I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles
from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge
of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.
By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages
as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within
my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember
to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom
come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest- time, cherry-time,
spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own
was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white
children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to
be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any
inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries
on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of
a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now
between twenty-seven and twenty- eight years of age. I come to this,
from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen
I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five
times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration,
and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve
miles from my home. Called thus suddenly away, she left me without
the slightest intimation of who my father was.
I know of such cases; and it is worthy of remark that such slaves
invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with,
than others. They are, in the first place, a constant offence to
their mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they
can seldom do any thing to please her; she is never better pleased
than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects
her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds
from his black slaves. The master is frequently compelled to sell
this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his
white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for
a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often
the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this,
he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one
white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion
than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he
lisp one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality,
and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave
whom he would protect and defend.
Every year brings with it multitudes of this class of slaves. It
was doubtless in consequence of a knowledge of this fact, that one
great statesman of the south predicted the downfall of slavery by
the inevitable laws of population. Whether this prophecy is ever
fulfilled or not, it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking
class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held
in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa;
and if their increase do no other good, it will do away the force
of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery
is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally
enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become
unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually,
who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those
fathers most frequently their own masters.
I have had two masters. My first master's name was Anthony. I do
not remember his first name. He was generally called Captain Anthony--a
title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake
Bay. He was not considered a rich slaveholder. He owned two or three
farms, and about thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under
the care of an overseer. The overseer's name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer
was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster.
He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known
him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master
would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him
if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder.
It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to
affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave-holding.
He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave.
I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending
shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist,
and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with
No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to
move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed,
the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he
whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip
her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he
cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time
I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child,
but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember
any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of
which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck
me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance
to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was
a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings
with which I beheld it.
This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with
my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester
went out one night,--where or for what I do not know,--and happened
to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered
her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let
him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention
to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man's name was Ned
Roberts, generally called Lloyd's Ned. Why master was so careful
of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble
form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer
superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women
of our neighborhood.
Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but
had been found in company with Lloyd's Ned; which circumstance,
I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence.
Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought
interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who
knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced
whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped
her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely
naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same
time a d----d b---h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with
a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the
joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and
tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal
purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that
she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now,
you d----d b---h, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!"
and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy
cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks
from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.
I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid
myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the
bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next.
It was all new to me. I had never seen any thing like it before.
I had always lived with my grandmother on the outskirts of the plantation,
where she was put to raise the children of the younger women. I
had therefore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes
that often occurred on the plantation.
I was probably between seven and eight years old when I left Colonel
Lloyd's plantation. I left it with joy. I shall never forget the
ecstasy with which I received the intelligence that my old master
(Anthony) had determined to let me go to Baltimore, to live with
Mr. Hugh Auld, brother to my old master's son-in-law, Captain Thomas
Auld. I received this information about three days before my departure.
They were three of the happiest days I ever enjoyed. I spent the
most part of all these three days in the creek, washing off the
plantation scurf, and preparing myself for my departure…..
My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met
her at the door,--a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings.
She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself,
and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry
for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application
to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the
blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished
at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She
was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could
not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies.
My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility,
usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when
manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed
to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly
for a slave to look her in the face. The meanest slave was put fully
at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for
having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice
of tranquil music.
But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such.
The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands,
and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the
influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made
all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord;
and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.
Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very
kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this,
she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.
Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going
on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling
her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe,
to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said,
"If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger
should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told
to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.
Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of
myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever
unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and
of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good,
but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within
that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train
of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark
and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had
struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been
to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power
to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized
it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery
to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when
I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of
losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable
instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my
master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a
teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever
cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with
which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences
of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply
sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance
that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which,
he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded,
that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That
which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me
a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he
so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire
me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read,
I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to
the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both….
From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate
room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected
of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself.
All this, however, was too late. The first step had been taken.
Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch,
and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful,
was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met
in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers.
With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different
places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent
of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part
of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return.
I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in
the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better
off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood.
This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who,
in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.
