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Susan J. Hubert

Autobiography has been a significant genre throughout the history of African American literature. In documenting the lives of African Americans, autobiographical writing has challenged racist beliefs and racially oppressive institutions—especially slavery—and provided examples of perseverance and resistance. Although they were primarily concerned with their individual thoughts and experiences, African American autobiographers have also helped define the character of African American people as a whole. As a literary form, African American autobiography evolved from its somewhat derivative beginnings into a distinctly African American literary movement.

Authenticity is a central issue in early African American autobiography Although some autobiographers relied on amanuenses the publication of narratives written by African Americans provided concrete evidence against racist claims that people of African descent were incapable of artistic and intellectually sophisticated writing Writing provided a degree of independence that has often been denied black people in racist societies and African American authors gained representation in ...

Article

Mary F. Corey

a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church, author, and educator, was born a slave in Frederick County, Maryland, the son of Susan Coker, a white indentured servant, and Edward Wright, a black slave belonging to the same plantation owner, whose name is unknown. Daniel Coker was educated with his master's son, who refused to go to school without his slave. When Coker was in his early teens he escaped to New York City where he joined the Methodist Church and was ordained as a lay minister.

Empowered by his education and ordination, Coker returned to Maryland in 1801 to become the first African American teacher at the African Academy a school founded by the Baltimore Abolition Society for the education of free blacks He was the first black licensed minister in Baltimore and the spiritual leader of an independent prayer meeting formed by black Methodists dissatisfied ...

Article

George Boulukos

slave, sailor, writer, and activist (widely known in his time as Gustavus Vassa), became the most famous African in eighteenth-century Britain as the author of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789 While the scholar Vincent Carretta has found some evidence placing his birth in South Carolina Equiano identifies his birthplace as Essaka a small ethnically Igbo town in present day Nigeria His parents remain unknown but Equiano s family was prominent he expected to undergo a scarification ritual but was kidnapped by slavers as a young boy He experienced slavery in a variety of West African communities until he was brought to a seaport and sold to European slavers Neither Essaka nor the name Equiano has been definitively identified although both have plausible Igbo analogs such as Isseke and Ekwuano Both his African origin and his exact ...

Article

John Saillant

Olaudah Equiano identified himself by this name only once in his life—on the title page of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). In the Narrative itself Equiano wrote of his forename that it was an Ibo word meaning “change,” “fortunate,” or “loudly or well spoken,” but this derivation has not been corroborated. Words similar to his surname have been identified in languages spoken both east and west of the Niger River, which flows south through Iboland, the southeastern region of present-day Nigeria, where Equiano claimed to have been born. He was accused almost immediately of fabrication, however, and he may have been born in North America. All other documentation of his life, including vital records and his own signatures, used the name Gustavus Vassa (sometimes Vasa, Vassan, and other variations). Both the Narrative and commercial and public ...

Article

John C. Fredriksen

soldier and engineer, was born in Thomasville, Georgia, the son of Festus Flipper and Isabelle (maiden name unknown), slaves. During the Civil War and Reconstruction he was educated in American Missionary Association schools and in 1873 gained admission to Atlanta University. That year Flipper also obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy through the auspices of Republican Representative James C. Freeman. He was not the first African American to attend West Point, as Michael Howard and James Webster Smith preceded him in 1870, but neither graduated. Flipper subsequently endured four years of grueling academic instruction and ostracism from white classmates before graduating fiftieth in a class of sixty-four on 14 June 1877. He was commissioned second lieutenant in the all-black Tenth U. S. Cavalry, and the following year recounted his academy experience in an autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878 ...

Article

John Ernest

author, businessman, and nurse, was born into slavery near Charlottesville, Virginia, the son of a white man and a black woman, possibly John and Susan Hughes. When he was about six years old, Hughes was sold with his mother and two brothers to Dr. Louis a physician in Scottsville Virginia When Dr Louis died young Hughes was sold with his mother and brother to Washington Fitzpatrick also of Scottsville who soon sent him then about eleven years old to Richmond on the pretense of hiring him out to work on a canal boat Parting with his mother at such a young age was difficult even more difficult was his realization that he would never see his mother again For Hughes this experience became the central symbol of the fundamental inhumanity of the system of slavery a symbol to which he returns at key points in ...

