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American History

Henry’s Story

My personal narrative is similar to countless other tragic stories of enslaved blacks of this time period in the Southern United States; therefore, my story in this sense is nothing in particular and should not be viewed as anomalous: I recount it merely in so far as it is my own autbiography, and therefore of course it is inseparable from my deepest person.

My ancestors before me, as I, worked in the cotton fields of Mississippi: our historical consciousness as blacks did not extend beyond the plantation where numerous generations had lived, working under the owners the M——- family. By here historical consciousness, I mean to state that we did not know of ourselves and did not think of ourselves beyond our shared family history of slaves. We understood perhaps subconsciously the injustice of this; on the other hand it remained simply the context of our family lives.

Some time in the 1840s, when I was in my early twenties, a new type of discourse entered the lives of the slaves here in the deep South: this took the form of the “news from the North”, and particularly in terms of the abolitionist movement, exemplified by figures such as William Lloyd Garrison. While as slaves in the deep South, we had only a second or even third hand knowledge of what such movements were attempting to accomplish, the very existence of these movements forced us to question our current state of life, instead of merely accepting it: we were compelled and given the possibility to think of another possible form of life.

It was in this time that the North began to symbolize to me in a geographical space the promise of the abolitionist cause: hence, I began to think about the potentiality of freedom only in the context of a move to the North. I understood that in the South the racism was too systematic to ever be changed, that is, that the abolitionist movement would somehow flow into the South: hence, I was prompted in this sense to seize the moment as it were and escape from the plantation where my ancestors before me had worked.

I made my way to the North and I shall spare the readers of the arduous nature of this journey: one can nevertheless anticipate the escapes in the night, the days of being lost, the fear that one would be caught.

I omit these moments because they are common to many who have experienced the same events: I wish instead to emphasize my contributions to attempting to further the abolitionist movement itself.

I had made my way to Ohio and to Cleveland in particular. I was not merely content with my own freedom. I could not forget those who I had left behind, I could not understand this situation in terms of individual choices, but rather in terms of the intent to form a greater social movement. Hence, motivated I was to escape by the abolitionist movement, I decided to complete my journey was not merely to escape to the North; it would require me joining this same movement.

Cleveland had been a crucial station on the so-called Underground Railroad: abolitionists thus naturally gravitated around this point. In particular, I made my way, hearing of the news, to the Cozad-Bates House, a manor owned by an affluent family sympathetic and active to the abolitionist cause. Through their connections, I ascended through the ranks of the abolitionist movement, becoming a prominent activist and speaker for the cause.

At the outset of the Civil War I was already established in the movement in Cleveland: for many, the causes of the Civil War could be reduced to the question of abolition. Certainly, some painted these arguments as the rights of states to decide their own future: my rhetoric at this time was to demonstrate the greater issue of an individual human to decide his or her own future was at stake. In this sense, I can state that the Civil War was looked upon my own person as a tragedy according to the loss of life, but also a war for a true justice, a finalization of the tensions of abolitionist and anti-abolitionist causes: the eventual victory of the North was symbolic for the movement of this triumph of justice.