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Frances Smith Foster

author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Most of the little we know of her life comes from The House of Bondage (1890), the book that made her famous. From that source we learn that in 1873 she was teaching in Montezuma, Georgia, when she met her fellow teacher A. E. P. Albert. They married in 1874 and had one daughter.Sometime around 1877 Albert s husband was ordained as a Methodist ...


John Garst

the inspiration for the “Frankie and Johnny” song, was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were Cedric Baker and his wife Margaret (maiden name unknown), and she had three brothers: Charles, Arthur, and James. Charles, who was younger than Frankie, lived with her on Targee Street in 1900. In 1899 Baker shot and killed her seventeen-year-old “mack” (pimp), Allen “Al” Britt. St. Louis pianists and singers were soon thumping and belting out what would become one of America's most famous folk ballads and popular songs, “Frankie and Johnny,” also known as “Frankie and Albert,” “Frankie Baker,” and “Frankie.”

At age sixteen or seventeen Baker fell in love with a man who, unknown to her, was living off the earnings of a prostitute (this kind of man was known as an “easy rider,” a term made famous by W. C. Handy in his ...


Bertis English

political activist and journalist, was a slave who belonged to an influential antebellum lawyer from South Alabama. Little else is known about his life prior to the Civil War; however, it is known that during the early years of the Civil War, Berry was sent to toil in a hazardous saltworks that the Confederacy operated in Clarke County. Berry survived three years of intense labor there, and he emerged from the ordeal more experienced, as well as more militant, than many of the other African Americans he knew. After moving to the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, Berry became a member of the vanguard of black leaders who would help the state's black masses achieve legal and psychological freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Union victory and the federal effort to alter the legal status of black people deepened white Alabamians resistance to change State lawmakers were ...


The son of a Kentucky plantation slave and a state senator, Henry Walton Bibb was born a slave in Kentucky. His repeated attempts to escape bondage were successful in 1842 when he fled to Detroit, Michigan. By then his first wife, whom he married in 1833 and with whom he had a daughter, had been sold again. Bibb turned his energies to abolitionism.

In 1850 Bibb published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of an American Slave. That same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Laws, which forced him and his second wife to flee to Canada. A leader of the African American community there, Bibb founded the first black newspaper in Canada, Voice of the Fugitive, in 1851.

See also Abolitionism in the United States; Slave Narratives.


Alonford James Robinson

Born a slave in Richmond, Virginia, Henry Brown labored on a plantation before going to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond, under a master who was regarded as relatively benevolent. Although he later described his life in enslavement as tolerable, Brown decided to escape in 1848 when his wife, Nancy, and their three children were sold away from him. He devised an ingenious plan, which he maintained was divinely inspired.

In March 1849 Brown had a white friend, Samuel A. Smith, package him in a wooden box and ship him by Adams Express to antislavery headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the twenty-seven-hour journey, Brown spent much of the time on his head, as he was transferred back and forth from wagons, trains, and steamboats. An astonished group of abolitionists “received” him once he arrived in Philadelphia.

Antislavery groups helped Brown relocate, first to Boston, Massachusetts ...


Alice Knox Eaton

slave narrator, novelist, playwright, historian, and abolitionist leader, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of a slave mother, Elizabeth, and George Higgins, the white half-brother of Brown's first master, Dr. John Young. As a slave, William was spared the hard labor of his master's plantation, unlike his mother and half-siblings, because of his close blood relation to the slave-holding family, but as a house servant he was constantly abused by Mrs. Young. When the family removed to a farm outside St. Louis, Missouri, William was hired out in various capacities, including physician's assistant, servant in a public house, and waiter on a steamship. William's “best master” in slavery was Elijah P. Lovejoy, publisher of the St. Louis Times, where he was hired out in the printing office in 1830 Lovejoy was an antislavery editor who would be murdered seven years later for refusing ...


David Alvin Canton

journalist and historian, was born in Piscataway, Maryland, the son of Martha Allen Clark and Robert Bruce, who were both enslaved Africans. In 1859Major Harvey Griffin, Robert Bruce's owner, sold Robert to a Georgia slaveholder. Raised by his mother, John lived in Maryland until 1861, when Union troops marching through Maryland freed him and his mother, taking them to Washington, D.C., where John lived until 1892. In 1865 John's mother worked as a domestic in Stratford, Connecticut, where her son received his early education in an integrated school. One year later they returned to Washington, D.C., where John continued his education. Although he did not complete high school, he enrolled in a course at Howard University in 1872. John married Lucy Pinkwood, an opera singer from Washington, D.C. In 1895 he married Florence Adelaide Bishop, with whom he had one child.

Bruce began ...


