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Clarence G. Contee

Born about 1846 in New York City on Sullivan Street in Lower Manhattan, a son of Henry Downing and Nancy (Collins) Downing, Henry Francis Downing was the grandson of Thomas Downing, operator of an oyster-selling business and well-known free black. He was the nephew of George Thomas Downing, a well known politician in New York City and in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a friend of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The family maintained the oyster business and a refectory (dining hall) on Broad Street into the 1850s. Henry Downing received enough education to enable him to read and to write.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Downing was still in school. Eager to serve, he enlisted in the Union Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 25, 1864, beginning his service on board the North Carolina He was ...

Article

Lawrence R. Rodgers

Born in New York City into a family of successful free African Americans who ran an oyster business, Henry Downing was the nephew of the esteemed politician George Thomas Downing. Henry Downing served two terms in the U.S. Navy (1864–1865 and 1872–1875). Following the Civil War, he traveled around the world, a journey punctuated by a three-year residence in Liberia, where his cousin Hilary Johnson later served as president (1884–1892). After returning to New York, he became politically active in the Democratic Party. For his strong support, President Cleveland appointed Downing consul to Loanda, Angola, a West African colony of Portugal, where he served less than a year before resigning in 1888. After returning to New York for several years, he emigrated to London in 1895 where he remained for twenty two years There he began a productive if undistinguished career as a writer ...

Article

Jeffrey Green

African‐American playwright and journalist in London. Downing enjoyed a varied career. In his youth he was a sailor, and later worked for the United States foreign service in Angola. He also managed a New York press agency representing prominent black leaders including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells. Around 1895 Downing and his reputedly white American wife, Margarita (c.1873–c.1950), arrived in England and settled in Chiswick, west London.

A fortuitous meeting with the African‐American poet Paul Dunbar in London resulted in Downing's management of Dunbar's 1897 successful reading tour throughout England. As Dunbar's manager, Downing played an instrumental role in bringing together two of the most famous and talented black artistes of the 19th century. Impressed by his stewardship of Dunbar's tour, Samuel Coleridge‐Taylor contacted the pair and thus began a series of collaborations between the ...

Article

Brian R. Roberts

diplomat, editor, and author, was born in Manhattan to Henry and Nancy (Collins) Downing. His family operated an oyster business and restaurant, and his uncle was George Thomas Downing, a Rhode Island businessman and civil rights leader. Nothing is known of Henry Downing's education before he entered the U.S. Navy at age eighteen.

Serving from 1864 through 1865 he worked on three vessels, the North Carolina, Pawtuxet, and Winooski. Afterward he traveled widely, spending three years in Liberia, where his cousin, Hilary Johnson, later became president (1884–1892). In Liberia, Downing worked as secretary to the Liberian secretary of state. Upon his return to New York he reenlisted in the navy, serving from 1872 to 1875 on the Hartford in the Pacific.

After his discharge Downing again returned to New York City and married Isadora (maiden name unknown) on 8 ...

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

Oyekemi Oyelakin

Olaudah Equiano (ca. 1745–1797) was a freed slave whose name came to be associated with the abolitionist movement in England during the eighteenth century. His antislavery position was partly responsible for the writing of his experiences in the book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789, which in turn is credited with influencing British lawmakers to enact the Slave Trade Act of 1807, abolishing the slave trade.

Equiano, according to his autobiography, was born in a village called Essaka situated in the Igbo-speaking eastern part of present-day Nigeria around 1745 Going by his early training in the art of warfare he seemed to have belonged to a professional class of titled warriors He was kidnapped with his sister when he was about eleven years old and sold into slavery He endured the pain of loss ...

Article

Vincent Carretta

The most important and one of the most widely published authors of African descent in the English‐speaking world of the 18th century. Equiano helped to found the genre of the slave narrative when he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African: Written by Himself in London in March 1789. The Interesting Narrative is a spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, travel book, adventure tale, slavery narrative, economic treatise, apologia, and argument against the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. From its first appearance the Interesting Narrative has also been recognized as the classic description of an African society before contact with Europeans, as well as of the forced transatlantic transportation of enslaved Africans known since the 18th century as the Middle Passage.

By his own account, Equiano was born in 1745 in Eboe in the kingdom of Benin in what is now south ...

Article

Leyla Keough

First published in Britain in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, became a best seller in Equiano’s lifetime, with nine English editions and one American as well as translations in Dutch, German, and Russian. Though Ottobah Cugoano, an African abolitionist in England, had published an autobiographical account in 1787 it was probably heavily edited Thus The Interesting Narrative is considered the first autobiography of an African slave written entirely by his own hand This places Equiano as the founder of the slave narrative a form central to African American literature In the book Equiano describes his abduction in Africa his enslavement in the West Indies and his manumission in Britain as well as the legal insecurity and terror faced by enslaved and free West Indian blacks Equiano s autobiography greatly influenced the rhetorical strategies content and presentation of ...

