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Ball, Charles (1781?–?), fugitive slave, soldier, and memoirist, was born on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, Maryland, the son of slave parents whose names are unknown. When Ball was four years old his mother and siblings were sold to slave traders to settle their late master’s debts; he never saw them again. Ball was sold to John Cox, a local slaveowner, and continued to live near his father and grandfather. After the sale of Ball’s mother, his father sank into a deep depression, eventually escaping from slavery on the eve of his purchase by a slave trader. Ball became close to his octogenarian grandfather, a former African warrior who had arrived in Maryland around 1730....

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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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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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Northup, Solomon ( July 1808–1863?), author, was born in Minerva, New York, the son of Mintus Northup, a former slave from Rhode Island who had moved to New York with his master early in the 1800s and subsequently been manumitted. Though Solomon lived with both his parents and wrote fondly of both, he does not mention his mother’s name or provide any details regarding her background, except to comment that she was a quadroon. She died during Solomon’s captivity (1841–1853), whereas Mintus died on 22 November 1829, just as Solomon reached manhood. Mintus was manumitted upon the death of his master, and shortly thereafter he moved from Minerva to Granville in Washington County. There he and his wife raised Solomon and his brother Joseph, and for the rest of his life Mintus remained in that vicinity, working as an agricultural laborer in Sandy Hill and other villages. He acquired sufficient property to be registered as a voter—a notable accomplishment in those days for a former slave....

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Smith, Venture (1729?–19 September 1805), slave, entrepreneur, and autobiographer, also known as Broteer Venture, was born in Dukandarra, Guinea, the eldest child of Saungm Furro, a prince. His mother, whose name is unknown, was the first of his polygynist father’s three wives; she took five-year-old Broteer and her two younger children with her when she left her husband to protest his marrying the third wife without her consent. After traveling for five days over about 140 miles, she left Broteer with a farmer before returning to the country where she was born. This farmer treated Broteer like a son, employing him for a year as a shepherd, until the boy was sent for by his father. Returning to Dukandarra, Broteer found his mother and father reconciled....