my mother descended I from Africa. Her motlier, however, was a : woman of light complexion; her grandmother, a mulattress; her great-grandmother, the daughter of an Irishman, named Martin, one of the largest \ slaveholders in Maryland — a man whose slaves I were so numerous, that he did not know the num- i ber of them. ^)Mj mother was of dark complexion, ' but straight silklike hair ; she was a person of large frame, as tall as my father, of quick discernment, ready decision, great firmness, strong will, ardent temperament, and of deep, devoted, religious cha- racter.^ Though a woman, she was not of so pleasing a countenance as my father, and I am thought strongly to resemble her. Like my father, she was converted in early life, and was a member of the Methodist denomination (though a lover of all Christian denominations) until her death. This event, one of the most afflictive of my life, occurred on the first day of September, 1853, at New York. Since my father's demise I had not seen her for nearly a year; when, being about to sail for England, at the risk of being apprehended by the United States' authorities for a breach of their execrable republican Fugitive Slave Law, I sought my mother, found her, and told her I was about to sail at three p.m., that day (April 20th, 1853), for England. With a calmness and composure which she could always command when emergencies re quired it, she simply said, in a quiet tone, "To England, my son!" embraced me, commended me to God, and suflfered me to depart without a mur- mur. It was our last meeting. May it he our last parting ! For the kind sympathy shown me, upon my reception of the melancholy news of my mother's decease, by many English jfriends, I shall ever be grateful : the recollection of that event, and the kindness of which it was the occasion, will dwell together in my heart while reason and me- mory shall endure.

In the midst of that peculiarly bereaved feeling inseparable from realizing the thought that one is both fatherless and motherless, it was a sort of melancholy satisfaction to know that my dear parents were gone beyond the reach of slavery and the Fugitive Law. Endangered as their liberty always was, in the Jree Northern States of New York and New Jersey — doubly so after the law of 1851 — I could but feel a great deal of anxiety concerning them. I knew that there was no living claimant of my parents' bodies and souls ; I knew, too, that neither of them would tamely submit to re-enslavement : but I also knew that it was quite possible there should be creditors, or heirs at law ; and that there is no State in the American Union wherein there were not free and independent de- mocratic republicans, and soi~disant Christians, readj, aye ready * to aid in overpowering and capturing a runaway, j^'^ay. But when God was pleased to take my fattier in 1851, and my mother in 1853, I felt relief firom my greatest earthly anxiety. Slavery had denied them education, property, caste, rights, liberty; but it could not deny them the application of Christ's blood, nor an admittance to the rest prepared for the righteous. They could not be buried in the same part of a common graveyard, with whites, in their native country ; but they can rise at the sound of the first trump, in the day of resurrection. Yes, reader: we who are slavebom derive a comfort and solace from the death of those dearest to us, if they have the sad misfortune to be blacks and Americans, that you know not. God forbid that you or yours should ever have occasion to know it !

My eldest brother died before my birth: my youngest brother, Isaiah Harper Ward, was bom April 5th, 1822, in Cumberland County, New Jersey; and died at New York, April 16th, 1838, in the triumphs of faith. He was a lad partaking largely of my father's qualities, resembUng him exceedingly. Being the youngest of the family, Ve all sought to fit him for usefiilness, and to shield him from the thousand snares and the ten thousand forms of cruelty and injustice which the unspeak- ably cruel prejudice of the whites visits upon the Head and the heart of every black young man, in New. York. To that end, we secured to him the advantages of the Free School, for coloured youths, in that city — advantages which, I am happy to say, were neither lost upon him nor unappreciated by him. Upon leaving school he commenced learning the trade of a printer, in the office of Mr. Henry R. Piercy, of New York — a gentleman who, bray- ing the prejudices of his craft and of the community, took the lad upon the same terms as those upon which he took white lads: a fact all the more .creditable to Mr. Piercy, as it was in the verj'- teeth of the abominably debased public sentiment of that city (and of the whole country, in fact) on this subject But ere Isaiah had finished his trade, he suddenly took a severe cold, which resulted in pneumonia, and — in death.

I expressed a doubt, in a preceding page, as to the legal validity of my brother's freedom. True, he was bom in the nominally Free State of New Jersey; true, the inhabitants bom in Free States are gmerally free. But according to slave law, " the child follows the condition of the mother, during life." My mother being bom of a slave woman, and not being legally freed, those who had a legal claim to her had also a legal claim to her offspring, wherever born, of whatever paternity. Besides, at that time New Jersey had not entirely ceased to be a Slave State. Had my mother been legally freed before liis birth, then my brother would have been bom free, because bom of a free woman. As it was, we were all liable at any time to be captured, en- slaved, and re-enslaved — first, because we had been robbed of our liberty; then, because our ancestors had been robbed in like manner ; and, thirdly and con- clusively, in law, because we were black Americans. I confess I never felt any personal fear of being retaken — ^primarily because, as I said before, I knew of no legal claimants ; but chiefly because I knew it would be extremely difficult to identify me. I was less than three years old when brought away : to identify me as a man would be no easy matter. Certainly, slaveholders and their more wicked Nor- thern parasites are not very particularly scmpulous about such matters; but still, I never had much fear. My private opinion is, that he who would have enslaved me would have "caught a Tartar": for my peace principles never extended so far as to either seek or accept peace at the encpense of liberty — if, indeed, a state of slavery can by any possibility be a state of peace.

I beg to conclude this chapter on my family history by adding, that my father had a cousin, in New Jersey, who had escaped from slavery. In the spring of 1826 he was cutting down a tree, which accidentally fell upon him, breaking both thighs. While suffering from this accident his master came and took him hack into Maryland. He continued lame a verj great while, without any apparent signs of amendment, until one fine morning he was gone ! They never took him again.

Two of my father's nephews, who had escaped to New York, were taken hack in the most summary manner, in 1828. I never saw a family thrown into such deep distress by the death of any two of its members, as were our family by the re-enslavement of these two young men. Seven-and-tweuty years have past, but we have none of us heard a word con- cerning them, since their consignment to the living death, the temporal hell, of American slavery. Some kind persons who may read these pages will accuse me of bitterness towards Americans generally, and slaveholders particularly: indeed, there are msmy professed abolitionists, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have no idea that a black man should feel towards and speak of his tormenters as a white man would concerning his. But suppose the blacks had treated i/our family in the manner the Americans have treated Twiwe, for five genera- tions: how would you write about these blacks, and their system of bondage? You would agree with me, that the 109th Psalm, from the 5th to the 21st verses inclusive, was written almost purposely for them.