I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those
little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear
them; but prudence forbids;--not that it would injure me, but it
might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to
teach slaves to read in this Christian country. It is enough to
say of the dear little fellows, that they lived on Philpot Street,
very near Durgin and Bailey's ship-yard. I used to talk this matter
of slavery over with them. I would sometimes say to them, I wished
I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men. "You
will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave
for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?"
These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the
liveliest sympathy, and console me with the hope that something
would occur by which I might be free.
I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a
slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about
this time, I got hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator."
Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of
other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master
and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from
his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation
which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third
time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery
was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of
by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well
as impressive things in reply to his master-- things which had the
desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted
in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.
In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan's mighty speeches
on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents
to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They
gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently
flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The
moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over
the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was
a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human
rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts,
and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but
while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another
even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more
I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could
regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers,
who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from
our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed
them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As
I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment
which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read
had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.
As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read
had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view
of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes
to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In
moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.
I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of
the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get
rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition
that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed
upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate.
The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.
Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard
in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to
torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing
without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt
nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled
in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself
dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that
I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should
have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was eager to hear
any one speak of slavery. I was a ready listener. Every little while,
I could hear something about the abolitionists. It was some time
before I found what the word meant. It was always used in such connections
as to make it an interesting word to me. If a slave ran away and
succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set
fire to a barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder,
it was spoken of as the fruit of ~abolition.~ Hearing the word in
this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant.
The dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found it was "the
act of abolishing;" but then I did not know what was to be
abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not dare to ask any one about
its meaning, for I was satisfied that it was something they wanted
me to know very little about. After a patient waiting, I got one
of our city papers, containing an account of the number of petitions
from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District
of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States. From this
time I understood the words abolition and abolitionist,
and always drew near when that word was spoken, expecting to hear
something of importance to myself and fellow-slaves. The light broke
in upon me by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters;
and seeing two Irishmen unloading a scow of stone, I went, unasked,
and helped them. When we had finished, one of them came to me and
asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, "Are
ye a slave for life?" I told him that I was. The good Irishman
seemed to be deeply affected by the statement. He said to the other
that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a
slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised
me to run away to the north; that I should find friends there, and
that I should be free. I pretended not to be interested in what
they said, and treated them as if I did not understand them; for
I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to
encourage slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them
and return them to their masters. I was afraid that these seemingly
good men might use me so; but I nevertheless remembered their advice,
and from that time I resolved to run away. I looked forward to a
time at which it would be safe for me to escape. I was too young
to think of doing so immediately; besides, I wished to learn how
to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass. I consoled
myself with the hope that I should one day find a good chance. Meanwhile,
I would learn to write....
I have now reached a period of my life when I can give dates. I
left Baltimore, and went to live with Master Thomas Auld, at St.
Michael's, in March, 1832. It was now more than seven years since
I lived with him in the family of my old master, on Colonel Lloyd's
Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every
element of character commanding respect. My master was one of this
rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed
by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if
there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject
to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the
ability to conceal his meanness. Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder.
He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft. He came into
possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted
slave-holders are the worst. He was cruel, but cowardly. He commanded
without firmness. In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times
rigid, and at times lax. At times, he spoke to his slaves with the
firmness of Napoleon and the fury of a demon; at other times, he
might well be mistaken for an inquirer who had lost his way. He
did nothing of himself. He might have passed for a lion, but for
his ears. In all things noble which he attempted, his own meanness
shone most conspicuous. His airs, words, and actions, were the airs,
words, and actions of born slave- holders, and, being assumed, were
awkward enough. He was not even a good imitator. He possessed all
the disposition to deceive, but wanted the power. Having no resources
within himself, he was compelled to be the copyist of many, and
being such, he was forever the victim of inconsistency; and of consequence
he was an object of contempt, and was held as such even by his slaves.
The luxury of having slaves of his own to wait upon him was something
new and unprepared for. He was a slaveholder without the ability
to hold slaves. He found himself incapable of managing his slaves
either by force, fear, or fraud. We seldom called him "master;"
we generally called him "Captain Auld," and were hardly
disposed to title him at all. I doubt not that our conduct had much
to do with making him appear awkward, and of consequence fretful.