David Killingray

Pan‐Africanist and Africantraveller. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, of black and white parents, Campbell began his working life as a printer's apprentice but gained some formal education and became a teacher. In the 1850s he emigrated to the United States, via Central America, where he worked as a teacher at an African‐American institute in Philadelphia. Campbell, ambitious for further education, was largely self‐taught.

In 1858 Martin R. Delany invited him to become a member of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, to find a site in southern Nigeria for an African‐American farm colony. ‘Return to Africa’ was controversial and divided African‐American opinion; many argued that, even with its pervasive racism, America was their home and not Africa; a further problem was that black emigration was supported by the white African Civilization Society. Campbell came to Britain in 1859 and although he failed to gain the support of missionary and ...


Laura Murphy

politician and memoirist, was born a slave on a farm owned by James Adams in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. When Adams died shortly after Clement's birth, the boy, his mother, and two siblings were sold to a man named Tasswood Ward from nearby Campbell County. The family was treated harshly by the Wards, who beat them cruelly without warning for petty reasons.

On 8 April 1865 the workers in the field heard cannon fire and fighting from nearby Appomattox. The next day the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces to end the Civil War.

On Christmas morning of 1865 Clement and his family moved to a piece of land about fifteen miles from the Ward farm where his father struck a deal under which he would clear the land and reap its harvest The family continued to work on farms throughout Clement s youth ...


Benjamin R. Justesen

journalist, businessman, and civil rights organization leader, was born into slavery, probably near Smyrna, Tennessee, to unnamed parents, and apparently orphaned soon afterward. Little is known of his childhood, except that Cooper moved at an early age to Nashville, where he was educated at the old barracks school for African American children on Knowles Street, later the nucleus of Fisk University.

Cooper later recalled working on a farm for two years before he began selling newspapers on passenger trains. He also worked briefly as a hotel waiter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Centennial Exposition there in 1876. About 1877 Cooper migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked as a book-seller and became one of the first African Americans to graduate from the city's Shortridge High School in 1882 He began working for the Railway Mail Service and soon rose to chief clerk on the Louisville ...


Eric Gardner

entrepreneur, activist, and politician, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Prince and Adeline Duplex. His middle name is sometimes given as Park and sometimes as Parker. His paternal grandparents were Prince Duplex, a slave of the Reverend Benjamin Chapman and a War of Independence veteran who later gained his freedom, and Lement Parker. The younger Prince Duplex, who was active in New Haven's first black church, died when his son Edward was a child, and Adeline, who briefly married a second husband surnamed Whiting, reared Edward, his elder brother Elisha C., and his sister Adeline Frances. Both Edward and his brother trained as barbers and moved west in 1852.

Though Elisha and Edward seem to have mined briefly, they both settled in Yuba County, California, in 1855 and returned to barbering Elisha died of consumption but Edward established the Metropolitan Shaving ...


Vivian Njeri Fisher

She excelled in her crafts and business ventures, and as an amateur lawyer she assisted her brother, George, in securing an acquittal of charges that he “horsewhipped and otherwise barbarously treated a man on the highway.”

Elleanor Eldridge was born in Warwick, Rhode Island. Her father, Robin Eldridge, was an African who was captured with his entire family and brought to America on a slave ship. Her mother, Hannah Prophet, was a Native American. Eldridge was born free in part because of the “gradual emancipation” law passed in Rhode Island in 1784 Robin Eldridge and two of his brothers had fought in the American Revolution They were promised their freedom and two hundred acres of land apiece in return for their service When the war ended they were pronounced free but because they had been paid in worthless old Continental currency they were unable to take ...


David H. Anthony

North Carolinapolitical activist, journalist, civil servant, and publicist, was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina, around 1851, the son of enslaved artisan Osborne Hunter and Mary Hunter, also enslaved. From about age four, Charles Hunter was trained to be a house servant in the home of their slave master, William D. Haywood. Somewhat later Hunter became a servant for Richard H. Battle. However, his intimate relationship with the Haywood family remained a feature of his life well after slavery.

When freedom came, Hunter and many fellow former North Carolina slaves faced profound changes. By 1867, young Hunter allied himself with prominent black Union League politicians George W. Brodie and James H. Harris and like them was gradually able to gain clout through affiliation with the Republican Party He worked as a temperance advocate in the late 1860s and ...


Jean Fagan Yellin

Harriet Ann Jacobs's major literary contribution is her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), the most comprehensive antebellum autobiography by an African American woman. Incidents is the first-person account of Jacobs's pseudonymous narrator “Linda Brent,” who presents a remarkably accurate, although highly selective, story of her life. Breaking taboos to present her sexual history in slavery, Jacobs wrote a woman-centered slave narrative that, emphasizing family relationships and incorporating the forms of the domestic novel, reshaped the genre to encompass female experience.