Article

Jean Fagan Yellin

autobiographer and reformer, was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, the daughter of Elijah, a skilled slave carpenter, and Delilah, a house slave. In her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs explained that although it was illegal, she learned to read and to spell at six, when after her mother's death she was taken in by her mistress. When Jacobs reached puberty this mistress died, and she was willed to the woman's niece and sent into that child's home, where her new mistress's father subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. To save herself from concubinage, at sixteen she began a sexual liaison with a young white neighbor. (Called Mr. Sands in Incidents, he was Samuel Tredwell Sawyer later a member of Congress This union produced a ...

Article

Kenneth R. Manning

zoologist, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Charles Fraser Just, a carpenter and wharf builder, and Mary Mathews Cooper. Following his father's death in 1887, his mother moved the family to James Island, off the South Carolina coast. There she labored in phosphate mines, opened a church and a school, and mobilized farmers into a moss-curing enterprise. A dynamic community leader, she was the prime mover behind the establishment of a township—Maryville—named in her honor. Maryville served as a model for all-black town governments elsewhere.

Just attended his mother's school, the Frederick Deming Jr. Industrial School, until the age of twelve. Under her influence, he entered the teacher-training program of the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College (now South Carolina State College) in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1896. After graduating in 1899 he attended Kimball Union Academy in Meriden New ...

Article

Marilyn Elizabeth Perry

labor activist and writer, was born in north-central Texas. Information about her parentage is inconclusive, though she may have been the daughter of Pedro Diáz González and Marie (maiden name unknown); her ancestry was in part African American. At the time she met her future husband in the early 1870s she was living with Oliver Gathings, a former slave. After using many maiden names, Lucy finally settled on González when she married in an attempt to establish a Mexican ancestry that would appear more acceptable to dominant whites in that part of Texas.

In the late nineteenth century the Ku Klux Klan rose to power in several southern states and successfully ended Reconstruction's all-too-brief experiment in biracial democracy. During the period in which the Klan and others violently reasserted “white supremacy,” Lucy witnessed atrocities that affected her deeply. Around 1870 she met Albert Parsons and reportedly they ...

Article

Graham Russell Hodges

The early years of Robert Roberts's life are largely unknown. He claimed later to have been freeborn in Charleston, South Carolina, but could not name his parents. Around 1802 to 1804, he entered domestic service to Nathan Appleton, a Boston financier who was then visiting Charleston. Roberts had somehow become literate and had sufficient skills as a domestic to induce Appleton to take him north. On 15 December 1805, Roberts married Dorothy Hall, daughter of Jude and Rhoda Hall, free blacks living in Exeter, New Hampshire. Jude Hall, known as “Old Rock,” was a famous and distinguished Continental Army veteran. His service did not prevent the Halls' loss of several sons to kidnappers who stole young northern blacks to sell in the slave South. Roberts described this man-stealing in a bitter document later in his life.

Roberts made several trips to Europe as Appleton s servant ...

Article

John Saillant

Sancho was baptized as an infant in a Roman Catholic Church but confirmed as a youth in the Church of England. His baptismal name was Ignatius, while his surname came from his first owners in England, who fancifully named him after Don Quixote's servant in Miguel de Cervantes's famous novel. Charles Ignatius Sancho was the name he used in 1758 to sign his marriage certificate. Two volumes of his letters were gathered from their recipients and published in 1782, prefaced by Joseph Jekyll's Life of Ignatius Sancho; Jekyll undertook this work, from which virtually all biographical information on Sancho derives, after his acquaintance Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, and compiler of A Dictionary of the English Language, failed to fulfill his intention to write Sancho's biography himself. Additional information survives in vital records, as do a few comments from such contemporaries as Johnson.

Jekyll wrote that ...

Article

William F. Mugleston

educator and race leader, was born on the plantation of James Burroughs, near Hale's Ford in Franklin County, Virginia, the son of an unknown white father and Jane, a slave cook owned by Burroughs. Washington was never certain of the date of his birth and showed little interest in who his father might have been. His mother gave him his first and middle names, Booker Taliaferro; he took his last name in 1870 from his stepfather, Washington Ferguson, a slave whom his mother had married. In his autobiography Up from Slavery (1901), he recalled the poverty of his early years as a slave on Burroughs's plantation, but because emancipation came when he was around nine, he was spared the harsher experiences of the slave system. In 1865 at the end of the Civil War his mother moved him his half sister ...