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Thomas H. Jones
The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones
New Bedford: E. Anthony & Sons, Printers, 1885.


Thomas H. Jones originally published his memoir in order to raise money to purchase his son's freedom. The first edition of his narrative appeared in the mid-1850s—sources variably assert 1854 and 1855 publication dates—as an abolitionist pamphlet titled Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. After its initial publication, Jones continued to revise and reprint the narrative, and later editions appeared in 1855, 1862, 1868, 1871, 1880, and 1885. These publication dates, as well as the publishers that released the editions, remain a major source of critical conversation for Jones scholars. In each edition, Jones further develops the story of his time in slavery and capitalizes on popular abolitionist sympathies, promoting his cause and refining his image as a community and religious leader.

A summary of Jones's original 1850s narrative, which tells the story of his life in slavery until his escape to freedom, is available here. Jones made significant changes to his narrative before its 1862 reprinting, expanding the autobiography to include new personal details and meditations on his spiritual development. A summary of the 1862 version is available here.

The edition of Jones's narrative summarized here appeared in 1885. As he did with the 1862 publication, Jones alters the title and frontispiece of his work, hinting at the changing editorial aims of the entire autobiography. The original 1850s title refers to Jones as "Uncle Tom" and features a pipe-smoking caricature and an image of a rustic cabin, tying it to Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. With subsequent editions, Jones provides his full name—Thomas H. Jones—in the title and features a portrait of a well-dressed African American man on the frontispiece; the 1885 edition adds the designation of "Reverend." As earlier changes move Jones away from association with a fictional abolitionist character and toward the establishment of a man with developing social authority, the addition of "Reverend" underscores his focus on ministry and his prominence in both the Wilmington enslaved and Northern free African American religious communities.

The 1885 edition reprints Jones's expanded, 1862 edition of his memoir and also includes an addendum that describes his ministry during slavery as well as his experiences as a minister on the abolitionist lecture circuit after his escape. Jones uses the new, second part of his narrative to "rehearse a few additional experiences of [his] life while yet a slave" and describe his ministries in North Carolina, the British provinces, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain (p. 45). While Jones gives "a more particular account" of sentimental moments—such as his parting from his first wife, Lucilla Smith, his first meeting with his father, and his eventual purchases of both his father and mother from their respective owners—the major thrust of this portion of the narrative is his ministry (p. 45).

Jones provides detailed descriptions of the various religious meetings he conducts during his time under slavery "in the vicinity of Wilmington" (p. 62). His owner, Owen Holmes, supports these efforts, and Jones discusses conversions, baptisms, church attendance, and sermon themes, as well as encounters with patrols that discourage slave meetings and beat those who do not have written permission to attend. Jones also notes the intermixing of races at these gatherings. He often comments on the ways in which common religious devotion overcomes racial differences: "Whites prayed for blacks, and blacks for whites. All distinctions as between the different races seemed to have disappeared altogether, and everybody recognized a common bond of interest and endeavor" (p. 58).

Jones's observations on the social mingling of whites and African Americans at his religious services are not the only departure from the strict Abolitionist tenor of his earlier publications. The addendum to this final edition of Jones's autobiography complicates dualistic views of relations between free whites and enslaved African Americans in the South by juxtaposing earlier descriptions of his suffering under slavery and the unjust violence of racist whites with several sympathetic, and even fond, depictions of individual whites in that slave-holding community as well as instances of benign social interaction between the races. On one occasion, he visits a white household at dinnertime and sees the servants sitting at the same table as the master and his family. Jones is heartened by this unconventional gesture and concludes that the action "was due to the grace of God; it makes all one, regardless of color or condition" (p. 56). Further, Jones offers several descriptions of his third master, Owen Holmes, that show both admiration and affection, going so far as to refer to him as "abolitionist" at least "at heart." (p. 49). Jones writes sincerely of Holmes, "He did for me more and better than my own father could have done. He protected and provided for me as though I had been one of his own household. The memory of my relations to him and his dear family will ever be a pleasure to me while life shall last" (p. 60).

Such attention to the kindness of whites—seen also in Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes—is often a distinguishing feature of the postbellum slave narrative. As William L. Andrews notes, narrators such as Keckley "make a clear effort to distinguish between an unjust institution and the (white) people who ostensibly presided over and perpetuated that system" (p. 9). Andrews goes on to assert, "The postbellum narrator's attitude toward the slave past . . . is remarkably open to the proposition that something positive, something sustaining, can be gleaned from the slave past, even from the whites of that past, if only the ex-slave did not cling uncritically to the image of that past that antislavery writers of earlier generations had often insisted on" (p. 14). The fact that this 1885 edition appeared more than twenty years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may explain Jones's license to reveal the complex nature of human relationships by offering sentimental portraits of slaveholders. Jones may also have consciously included these moments as demonstrative acts of Christian love, as he often emphasized the ways in which "both whites and blacks . . . seemed to have an equal interest in the worship of God's house" (p. 57-58).

Jones concludes his 1885 narrative with a list of abolitionist lectures he conducted before Emancipation, noting various locations of his engagements, the membership of the congregations, and financial donations in support of his cause. He emphasizes the link between his ministry and his support for abolition, noting in a speech that his "purpose [was] to continue my labors in behalf of my brethren and sisters yet in bondage. I continued thus to labor in the cause of God and humanity down to the opening of the war of the Rebellion. Everywhere I went I proclaimed my belief that I should some day witness the downfall of slavery" (p. 74). Writing about his experiences after Emancipation, Jones is able to close his narrative with confidence, reviewing a life of hardships and successes and culminating in humble thanks for the support of friends as well as praise for "He [who has] answered the prayers of his suffering ones" (p. 74).

See also Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina [185-? edition].

See also The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years [1862 edition].

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., "Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley," Black American Literature Forum 23.1 (1989): 5-16; Davis, David A., Introduction to The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, in North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, & Thomas H. Jones, edited by William L. Andrews, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Jenn Williamson

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