Rutgers professor's book examines full scope of slavery
Henry Bibb was just 10 the first time he ran away. In the antebellum South, Bibb fled slavery many more times, eventually finding his freedom and becoming an author and abolitionist.
Henry Bibb was just 10 the first time he ran away.
In the antebellum South, Bibb fled slavery many more times, eventually finding his freedom and becoming an author and abolitionist.
"Believe me when I say that no tongue, nor pen ever has or can express the horrors of American Slavery," he wrote in 1849. "I despair in finding language to express adequately the deep feeling of my soul as I contemplate the past history of my life."
His story - one of thousands of surviving slave narratives - is part of research by Rutgers-Camden associate professor Keith Green, who uses it to help dissect and expand the meaning of slavery.
The word covers many forms of suffering, he says in a forthcoming book, Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Imprisonment, Servitude and Captivity, 1816 to 1861.
"It's eye-opening to realize the full scope of what was happening at that time," said Green, 37, of Lindenwold. "It's like walking past a building that you've seen before but then you go inside and see it in a whole different light."
Bibb, Green said, was a slave but he also was a prisoner in a so-called slave prison in Louisville, Ky., which was used to hold people, including whites, who had committed misdemeanors. The lockup was part of a system of prisons, workhouses, and penitentiaries in the 19th century. When Bibb wasn't in prison, he was being held by various slaveholders, including a Cherokee.
"There were instances of imprisonment, indentured servitude, and captivity that more fully explain what blacks were experiencing," said Green, a member of Rutgers' English department who teaches African American literature. "I wanted to break out of slavery as that one word, that one category, which encapsulates all of that."
Especially cruel was the treatment of children who were separated from their parents and siblings, Green said.
"I was born February 11, 1783, at Cape May, State of New Jersey," Jarena Lee wrote in her 1849 narrative, Religious Experience of Mrs. Jarena Lee. "At the age of seven years I was parted from my parents, and went to live as a servant maid, with a Mr. Sharp, at the distance of about sixty miles from the place of my birth."
Lee, one of the first women authorized to preach in the 19th century, had been "bound out" - sent to live as an indentured servant because her parents could not take care of her, Green said.
Servitude involving children of all races may have been the most widespread form of coerced labor besides the enslavement of blacks during the antebellum era, Green said research suggests.
"My book's title, Bound to Respect, refers to the claim for respectability," Green said. The former slaves "use their narratives to demand respect."
"They affirm their personhood," he said. "Though they have been through these experiences, they are fellow human beings."
Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes her slavery and imprisonment in North Carolina, Green said.
"I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse," Jacobs wrote in 1861. "I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.
"Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations," she said.
The imprisonment of Jacobs' children was once used to bring her out of hiding after she escaped her master. "When I heard that my little ones were in a loathsome jail, my first impulse was to go to them . . . ," she wrote. "The thought was agonizing."
Forced servitude was not just an American institution, though, Green said. It was a worldwide problem.
In The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive, Adams described his bondage in North Africa to Moors, Arabs, and indigenous Africans. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa near Senegal in 1810 and spent several years as a captive.
"They were continually occupied in tending the flocks of the Moors," he wrote in 1816 of slaves. "They suffered severely from exposure to the scorching sun, in a state of almost utter nakedness; and the miseries of their situation were aggravated by despair of ever being released from slavery."
The value of such narratives is undeniable, said Paul W. Schopp, a professional historian who lives in Riverton. "If we didn't have them, we would lose the basic history of that time period, but in larger context, we'd lose having a greater understanding of what these people went through as slaves and what they had to do to get free, the ingenuity and stealth.
The narratives "are a treasure," he said. "These first-person accounts are the most accurate representation we have of both slavery and the quest for freedom."
That quest is universal, Green said. It drove Henry Bibb to escape his masters, then try to free his wife, Melinda, and daughter, Mary Frances. He was unsuccessful and was enslaved again.
"I believe slaveholding to be a sin against God and man under all circumstances," he wrote in 1849. "I have no sympathy with the person or persons who tolerate and support the system willingly and knowingly, morally, religiously or politically."
The stories of slaves, including many revealed for the first time in Green's research, display "the bravery and ingenuity that black people had to exercise to maintain their spirit," he said. "They had to fight and be strong and think creatively about how to achieve freedom.
"Bibb sacrificed his freedom, but chose bondage in order to give his family a chance for freedom," he said. "It shows how committed he was to being a father and husband that he would risk his own freedom so his wife and daughter could be free. It shows the integrity of Bibb and people like him."