Our want of reverence for him must have perplexed him greatly…
My master and myself had quite a number of differences. He found
me unsuitable to his purpose. My city life, he said, had had a very
pernicious effect upon me. It had almost ruined me for every good
purpose, and fitted me for every thing which was bad. One of my
greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down
to his father-in- law's farm, which was about five miles from St.
Michael's. I would then have to go after it. My reason for this
kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get
something to eat when I went there. Master William Hamilton, my
master's father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat. I
never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy
return. Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.
I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given
me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved
to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose,
he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey. Mr. Covey was
a poor man, a farm-renter. He rented the place upon which he lived,
as also the hands with which he tilled it. Mr. Covey had acquired
a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation
was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled
with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done
without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much
loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake
of the training to which they were subjected, without any other
compensation. He could hire young help with great ease, in consequence
of this reputation. Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey,
he was a professor of religion--a pious soul--a member and a class-leader
in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation
as a "nigger-breaker." I was aware of all the facts, having
been made acquainted with them by a young man who had lived there.
I nevertheless made the change gladly; for I was sure of getting
enough to eat, which is not the smallest consideration to a hungry
I lived with Mr. Covey one year. During the first six months,
of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was
seldom free from a sore back. My awkwardness was almost always his
excuse for whipping me. We were worked fully up to the point of
endurance. Long before day we were up, our horses fed, and by the
first approach of day we were off to the field with our hoes and
ploughing teams. Mr. Covey gave us enough to eat, but scarce time
to eat it. We were often less than five minutes taking our meals.
We were often in the field from the first approach of day till its
last lingering ray had left us; and at saving-fodder time, midnight
often caught us in the field binding blades.
Covey would be out with us. The way he used to stand it, was this.
He would spend the most of his afternoons in bed. He would then
come out fresh in the evening, ready to urge us on with his words,
example, and frequently with the whip. Mr. Covey was one of the
few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a
hardworking man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could
do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence
almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making
us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising
us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly,
if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise.
Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves,
"the snake." When we were at work in the cornfield, he
would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection,
and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out,
"Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!" This being his
mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings
were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever
at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush,
and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount
his horse, as if bound to St. Michael's, a distance of seven miles,
and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the
corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He
would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again,
he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he
was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back
upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready;
and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and
crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch
us till the going down of the sun.
Mr. Covey's forte consisted in his power to deceive. His
life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions.
Every thing he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he
made conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself
equal to deceiving the Almighty. He would make a short prayer in
the morning, and a long prayer at night; and, strange as it may
seem, few men would at times appear more devotional than he. The
exercises of his family devotions were always commenced with singing;
and, as he was a very poor singer himself, the duty of raising the
hymn generally came upon me. He would read his hymn, and nod at
me to commence. I would at times do so; at others, I would not.
My non-compliance would almost always produce much confusion. To
show himself independent of me, he would start and stagger through
with his hymn in the most discordant manner. In this state of mind,
he prayed with more than ordinary spirit. Poor man! such was his
disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that
he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was
a sincere worshipper of the most high God; and this, too, at a time
when he may be said to have been guilty of compelling his woman
slave to commit the sin of adultery.
The facts in the case are these: Mr. Covey was a poor man; he was
just commencing in life; he was only able to buy one slave; and,
shocking as is the fact, he bought her, as he said, for a breeder.
This woman was named Caroline. Mr. Covey bought her from Mr. Thomas
Lowe, about six miles from St. Michael's. She was a large, able-bodied
woman, about twenty years old. She had already given birth to one
child, which proved her to be just what he wanted. After buying
her, he hired a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with
him one year; and him he used to fasten up with her every night!
The result was, that, at the end of the year, the miserable woman
gave birth to twins. At this result Mr. Covey seemed to be highly
pleased, both with the man and the wretched woman. Such was his
joy, and that of his wife, that nothing they could do for Caroline
during her confinement was too good, or too hard, to be done. The
children were regarded as being quite an addition to his wealth.
If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to
drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first
six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers.
It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail,
or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work,
was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest
days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for
him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a
few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking
me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity
was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed,
the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night
of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into
Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like
stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times
I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through
my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for
a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my
wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and
that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.
My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than
a stern reality.
Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose
broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the
habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white,
so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded
ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.
