Slave Narratives

Slave narratives are a specific literary genre featuring an account of the life, or a portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave. While some former slaves could write their own accounts of their lives, those who were not literate often worked with abolitionists to relate their stories. Narratives were meant to educate the American public about the realities of slavery.

Many former slaves who escaped to freedom, including Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, later published accounts of their enslavement and escape. The typical format follows the narrator’s journey from slavery in the South to freedom in the North.

Special Collections has a number of slave narratives in our Civil War & Slavery Collection including the following:

Title page of "Aunt Sally; or, the Cross the Way of Freedom." (1859)
Williams, Isaac.  Aunt Sally; or, The Cross the Way of Freedom.  A Narrative of the Slave-Life and Purchase of the Mother of Rev. Isaac Williams, of Detroit, Michigan. Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1859.

Probably written by the son of Sally Williams (b. 1796), this anti-slavery tract details the dehumanizing practices of slavery in North Carolina that includes the separating of families. Sally Williams was sold to an Alabama plantation owner while her mother and son were left behind, and later her husband and children were sold to other owners. Her son escaped slavery and was eventually able to purchase his mother’s freedom. Written for young people, the author hopes “that this little story may be the means of leading those who read it to think and feel deeply upon the truths which it involves…so that the young may grow up imbued with spirit of liberty….”

Title page of "Father Henson's Story" (1858).

Eliot Samuel L. and John Lobb.  Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life.  Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1858.

The narrative of the life of Josiah Henson first appeared in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself and was ghost-written by Samuel Eliot.  It tells of Henson’s life from his birth as a slave in Maryland, his life there and later in Kentucky, his being sold in New Orleans, and finally his escape north via the Underground Railroad to find refuge in Canada. 

By the time the second (and revised) edition appeared, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had appeared and Stowe, to answer Southern critics, intimated that her story was based on that of Henson and his adventures.  This was not true in the strictest sense, but this edition of Henson’s autobiography conveniently was altered by John Lobb to conform to the statements of Stowe.  In his old age Josiah Henson came to believe that he indeed was the model for Uncle Tom. Our edition has this additional note from the book’s previous owner alongside Henson’s signature:

Josiah Henson's signature.

Sylvia DuBois’ biography is written entirely in phonetic orthography. The author, C.W. Larison, wished to write her story “just as she spoke it”. Larison explains that “giving her own words in the order and style in which she spoke them, portrays more of the character, intelligence, and force of the heroine than can possibly be given in any other way” (3).

Title page of "Henry Box Brown who escaped from slavery enclosed in a box 3 feet long and 2 wide" (1849).
Stearns, Charles.
Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide.  Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself…. 1849.

In 1848, Henry “Box” Brown had the original idea of mailing himself out of slavery with the help of a friend.  He made a box, climbed in, had the box nailed shut, and then was sent via a shipping company from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

February is Black History Month. To view more items related to slavery and African-American history, visit Seidman House on the Allendale Campus or view our Civil War & Slavery digital collection.