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Henry Walton Bibb. Lithograph on paper, 1847, by Unidentified Artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Bibb, Henry Walton (10 May 1815–1854), author, editor, and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of David White of Shelby County, Kentucky, the son of James Bibb, a slaveholding planter and state senator, and Mildred Jackson. White began hiring Bibb out as a laborer on several neighboring plantations before the age of ten. The constant change in living situations throughout his childhood, combined with the inhumane treatment he often received at the hands of strangers, set a pattern for life that he would later refer to in his autobiography as “my manner of living on the road.” Bibb was sold more than six times between 1832 and 1840 and was forced to relocate to at least seven states throughout the South; later, as a free man, his campaign for abolition took him throughout eastern Canada and the northern United States. But such early instability also made the young Bibb both self-sufficient and resourceful, two characteristics that were useful against the day-to-day assault of slavery: “The only weapon of self defense that I could use successfully,” he wrote, “was that of deception.”...

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Brown, John (1810?–1876), field hand and author, was born in Southampton County, Virginia, the son of slaves Joe and Nancy. For most of his life as a slave he was called Fed or Benford. At around age ten he and his mother were moved to nearby Northampton County, North Carolina; eighteen months later he was sold alone and sent to Georgia, never again to see any of his kinfolk....

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Brown, William Wells (1814?–06 November 1884), author and reformer, was born near Lexington, Kentucky, the son of George Higgins, a relative of his master, and Elizabeth, a slave. Dr. John Young, Brown’s master, migrated with his family from Kentucky to the Missouri Territory in 1816. Eleven years later the Youngs moved to St. Louis. Although Brown never experienced the hardship of plantation slavery, he was hired out regularly and separated from his family. He worked for a while in the printing office of abolitionist ...

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Clarke, Lewis G. (1815–1897), author and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Campbell, in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Campbell’s mixed-race slave daughter Letitia and her white, Scottish-immigrant husband, Daniel Clarke, a soldier in the American Revolution. Lewis Clarke’s middle name is variously recorded as either George or Garrand. Clarke’s family history, which he traced back to the founding of the nation, inspired his quest for freedom and his subsequent dedication to the abolition cause in the North....

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Cook, George William (07 January 1855–20 August 1931), educator and civil rights leader, was born a slave in Winchester, Virginia. The names of his parents are unknown. In May 1862 the Cook family, which included seven children, became war refugees after the Union capture of Winchester. The family eventually settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where young George Cook’s most important early experience as a free person was working as a servant for David D. Mumma, a Pennsylvania state legislator. Permitted to use the Mumma family library, Cook developed the ambition to seek higher education, which would have remained beyond his grasp except for several fortunate events. After he moved to New York in 1871, Cook learned of Howard University from the Reverend ...

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Coppin, Fanny Jackson (1837–21 January 1913), educator, civic and religious leader, and feminist, was born a slave in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Lucy Jackson. Her father’s name and the details of her early childhood are unknown. However, by the time she was age ten, her aunt Sarah Orr Clark had purchased her freedom, and Jackson went to live with relatives in New Bedford, Massachusetts. By 1851 she and her relatives had moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Jackson was employed as a domestic by ...

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Councill, William Hooper (12 July 1848–17 April 1909), black educator, was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the son of William Councill and Mary Jane (maiden name unknown), both slaves. In 1854 Councill’s father escaped to freedom in Canada, leaving his wife and children to be dispersed in the South by slave traders. In 1863 young William, his mother, and his youngest brother escaped from a plantation in northern Alabama to a U.S. Army camp in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Councill attended a freedmen’s school in Stevenson, Alabama, from 1865 to 1867 and later was tutored at night in Latin, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. In 1867 he established a school for freedmen in Jackson County and in 1869 began another in Madison County, laboring under the constant threat of Ku Klux Klan violence....

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Craft, Ellen (1826?–1891), abolitionist and educator, was born on a plantation in Clinton, Georgia, the daughter of Major James Smith, a wealthy cotton planter, and Maria, his slave. At the age of eleven Ellen was given by her mistress (whose “incessant cruelty” Craft was later to recall) as a wedding present to Ellen’s half sister Eliza on the young woman’s marriage to Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia. Ellen became a skilled seamstress and ladies’ maid, esteemed for her grace, intelligence, and sweetness of temper. In Macon she met another slave two years her senior, ...

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Craft, William (1824–28 January 1900), runaway slave and abolitionist lecturer, was born in Georgia, where he was a slave for the first twenty-four years of his life. In 1841 his owner, also named Craft, mortgaged William and his sister Sarah to a Macon bank. Later, when the slaveholder could not make the payments, the bank sold the slaves at an auction. Craft’s new owner permitted him to hire himself out as a carpenter, and Craft was allowed to keep earnings over $220 annually. In 1846 William married Ellen ( ...

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Cromwell, John Wesley (05 September 1846–14 April 1927), lawyer and historian, was born a slave in Portsmouth, Virginia, the son of Willis Hodges Cromwell, a ferry operator, and Elizabeth Carney. In 1851 Cromwell’s father purchased the family’s freedom and moved to West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Cromwell entered the public schools. In 1856 he was admitted to the Preparatory Department of the Institute of Colored Youth. Graduating in 1864, he embarked on a teaching career. He taught in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and in 1865 opened a private school in Portsmouth, Virginia. Cromwell left teaching temporarily after an assault in which he was shot at and his school burned down. He returned to Philadelphia and was employed by the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Intellectual Improvement of Colored People. Then he served as an agent for the American Missionary Association and went back to Virginia. He became active in local politics, serving as a delegate to the first Republican convention in Richmond in 1867....