About 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, to Delilah and a skilled house carpenter probably named Elijah, apparently the son of Henry Jacobs, a white farmer. Her brother John was born two years later.

In Incidents Jacobs writes of the happy family life she enjoyed until the death of her mother ...


Eric Gardner

minister and activist, was born to the slaves Thomas and Harriet Johnson in Fauquier County, Virginia. Little is known of his youth, though when Harvey was in his teen years—at the end of the Civil War—the Johnson family, like many newly free Virginians, moved to Alexandria. There Johnson became a congregant of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, was baptized, and when he received his own calling to preach was aided by Alfred Street's pastor, the Reverend Samuel W. Madden. Johnson attended one of the many schools that sprung up for freedmen in Alexandria, and then apparently went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia for a time. Ultimately Madden helped secure a place for Johnson at the new Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., which was fast becoming a key training ground for black clergy.

Johnson entered Wayland in 1868 and took his degree in 1872 but he was ...


Joanna Brooks

Born into slavery near Charleston, South Carolina, Boston King followed his parents into labor on the plantation. His father was a native-born African, kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child; his mother was a healer who learned herbal medicine from local American Indians. At the age of sixteen, King was bound as an apprentice to a carpenter, who subjected him to cruel beatings. King fled his master when the British captured the city of Charleston during the American Revolutionary War, and he won his freedom by taking refuge behind British lines.

Many thousands of enslaved African Americans like Boston King gained freedom by joining the Loyalist forces during the Revolutionary War. British colonial and military officials promised freedom to black defectors twice during the war—with the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775 and the Philipsburg Proclamation of General Henry Clinton in June 1779 in the hope of encouraging ...


Laura Murphy

writer, lawyer, and doctor, was born a slave to Doc and Rosa Lewis probably just prior to the Civil War. In his narrative he writes that he was born at a time when “reconciliation was futile and that disruption and secession hung like a cloud over the horizon.” The Lewis family was owned by Colonel D. S. Cage Sr. who on the day of Lewis s birth celebrated by recording the event in the family Bible with a short annotation that the birth would increase his wealth by one thousand dollars For his part Lewis was mostly oblivious to the fact that he was enslaved at all as he was relatively young when slavery was abolished The end of slavery was a confusing moment for all the people on Cage s plantation they were set free but encouraged to remain on the plantation to work for ...


Barbara McCaskill

minister, political activist, missionary, writer, and editor, was born a slave near Marion, Alabama. As was the case with many African American men of the post-emancipation era, Love's early schooling was scattershot; still it was substantive enough to prepare him for theological study and a lifelong commitment to service and leadership. Ordained on 12 December 1875, he graduated at the head of his class two years later in 1877 with a BA from the Augusta Institute, a forerunner of Atlanta's historic Morehouse College and a training ground for future African American ministers, politicians, and educators.

The highlight of Love's ministry was to pastor the influential First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, from 1885 to 1900. Tracing its origins to as early as 1773, before the birth of the American nation, First African Baptist was officially instituted in 1788 and it ...


Peter Hinks

James Mars was born to enslaved parents in Canaan, Connecticut. His father, Jupiter, and his mother, Fanny, were owned by the Reverend Thompson, Canaan's Congregational minister.

While slavery never boasted a large presence in Connecticut, in 1775 about fifty-one hundred slaves, or 3 percent of the colony's total population, resided there. Mars was born as slavery was being gradually abolished in Connecticut: the state's general assembly enacted a law that freed all individuals born in the state on or after 1 March 1784 once they reached a given age (which varied according to the time period and the sex of the individual). Relaxed manumission laws passed since the American Revolution had also made it easier for masters to free slaves; by 1790 only about twenty-seven hundred blacks remained enslaved in the state, and the slave population declined steadily over the ensuing years.

Thus Mars was growing up as African ...


Floris Barnett Cash

writer, educator, and activist, was the youngest of nine children born to Caroline Smith, a former slave, in Fort Valley, Georgia. Oral family history has it that Victoria's father was her mother's owner. Her mother migrated to New York with her daughters Victoria and Anna around 1873. Victoria attended Grammar School 48 in New York City until she was compelled to leave because of poverty; she took work as a domestic servant, the only employment available to many African American women at that time. Hallie Quinn Brown's Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (1926) notes of Matthews, however, that she “never lost an opportunity to improve her mind” (209). Matthews developed her own literacy program, acquiring knowledge from independent study, lectures, and contact with educated people. Marriage at the age of eighteen to William Matthews a carriage driver enabled her ...