Narratives of Slavery and Freedom at the Congregational Library & Archives

14 Feb 2024 in

Zachary Bodnar, CLA Archivist

Among the many books and pamphlets that Congregationalists were reading and reacting to during the nineteenth century, especially in the lead up to the American Civil War, were the narratives of formerly enslaved persons. The Congregational Library & Archives holds a modest collection of these narratives, part of a wider collection of works on “societal issues.” The slave narratives found on the shelves of the CLA offer portraits of individual men and the violence, heartbreak, and suffering they faced as slaves, punctuated by the overwhelming joy of the freedom they eventually won. These narratives offer fascinating reflections on history from voices that were typically silenced or ignored.

The earliest narrative in the collection, first published in 1798, is the story of Venture Smith, who was about nine years old when he arrived in Narragansett, Rhode Island, aboard a slave ship. His narrative reflects on the violence in his native Guinea that led to his capture and his harrowing Atlantic crossing.

Several of the narratives show, in stark terms, how Christianity and Congregationalism became instruments of violence and oppression. In James Mars’ narrative, his enslaver, Rev. Amos Thompson, minister of the East Canaan (now North Canaan) Congregational Church in Connecticut, preached to his congregation that slavery was right and sanctioned by God. Similarly, the narrative of Henry Watson illustrated how the Bible was taught to the enslaved and used to reinforce the institution of slavery. Watson recalled how people used the Gospels to emphasize the idea that quiet suffering in life would be rewarded in heaven. The experiences of Mars and Watson were not unique, and Rev. Thompson was not alone in his beliefs among Congregational ministers. The CLA holds a collection of pamphlets and sermons that explicitly advocate for chattel slavery.

The narratives depict extensive secular hypocrisy as well. For example, Mars' enslaved father fought for freedom in the American Revolution but remained in captivity after his service. The land of the free, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, was not a welcoming place for escaped slaves. Several narratives focus on and grapple with individual decisions to leave the United States.

After Henry Watson escaped from captivity in Virginia and made his way to Boston, he met William Lloyd Garrison, who advised him to leave the country. It was in Britain that Watson finally felt free. "Wherever I went [in England,] I was treated like a man. They looked not at the color of my skin, but judged me from my internal qualifications."

Josiah Henson's narrative, likewise, details his decision to make his way to Canada. "I determined to make my escape to Canada, about which I had heard something as beyond the limits of the United States; for, notwithstanding there were free states in the union, I felt that I should be safer under an entirely foreign jurisdiction."

After journeying on foot from Kentucky to the lakeside town of Sandusky, Ohio, Henson traveled by boat to Ontario. He remembers the presence of "Kentucky spies" who watched all the boats sailing across Lake Erie, looking for escapees. To Henson, arrival in Canada felt nothing short of miraculous.

"When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighborhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free. ‘O,’ said he, with a hearty laugh, ‘is that it? I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand before.’ It is not much to be wondered at, that my certainty of being free was not quite a sober one at the first moment; and I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round, with a vivacity which made them laugh as well as myself."

The descriptions of freedom found in these narratives are all equally touching, and their reflections on life are powerful. After saving up money from side jobs and off-season labor for other farmers, Venture Smith earned enough to buy freedom for himself and his family and settled on Long Island. Looking back on his difficult life, he wrote, "amidst all my grief and pains, I have many consolations. Meg, the wife of my youth, whom I married for love and bought with my own money, is alive. My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal."

These narratives are not only important for their stories of the horrors of enslavement and subsequent struggles for freedom, they are also important because they continue over time they transition into narratives about the everyday lives of free Black people in the early nineteenth century and their successes and struggles in the face of prejudice. Smith went into the shipping trade after he bought his freedom and found moderate success. Once, one of Smith's white associates cheated him, and Smith wanted to sue. He recalled that no lawyer would take the case because they believed that the white man was in the right simply because of the color of his skin.

James Mars, after buying his freedom, stayed in Connecticut and became an activist and a significant figure in New England’s freedmen community. He helped to found the Talcott Street Church in Hartford, participated in landmark court cases, and later became one of the few Black men serving on the board of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society. He later moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his family to purchase and build a modest farm. He wrote his memoir in 1864, in part, because “some told me that they did not know that slavery was ever allowed in Connecticut, and some affirm that it never did exist in the State."

Henson remained in Canada, and watched as the Black community in southern Ontario increased to what he estimated to be 20,000 people. In Canada, Henson met Hiram Wilson, a Congregational minister from Massachusetts, and the two started a vocational school for the newly-arrived escapees, which opened in 1842.

There narratives hold an important place in the CLA’s collection. Too often, the voices of the oppressed and dispossessed have been written over or left out of documentary evidence. Now, in 2024, the CLA is devoted to ensuring these voices will be heard. We hope that during this Black History Month, you will take time to find these voices and listen to the narratives and stories they have to tell.