I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood
all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with
saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving
off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully.
My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience
but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude
way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:--
"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast
in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle
gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged
angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!
O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks,
and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid
waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim!
If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!
The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left
in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver
me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run
away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it.
I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to
lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think
of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it?
Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and
die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear
me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a northeast course from
North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the
bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware
into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to
have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first
opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will
try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world.
Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I
am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that
my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get
free. There is a better day coming."
Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded
almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself
to my wretched lot.
I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during
the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey's, than in the last
six. The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey's course
toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how
a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.
On one of the hottest days of the month of August, 1833, Bill Smith,
William Hughes, a slave named Eli, and myself, were engaged in fanning
wheat. Hughes was clearing the fanned wheat from before the fan.
Eli was turning, Smith was feeding, and I was carrying wheat to
the fan. The work was simple, requiring strength rather than intellect;
yet, to one entirely unused to such work, it came very hard. About
three o'clock of that day, I broke down; my strength failed me;
I was seized with a violent aching of the head, attended with extreme
dizziness; I trembled in every limb. Finding what was coming, I
nerved myself up, feeling it would never do to stop work. I stood
as long as I could stagger to the hopper with grain. When I could
stand no longer, I fell, and felt as if held down by an immense
weight. The fan of course stopped; every one had his own work to
do; and no one could do the work of the other, and have his own
go on at the same time.
Mr. Covey was at the house, about one hundred yards from the treading-yard
where we were fanning. On hearing the fan stop, he left immediately,
and came to the spot where we were. He hastily inquired what the
matter was. Bill answered that I was sick, and there was no one
to bring wheat to the fan. I had by this time crawled away under
the side of the post and rail-fence by which the yard was enclosed,
hoping to find relief by getting out of the sun. He then asked where
I was. He was told by one of the hands. He came to the spot, and,
after looking at me awhile, asked me what was the matter. I told
him as well as I could, for I scarce had strength to speak. He then
gave me a savage kick in the side, and told me to get up. I tried
to do so, but fell back in the attempt. He gave me another kick,
and again told me to rise. I again tried, and succeeded in gaining
my feet; but, stooping to get the tub with which I was feeding the
fan, I again staggered and fell.
While down in this situation, Mr. Covey took up the hickory slat
with which Hughes had been striking off the half-bushel measure,
and with it gave me a heavy blow upon the head, making a large wound,
and the blood ran freely; and with this again told me to get up.
I made no effort to comply, having now made up my mind to let him
do his worst. In a short time after receiving this blow, my head
grew better. Mr. Covey had now left me to my fate. At this moment
I resolved, for the first time, to go to my master, enter a complaint,
and ask his protection. In order to do this, I must that afternoon
walk seven miles; and this, under the circumstances, was truly a
severe undertaking. I was exceedingly feeble; made so as much by
the kicks and blows which I received, as by the severe fit of sickness
to which I had been subjected. I, however, watched my chance, while
Covey was looking in an opposite direction, and started for St.
Michael's. I succeeded in getting a considerable distance on my
way to the woods, when Covey discovered me, and called after me
to come back, threatening what he would do if I did not come. I
disregarded both his calls and his threats, and made my way to the
woods as fast as my feeble state would allow; and thinking I might
be overhauled by him if I kept the road, I walked through the woods,
keeping far enough from the road to avoid detection, and near enough
to prevent losing my way. I had not gone far before my little strength
again failed me. I could go no farther. I fell down, and lay for
a considerable time. The blood was yet oozing from the wound on
For a time I thought I should bleed to death; and think now that
I should have done so, but that the blood so matted my hair as to
stop the wound. After lying there about three quarters of an hour,
I nerved myself up again, and started on my way, through bogs and
briers, barefooted and bareheaded, tearing my feet sometimes at
nearly every step; and after a journey of about seven miles, occupying
some five hours to perform it, I arrived at master's store. I then
presented an appearance enough to affect any but a heart of iron.
From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood.
