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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, 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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Coffin, Levi (28 October 1789–16 September 1877), abolitionist and merchant, was born in New Garden, North Carolina, the son of Levi Coffin and Prudence Williams, farmers. The only son in a family of seven children, Levi was needed to work on the family farm. He was educated at home by his father until at age twenty-one when he enrolled in school to obtain a formal education. A superior student, he taught school himself from time to time....

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Coles, Edward (15 December 1786–07 July 1868), slavery opponent and second governor of Illinois, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Colonel John Coles and Rebecca Tucker, wealthy, slaveholding planters. The eighth of twelve children, almost from the day of his birth Edward was associated with the great and near-great in revolutionary American society. One of the first families of Virginia, the Coles moved in a social circle that included national figures such as ...

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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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Douglas, H. Ford (1831–11 November 1865), abolitionist and military officer, was born in Virginia, the son of a white man, William Douglas, and a slave, Mary (surname unknown). His first name was Hezekiah, which he chose to abbreviate. Sometime after his fifteenth birthday, he escaped from slavery and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked as a barber. Self-educated, he became an active member of the antislavery movement and the Ohio free black community in the 1850s. He served as Cleveland agent for the ...

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Frederick Douglass Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-19288).

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Douglass, Frederick ( February 1818–20 February 1895), abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unidentified white man. Although a slave, he spent the first six years of his life in the cabin of his maternal grandparents, with only a few stolen nighttime visits by his mother. His real introduction to bondage came in 1824, when he was brought to the nearby wheat plantation of Colonel ...

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Downing, George Thomas (30 December 1819–21 July 1903), abolitionist, businessman, and civil rights advocate, was born in New York City, the son of Thomas Downing, a restaurant owner, and Rebecca West. His father’s Oyster House was a gathering place for New York’s aristocracy and politicians. Young Downing attended Charles Smith’s school on Orange Street and, with future black abolitionists ...

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Embree, Elihu (11 November 1782–04 December 1820), abolitionist and iron manufacturer, was born in Pennsylvania, the son of Thomas Embree, a Quaker minister, and Esther (maiden name unknown). Moving his family in 1790 to Washington County, in the northeast corner of what would in six years become the new state of Tennessee, Thomas Embree spoke out boldly in the ...

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Ford, Barney Launcelot (1822–14 December 1902), conductor on the Underground Railroad, Negro suffrage lobbyist, and real estate baron, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of a Mr. Darington (given name unknown), a slaveholder and plantation owner, and Phoebe (surname unknown), one of Darington’s slaves. Given simply the name “Barney” at birth, he adopted the name Barney Launcelot Ford as an adult to please his soon-to-be wife and to provide himself with a “complete” name....

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Henry Highland Garnet. Albumen silver print, c. 1881, by James U. Stead. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Garnet, Henry Highland (23 December 1815–13 February 1882), clergyman and abolitionist, was born in New Market, Kent County, Maryland, the son of George and Henrietta (later called Elizabeth), slaves. Henry escaped with his parents and seven siblings to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1824, assisted by the Quaker ...

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Hayden, Lewis (1811–07 April 1889), abolitionist, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of slave parents whose names are not known. Separated from his family by the slave trade at age ten, he was eventually owned by five different masters. The first, a Presbyterian clergyman, traded him for a pair of horses. The second, a clock peddler, took Hayden along on his travels throughout the state, exposing him to the variety of forms that the “peculiar institution” could take. About 1830 he married Harriet Bell, also a slave. They had three children; one died in infancy, another was sold away, and a third remained with the couple. Hayden’s third owner, in the early 1840s, whipped him often. These experiences stirred his passionate personal hatred for bondage. Hayden secretly learned to read and write, using the Bible and old newspapers as study materials. By 1842, when he belonged to Thomas Grant and Lewis Baxter of Lexington, he began to contemplate an escape. Because his last owners hired him out to work in a local hotel, he had greater freedom than most slaves, which made it easier to flee. In September 1844 Lewis, Harriet, and their remaining son were spirited away to Ohio and then on to Canada West (now Ontario), by local teachers and Underground Railroad agents Calvin Fairbanks and Delia Webster....

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Martin, John Sella ( September 1832– August 1876), minister and abolitionist, was born into slavery in Charlotte, North Carolina, the son of Winnifred, a mulatto slave, and the nephew of his mother’s owner. He had one sister. In an eighteen-year period he was sold eight times. Martin taught himself to read and write. In 1856 he used those skills and his employment as a boatman on the Mississippi River to escape to Cairo, Illinois....

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James Mott. Right, with Gardiner Stow. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90671).

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Mott, James (29 June 1788–26 January 1868), merchant and reformer, was born at Cowneck (later North Hempstead), New York, the son of Adam Mott, a farmer and miller, and Anne Mott (Mott was both her maiden and her married name). Both parents were descended from a seventeenth-century Quaker emigrant from England, and Mott was brought up in a close-knit community of Long Island Friends. He received his education at a Friends’ boarding school at Nine Partners in New York’s Dutchess County. He excelled at Nine Partners and, after ten years, was appointed an assistant teacher and then a teacher. At the school he met Lucretia Coffin ( ...