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Bayne, Thomas (1824–1889), dentist and politician, was born into slavery in North Carolina and was known as Samuel Nixon before his escape from bondage in 1855. He was sold several times before being purchased by C. F. Martin, a dentist in Norfolk, Virginia. As the slave of Martin, Bayne learned sufficient dentistry to serve as the doctor’s assistant and to make dental house calls. Bayne also developed bookkeeping skills and monitored the doctor’s accounts....

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Bradley, Aaron Alpeora (1815?– October 1882), Reconstruction politician, was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina, the son of unknown slaves on the plantation of Francis Pickens, a prominent politician. Little is known of Bradley’s youth and early manhood other than that he was a shoemaker for a time in Augusta, Georgia, and that he escaped slavery and made his way to the North, apparently during the 1830s. He lived for a time in New York and in Boston. In the latter city he not only met abolitionists but also studied the law and eventually became a practicing attorney....

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Blanche Kelso Bruce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-2781).

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Bruce, Blanche Kelso (01 March 1841–17 March 1898), black political leader and U.S. senator during the Reconstruction era, was born in Farmville, Virginia, the son of Polly (surname unknown), a slave. The identity of his father is unknown, but he took the surname of the man who owned his mother before he was born. His childhood as a slave on a small plantation, first in Virginia, then briefly in Mississippi, and finally in Missouri did not significantly differ, as he later recalled, from that of the sons of whites. This relatively benign experience in slavery perhaps owed a great deal to the fact that he was a light-skinned mulatto and the favorite of a benevolent master and mistress. He shared a tutor with his master’s son and thus obtained the education that prepared him for later success. During the Civil War, despite the benevolence of his owner, he fled to freedom in Kansas, but after slavery was abolished he returned to Missouri where he reportedly established the first school in the state for blacks, at Hannibal....

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Bush, John Edward (15 November 1856–11 December 1916), businessman and politician, was born a slave in Moscow, Tennessee. In 1862 his master moved him and his mother to Arkansas to keep them from being freed when the Union army moved into western Tennessee. His mother died when Bush was only seven years old. He was educated in the freedmen’s and public schools of Little Rock and was considered a good student by his teachers. He paid his school tuition by molding bricks. In 1876 he graduated from high school with honors and was immediately appointed principal of Capital Hill School, a public institution for African Americans in Little Rock. In 1878 he moved to Hot Springs, where he was named to head that city’s African-American high school....

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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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Eagleson, William Lewis (09 August 1835–22 June 1899), editor and political activist, was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri. The names of his parents and details about his early life are unknown. He married Elizabeth McKinney in 1865 in St. Louis; they had nine children. As a young man, he learned both printing and barbering, trades that he practiced intermittently throughout his life. In the 1870s, he settled in Fort Scott, Kansas, and started a newspaper, the ...

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Grimké, Archibald Henry (17 August 1849–25 February 1930), lawyer, diplomat, and protest leader, was born a slave on “Caneacres” plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Henry Grimké, a lawyer and planter, and Nancy Weston, the family’s slave nurse. His parents probably never married, but his mother assumed the Grimké name. Grimké had an extremely difficult early life. After years of virtual freedom—he had attended Charleston schools for free African Americans though technically a slave—he and his brother ...

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Haralson, Jeremiah (01 April 1846–1916?), congressman from Alabama, was born a slave on a plantation near Columbus in Muscogee County, Georgia. Sold twice before becoming the property of Jonathan Haralson of Selma, Alabama, a lawyer and the head of the Confederate Niter Works, the self-taught Jeremiah remained in Dallas County as a freedman following the Civil War. There he married Ellen Norwood in 1870, and his son Henry (who later attended Tuskegee Institute) was born....

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Hyman, John Adams (23 July 1840–14 September 1891), North Carolina senator and U.S. congressman, was born a slave near Warrenton, Warren County, North Carolina. Nothing is known about his parents. In 1861 Hyman worked as a janitor for a jeweler who with his wife taught Hyman to read and write. When that was discovered, the jeweler and his wife were driven from Warrenton, and Hyman was sold and sent to Alabama. Having been at least eight times “bought and sold as a brute,” as he described it, Hyman in 1865 returned to Warren County, where he was a farmer and store manager. Sometime between 1865 and 1867 he became a trustee of one of the first public schools in Warren County....

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Jasper, John (04 July 1812–30 March 1901), Baptist preacher and orator, was born in Fluvanna County, Virginia, the son of slave parents, Philip Jasper, a slave preacher, and Nina, head servant of the Peachy family. (His father served as a preacher at slave funerals.) John worked as a cart boy accompanying the plantation ox cart and on errands around the Peachy “great house.” In 1825 his master hired him out to Peter McHenry, for whom he worked one year in Richmond before returning to the Peachy plantation. He later labored in the coal mines of Chesterfield County. Jasper’s master sent him to Richmond a third time to work at Samuel Hargrove’s tobacco warehouse. Jasper led a life he later confessed to have been irreligious and riotous. A fellow slave taught him to read and spell....

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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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Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs (1820?–26 May 1907), White House dressmaker during the Lincoln administration and author, was born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, the daughter of George Pleasant and Agnes Hobbs, slaves. Her birth date is variously given from 1818 to 1824 based on different documents that report her age. The identity of her father is also uncertain; in later life Keckley reportedly claimed that her father was her master, Colonel A. Burwell. George Pleasant, who was owned by a different master, was allowed to visit only twice a year and was eventually taken west....

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Lafayette, James (1748–09 August 1830), patriot spy, also known to history as James Armistead, was born in slavery; little is recorded of his parentage or early life except that he belonged to William Armistead of New Kent County, Virginia. In the summer of 1781 James was attending his master while Armistead worked as a commissary in Richmond, supplying patriot forces under the command of the ...

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Lee, Samuel J. (22 November 1844–01 April 1895), politician and lawyer, was born in bondage on a plantation in Abbeville District, South Carolina. A mulatto, he was probably the son of his owner, Samuel McGowan, and a slave woman. When McGowan entered Confederate service, Lee attended him in the camps and on the battlefield. Lee was wounded twice, at Second Manassas in 1862 and later near Hanover Junction, Virginia. After emancipation, he farmed in Abbeville District and then in Edgefield County, South Carolina, having settled in Hamburg. By 1870 Lee had accumulated at least $500 in real estate and $400 in personal property. Sometime before February 1872 he married a woman identified in legal documents as R. A. Lee; her maiden name is unknown....

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Jefferson Franklin Long. Lithograph on paper, 1872, by Currier & Ives Lithography Company. (Long on right.) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Long, Jefferson Franklin (03 March 1836–04 February 1901), Reconstruction era politician, was born a slave of mixed African and Caucasian ancestry in Knoxville, Crawford County, Georgia. The names of his parents and of his owners are unknown. Sometime before the beginning of the Civil War, Long was taken from rural Crawford County to nearby Macon, where he evidently taught himself to read and write and learned a trade. Freed at the end of the war, he opened a tailor shop in Macon, which he and his son operated for a number of years and which provided him a steady income and a position of some eminence in the black community there. He married Lucinda Carhart (marriage date unknown) and had seven children....

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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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Napier, James Carroll (09 June 1845–21 April 1940), politician, attorney, and businessman, was born on the western outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. His parents, William C. Napier and Jane E., were slaves at the time of his birth but were freed in 1848. After manumission and a brief residency in Ohio, William Napier moved his family to Nashville, where he established a livery stable business. James attended the black elementary and secondary schools of Nashville before entering Wilberforce University (1864–1866) and Oberlin College (1866–1868), both in Ohio....