Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Samuel Spottford Clement
Memoirs of Samuel Spottford Clement Relating Interesting Experiences in Days of Slavery and Freedom
Steubenville, Ohio: Herald, 1908.

Summary

Nothing is known about the life of Samuel Spottford Clement other than what he relates in his Memoirs. According to Clement, he was born into slavery in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, on November 13, 1861, on a farm owned by James Adams. Both of his parents were born in the same area, his mother on a farm owned by Edward Franklin, and his father on a farm owned by James Clement. In 1863 Clement, his mother, and his brothers were sold to the Ward family, who lived near Lynchburg, Virginia. According to stories Clement heard while growing up, the field hands at the Ward farm were able to hear the gunfire from the battle of Appomattox Court House. The battle occurred when Clement was three years old. The Wards convinced the Clement family to remain on their farm until Christmas 1865, after which Clement's father found work as a tenant on another farm nearby. Clement attended a Virginia public school as a child and briefly taught school before embarking on a series of coal mining and construction jobs in western Virginia. In 1883 he arrived in Steubenville, Ohio, where he lived out most of the rest of his life, working in construction and serving one term as town constable. He was the first elected black official in his county. Clement dictated his autobiography to a young girl named Sarah Ovington and published it in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1908. The date of Clement's death is unknown, but he considered himself to be on his deathbed while completing his narrative.

Clement's Memoirs begin with the story of the sale of him, his mother, and two brothers when he is eighteen months old. By convincing Dr. D. Ward to buy all four of them, Clement's mother is able to keep her family together, and they go to live near Lynchburg with Ward's brother Tasswood and his wife, who treat them cruelly. When the field hands on the Ward farm hear the sounds of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, according to Clement, they pray "in concert that the Yankees might win the fight" (p. 9). On April 12, 1865, three days after the surrender, Tasswood Ward summons his slaves and proclaims, "'Men and women you are as free as the birds that fly in the air,'" after which he reads aloud a newspaper notice of Lee's surrender (p. 9). Ward offers a part of the spring crop to any slaves who stay to help harvest it. All but one of the slaves agree to stay until Christmas.

Clement's father appears in the narrative late in 1865, when he arranges to move his family to a farm fifteen miles from Ward's in order to work the land for a share of the crops. Clement's older brothers work for other farmers for wages, and his mother also hires out her labor. In early childhood, Clement attends a summer school for two months but is abused by white boys along his route to school. After free Virginia public schools are established, he attends one for nine winters. He continues to go to school until he is fourteen and then begins a series of jobs: he works on a farm, teaches, and delivers mail. In his late teen years, he "determine[s] to leave that poor section of the country" and "go North to get rich," having seen his schoolmates return from the North at Christmas "with pockets full of money, fine clothes and telling of wonders they saw while away" (p. 12).

After a short stint mining coal in western Virginia, he leaves his home state to save money to marry his childhood sweetheart Emma. He meets a recruiter for a coal mine in West Virginia and travels there by rail with his friend Sidney. Although he dislikes the work, he has to stay long enough to pay off his passage. Clement finally saves eleven dollars and travels up the Ohio River looking for work. He crosses into Ohio in 1883 and finds a job working on a tunnel at Mingo Junction, near Steubenville. He makes "large money" but spends it frivolously and saves too little money to travel home for his appointed wedding day (p. 20). Emma marries another man. During the next ten years, Clement works at Mingo Junction, sells whiskey, and occasionally travels into Pennsylvania to work on other construction projects. In 1890, he marries a woman named Saphorna Braxton. In 1891, Clement travels home to Virginia to visit his parents for the first time in ten years. He plans his train journey so that he is able to stop at Harpers Ferry and Charleston, West Virginia, to visit the "historical spot where John Brown started the great wheel a-rolling that ultimately freed 4,500,000 of human slaves" and the "sacred spot" where "the martyred John Brown gave up his life that the American Negro might be free" (p. 24). Back in Steubenville, Clement defeats five white men for a nomination for constable in 1895; he goes on to win the election by 524 votes and is "declared the first negro elected in the county by the popular vote of the people" (p. 27). He is not re-elected for a second term, partly because he is tricked into infuriating Steubenville's citizens by trying to seize the altar, chairs, and organ belonging to a church in order to cover its debts. Another official asks him to confiscate the property, in order to enjoy a joke at Clement's expense and turn voters against him. In addition, Clement makes political enemies by stubbornly pursuing a charge against a man who has more political clout than Clement initially believes. Once the election is over, however, both the man who tricked him into taking the church property and the man against whom Clement pursued the charge become some of his best friends. After his defeat, Clement works as a wagon driver.

Clement convinces his father to move to Ohio in 1895, and Robert Clement remains in Steubenville until his death in 1897. He enjoys his life in the North, although his Southern manners sometimes conflict with the choices Samuel makes in order to succeed politically. Clement explains his various political connections and his friendships with publicly important white men. He includes tributes to a long list of friends, most of them white, and finally to his wife. Clement finishes his narrative by describing the hemorrhages and possible tuberculosis that keep him bedridden for seven months, and from which he expects to die.

Works Consulted: Murphy, Laura, "Clement, Samuel Spottford," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 2, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Erin Bartels

Document menu