Article

E. Thomson Shields

Equiano, Olaudah (1745–31 March 1797), sailor, abolitionist, and writer, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was born in eastern Nigeria, the son of an Ibo village chief. When he was eleven, people from another Ibo village captured Equiano and his sister, beginning a six-month period during which he was separated from his sister and sold from one master to another until he reached the coast. There Equiano’s African masters sold him to white slave traders headed for Barbados. From Barbados he traveled to Virginia, where he was bought by Henry Pascal, the captain of a British trading vessel. During the spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal gave Equiano the name Gustavus Vassa, which he used throughout his life, yet Equiano still included his African name on the title page of his autobiography.

After Pascal rejoined the British navy Equiano accompanied him on several voyages traveling to Holland Scotland ...

Article

Brycchan Carey

slave, writer, and abolitionist, was, according to his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, born in the village of Essaka in Eboe, an unknown location in the Ibo-speaking region of modern Nigeria. Equiano recorded that he was the son of a chief and was also destined for that position. However, at about the age of ten, he was abducted and sold to European slave traders. In his narrative, Equiano recalls the Middle Passage in which “the shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (58). Despite falling ill, Equiano survived the voyage and was taken first to Barbados and then to Virginia, where in 1754 he was bought by Michael Pascal a captain in the Royal Navy Pascal s first act was to rename the ...

Article

Angelo Costanzo

slave and spiritual autobiographer, creator of the first internationally famous slave narrative, and abolitionist leader. Olaudah Equiano (also known by his slave name Gustavus Vassa) was about eleven years of age when, according to his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), he was kidnapped in the African country that is now known as Nigeria. Recent scholarship by Equiano's biographer, Vincent Carretta, has raised questions about whether Equiano was born in Africa, rather than in “Carolina,” as his February 9, 1759, baptismal record in Westminster, England, attests. The Interesting Narrative states that Equiano was taken to a slave ship on the west coast of Africa aboard which he endured the atrocity that was the Middle Passage Sent to Barbados and then to Virginia Equiano escaped plantation slavery when he was purchased by a lieutenant in the ...

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

William B. Gould

Union navy sailor in the Civil War and journalist, was presumably born into slavery, in Wilmington, North Carolina, to Elizabeth “Betsy” Moore of Wilmington, a slave, and Alexander Gould, who was white. William had at least one sibling, Eliza Mabson, who acquired her last name by virtue of a publicly acknowledged relationship with George Mabson, a white man in Wilmington. She eventually became the mother of five children by Mabson, including her son George L. Mabson, the first black lawyer in North Carolina.

Little is known about William B. Gould's early life. As a young man he acquired skills as a plasterer or mason, and he learned how to read and write, although those skills were forbidden by law to slaves. His initials are in the plaster of one of the Confederacy's most elegant mansions, the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington. Among his young friends were George Washington ...

Article

Kofi Natambu

actor, playwright, screenwriter, director, and novelist, was born William Harrison Gunn in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only child of William Gunn, a songwriter, musician, comedian, and unpublished poet, and Louise Alexander, an actress, theater director, and community activist. Gunn grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and attended integrated public schools in Philadelphia, graduating from high school in 1952.

After serving two years in the U.S. Navy, Gunn moved to New York City's East Village in 1954, intending to become an actor. At twenty, he won critical acclaim in 1954 for his portrayal of the young boy in the New Theatre Company's revival of Take a Giant Step. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he continued to appear in plays on and off Broadway, including The Immoralist with James Dean and productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida in 1956 and 1957 ...

Article

Eric Gardner

businessman and author of a slave narrative, was born to Jeff Elliott (also known as Jeff Ellick), a slave of William Elliott, and Millie, a slave of Peter Parker, in Chowan County, North Carolina. Parker died while Allen was a young child, and ownership of both Millie and her children passed to Parker's young daughter Annie. Annie Parker's guardians hired Millie out to a series of poor white masters, ranging from “good” masters to some who were quite violent. Allen generally lived with her at least until he was ten. After he reached that age, when slaves usually began to have to work in the field, his time too was being hired out, again to a series of masters of varying temperament. There is some possibility that Parker married another slave in his youth, though definitive documentation is lacking.

The beginning of the Civil ...

Article

Angela R. Sidman

painter, dancer, playwright, and set designer, was born in White City, Kentucky, to parents whose names and occupations are unknown. John Robinson, a coal miner uncle with an interest in drawing and painting, encouraged young Sebree's artistic talents. “Robinson tutored Charles in drawing by having him sketch pictures with a stick in the soil and taught him how to make little figures of men out of mud and twigs” (Marshall, 3). In 1924, when Sebree was ten years old, he and his mother joined the flood of African Americans moving north in the Great Migration. They settled in Chicago, where the preadolescent Sebree soon launched himself into the city's thriving cultural scene.

An elementary school teacher jumpstarted Sebree s career when she showed his artwork to members of the University of Chicago s Renaissance Society The group was impressed enough with the fourteen year ...