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Ferguson, Katy (1779?–11 July 1854), child welfare worker and school founder, was born a slave on board a schooner en route from Virginia to New York City. Her formal name was Catherine Williams, but she was known as “Katy.” Separated from her mother at the age of eight after the woman was sold by their master, a Presbyterian elder, Katy never saw her mother again. Although she never learned to read or write, Katy was allowed to attend church services, and before she was sold, her mother taught her the Scriptures from memory. Katy was deeply religious and a strong adherent of the Presbyterian faith. At the age of ten she promised her master that she would dedicate her life to God’s service if given her freedom. This request was denied, but Katy eventually obtained her freedom; she was purchased for $200 by an abolitionist sympathizer when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. Originally she was given six years to repay this debt, but eventually her benefactor accepted eleven months of service and $100 from a New York merchant for her freedom. Thereafter, as a free woman, Katy supported herself by catering parties for wealthy white families and by cleaning linens and other delicate fabrics....

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Healy, Patrick Francis (02 February 1834–10 January 1910), Jesuit priest and university president, was born in Jones County, Georgia, the son of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish-American planter, and Mary Eliza (maiden name uncertain, but possibly Clark), a mulatto slave. The senior Healy deserted from the British army in Canada during the War of 1812 and by 1818 had made his way to rural Georgia where he settled, speculated in land, and acquired a sizable plantation and numerous slaves. He fathered ten children by an African-American woman he had purchased. Healy acknowledged Mary Eliza as “my trusty woman” in his will, which provided that she be paid an annuity, transported to a free state, and “not bartered or sold or disposed of in any way” should he predecease her. Healy also acknowledged his children by Mary Eliza, although by state law they were slaves he owned, and he arranged for them to leave Georgia and move to the North, where they would become free....

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Johnson, Edward Austin (23 November 1860–24 July 1944), educator, lawyer, and politician, was born near Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of Columbus Johnson and Eliza A. Smith, slaves. He was taught to read and write by Nancy Walton, a free African American, and later attended the Washington School, an establishment founded by philanthropic northerners in Raleigh. There he was introduced to the Congregational church and became a lifelong member. Johnson completed his education at Atlanta University in Georgia, graduating in 1883. To pay his way through college, he worked as a barber and taught in the summers. After graduation he worked as a teacher and principal, first in Atlanta at the Mitchell Street Public School (1883–1885) and then in Raleigh at the Washington School (1885–1891). While teaching in Raleigh he studied at Shaw University, obtaining a law degree in 1891. He joined the faculty shortly after graduation and became dean of the law school at Shaw two years later. He acquired a reputation as a highly capable lawyer, successfully arguing many cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court....

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Laney, Lucy Craft (13 April 1854–23 October 1933), educator, was born in Macon, Georgia, the daughter of David Laney and Louisa (maiden name unknown). Both parents were slaves: they belonged to different masters, but following their marriage they were permitted to live together in a home of their own. David Laney was a carpenter and often hired out by his owner, Mr. Cobbs. Louisa, purchased from a group of nomadic Indians while a small child, was a maid in the Campbell household. One of Lucy Laney’s most cherished memories was “how her father would, after a week of hard slave work, walk for over twenty miles … to be at home with his wife and children on the Sabbath” ( ...

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John Roy Lynch. Albumen silver print, c. 1883, by Charles Milton Bell. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Lynch, John Roy (10 September 1847–02 November 1939), U.S. congressman, historian, and attorney, was born on “Tacony” plantation near Vidalia, Louisiana, the son of Patrick Lynch, the manager of the plantation, and Catherine White, a slave. Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant, purchased his wife and two children, but in order to free them, existing state law required they leave Louisiana. Before Patrick Lynch died, he transferred the titles to his wife and children to a friend, William Deal, who promised to treat them as free persons. However, when Patrick Lynch died, Deal sold the family to a planter, Alfred W. Davis, in Natchez, Mississippi. When Davis learned of the conditions of the transfer to Deal, he agreed to allow Catherine Lynch to hire her own time while he honeymooned with his new wife in Europe. Under this arrangement, Catherine Lynch lived in Natchez, worked for various employers, and paid $3.50 a week to an agent of Davis, keeping whatever else she earned....

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Russell, James Solomon (20 December 1857–28 March 1935), educator and priest, was born on the Hendrick Estate in Mecklenburg County near Palmer Springs, Virginia. His father, Solomon, and his mother, Araminta (maiden name unknown), both lived as slaves on adjoining properties, with the North Carolina state line between them. With the ambiguity of slave status following ...

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William James Simmons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90544).

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Simmons, William James (26 June 1849–30 October 1890), Baptist leader, educator, and race advocate, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of enslaved parents, Edward Simmons and Esther (maiden name unknown). During his youth, Simmons’s mother escaped slavery with him and two of his siblings, relocating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Simmons’s uncle, Alexander Tardieu (or Tardiff), a shoemaker, became a father for the children and a protector and provider for the fugitive slave family. He moved them among the cities of Philadelphia, Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Chester, Pennsylvania, constantly eluding persistent “slave catchers,” before permanently taking residence in Bordentown, New Jersey. While Simmons never received formal elementary or secondary school education, his uncle made a point of teaching the children to read and write. As a youth Simmons served as an assistant to a white dentist in Bordentown. At the age of fifteen he joined the Union army, participating in a number of major battles in Virginia and finding himself at Appomattox in 1865. After the war, Simmons once again worked briefly as a dental assistant. He converted and affiliated with the white Baptist church in Bordentown in 1867, announced his call to the ministry, and ventured to college with the financial support of church friends....