My hair was all clotted with dust and blood; my shirt was stiff
with blood. I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den
of wild beasts, and barely escaped them. In this state I appeared
before my master, humbly entreating him to interpose his authority
for my protection. I told him all the circumstances as well as I
could, and it seemed, as I spoke, at times to affect him. He would
then walk the floor, and seek to justify Covey by saying he expected
I deserved it. He asked me what I wanted. I told him, to let me
get a new home; that as sure as I lived with Mr. Covey again, I
should live with but to die with him; that Covey would surely kill
me; he was in a fair way for it.
Master Thomas ridiculed the idea that there was any danger of Mr.
Covey's killing me, and said that he knew Mr. Covey; that he was
a good man, and that he could not think of taking me from him; that,
should he do so, he would lose the whole year's wages; that I belonged
to Mr. Covey for one year, and that I must go back to him, come
what might; and that I must not trouble him with any more stories,
or that he would himself get hold of me. After threatening
me thus, he gave me a very large dose of salts, telling me that
I might remain in St. Michael's that night, (it being quite late,)
but that I must be off back to Mr. Covey's early in the morning;
and that if I did not, he would get hold of me, which meant
that he would whip me. I remained all night, and, according to his
orders, I started off to Covey's in the morning, (Saturday morning,)
wearied in body and broken in spirit. I got no supper that night,
or breakfast that morning.
I reached Covey's about nine o'clock; and just as I was getting
over the fence that divided Mrs. Kemp's fields from ours, out ran
Covey with his cowskin, to give me another whipping. Before he could
reach me, I succeeded in getting to the cornfield; and as the corn
was very high, it afforded me the means of hiding. He seemed very
angry, and searched for me a long time. My behavior was altogether
unaccountable. He finally gave up the chase, thinking, I suppose,
that I must come home for something to eat; he would give himself
no further trouble in looking for me. I spent that day mostly in
the woods, having the alternative before me,--to go home and be
whipped to death, or stay in the woods and be starved to death.
That night, I fell in with Sandy Jenkins, a slave with whom I was
somewhat acquainted. Sandy had a free wife who lived about four
miles from Mr. Covey's; and it being Saturday, he was on his way
to see her. I told him my circumstances, and he very kindly invited
me to go home with him. I went home with him, and talked this whole
matter over, and got his advice as to what course it was best for
me to pursue. I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great
solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must
go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain
root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying
it always on my right side, would render it impossible
for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had
carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received
a blow, and never expected to while he carried it.
I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root
in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was
not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with
much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good.
To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his
direction, carried it upon my right side. This was Sunday morning.
I immediately started for home; and upon entering the yard gate,
out came Mr. Covey on his way to meeting. He spoke to me very kindly,
bade me drive the pigs from a lot near by, and passed on towards
the church. Now, this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made
me begin to think that there was something in the root which
Sandy had given me; and had it been on any other day than Sunday,
I could have attributed the conduct to no other cause than the influence
of that root; and as it was, I was half inclined to think the root
to be something more than I at first had taken it to be. All went
well till Monday morning. On this morning, the virtue of the root
was fully tested.
Long before daylight, I was called to go and rub, curry, and feed,
the horses. I obeyed, and was glad to obey. But whilst thus engaged,
whilst in the act of throwing down some blades from the loft, Mr.
Covey entered the stable with a long rope; and just as I was half
out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs, and was about tying
me. As soon as I found what he was up to, I gave a sudden spring,
and as I did so, he holding to my legs, I was brought sprawling
on the stable floor. Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and
could do what he pleased; but at this moment--from whence came the
spirit I don't know--I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action
to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did
so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him.
My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken
all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and
I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him
with the ends of my fingers. Mr. Covey soon called out to Hughes
for help. Hughes came, and, while Covey held me, attempted to tie
my right hand. While he was in the act of doing so, I watched my
chance, and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This kick
fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey.
This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey
also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed.
He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I
did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months,
and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he
strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable
door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over
to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and
brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. By this time, Bill
came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know
what he could do. Covey said, "Take hold of him, take hold
of him!" Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not
to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own
battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length
let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I
had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The
truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as
getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn
no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards
that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger
upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn't want to get
hold of me again. "No," thought I, "you need not;
for you will come off worse than you did before."
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career
as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and
revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed
self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be
free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation
for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand
the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled
by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before.
It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the
heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed,
bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long
I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when
I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known
of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must
also succeed in killing me.