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William Green former slave
Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green, (Formerly a Slave.) Written by Himself.
Springfield, MA: L. M. Guernsey, 1853.

Summary

Information provided here about the life of William Green is derived from his autobiography, which he wrote and published in 1853, approximately thirteen years after his escape from slavery. Green was born in Oxford Neck, located in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. His mother and other adult relatives were emancipated upon the death of their mistress, Miss Molly Goldsbury. However, the will stipulated that enslaved children, which included the three-month-old Green, would be freed upon coming of age. Despite being promised his freedom upon reaching age twenty-five, Green remained in slavery, as he was later sold outside of the family to Mr. Edward Hamilton. Nothing was said of the will's freedom provision, so Green was "handsomely cheated out of it" by being sold to an outsider who was under no obligation to honor it (p. 3). Green remained with Hamilton until his mid-twenties, at which point his master gave Green as a wedding present to his daughter, Henrietta Hamilton Jenkings, and her new husband, Dr. Solomon Jenkings. About a year after a violent confrontation with Jenkings, Green escaped north with another slave. They made their way with the assistance of fellow slaves, sympathetic whites, and Quakers, eventually reaching New York. With the assistance of anti-slavery sympathizers, Green eventually left New York and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he married and had four children.

Scholar Maxwell Whiteman describes Green's Narrative as a "significant minor production" within the slave narrative genre (p. i). The preservation and reprinting of Green's narrative is important because, as Whiteman observes, copies of such "pamphlet narratives"—shorter narratives circulated as part of abolitionist literature—are rarely found today (p. i). The Narrative contains many observations on the "blighting effects of Slavery" as well as political issues such as the Fugitive Slave Law and concludes with a poem titled "Anti-Slavery Song," presumably written by Green, which reinforces its clear abolitionist message (p. 5).

William Green begins his Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green with the explanation of the "unhappy lot" which falls to him as a three-month-old child. His mother, Matilda Jackson, is set free at the death of their mistress, while Green remains enslaved and is taken into the household of Mr. Nicholas Singleton (p. 3). Upon Singleton's death, Green becomes the property of Singleton's son, and the young man intends to take Green to New Orleans. Young Singleton's "object," Green's mother suspects, is "undoubtedly . . . to sell me and put me in his pocket" (p. 3). In distress, Jackson appeals to Singleton not to take away her son; Singleton relents, promising that if she finds someone to buy Green within one week he will "sell me and not take me away" (p. 3). Mr. Edward Hamilton agrees to purchase Green, who is "exchanged for a fine trotting horse" (p. 4). During this transaction, Green observes, nothing is said about the freedom provision in his original master's will, and thus, "I came into his possession a slave for life" (p. 4). Green refers to his new master as "humane" and "generally kind," but observes that kind treatment is "not a fair remuneration for labor; we wanted our liberty" (p. 4). Hamilton allows Green to live at home with his mother until age nine, at which time Green is brought into the Hamilton household as a servant. Around age twenty-five, Hamilton also employs Green as a horse-race rider for a period of time, until he raises moral objections and is returned to household service.

Green is given as a dowry upon the marriage of Henrietta (Henny) Hamilton to Dr. Solomon Jenkings and is taken into the Jenkings household as a servant. While Green describes a fond relationship with Mrs. Jenkings, he finds "the Doctor" to be "sour" and "morose" (p. 5). Green and Dr. Jenkings are often at odds, as Green resists orders and restrictions on his ability to do as he pleases. Although Mrs. Jenkings frequently intercedes on his behalf, eventually Green and the Doctor have a "quarrel" in which the Doctor attempts to whip Green, who retaliates (p. 12). In a scene reminiscent of the turning-point confrontation between Frederick Douglass and overseer Edward Covey in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the quarrel becomes a fist-fight. Green matches Jenkings "blow for blow, kick for kick" until the Doctor is forced to yield, humiliated (p. 12).

Approximately a year after this critical confrontation, Mrs. Jenkings dies, and the Doctor tells Green, "You hav'nt got your Miss Henny to beg for you now, and it will not be a great while before I get hold of you" (p. 13). Green, who is determined "not to let any one man whip me," recruits Joseph, "a young friend of mine with whom I had often talked about this freedom" and they make their escape (p. 14). Though the journey is perilous and they have to hide from searchers, Green and his friend travel north. They are assisted throughout the journey by sympathetic strangers—whites who warn them away from dangerous areas—as well as enslaved African Americans and Quakers who help them cross rivers or travel from the house of one ally to the next. At times, Green indicates, the aid comes at great personal risk to those who help them. While Green never refers to his helpers as members of the Underground Railroad, a pattern of organized and sympathetic assistance emerges, which suggests that he and his friend were aided by that organization.

Eventually, Green and Joseph reach Philadelphia, where they remain one night before traveling by boat to New York. Though they secure a boarding place and attempt to find work, Green and his friend run out of money after two weeks and decide to "throw ourselves upon the mercy of our landlady, and tell her our condition" (p. 20). Fortunately, their landlady is sympathetic and not only helps them escape recapture from constables who look for them at the boarding-house, but also helps them make contact with more "friends of the slave" (p. 21). These friends, whom Green says he "shall always hold . . . in kind remembrance," help Green and Joseph resettle in Springfield, Massachusetts (p. 21). Green closes his narrative from Springfield, where he is "trying to gain a respectable and honest livelihood," is married to a "helpmate, and . . . blessed with four fine children," and remains "thankful for all the blessings and comforts we are permitted to enjoy" (p. 21).

Works Consulted: Whiteman, Maxwell, "A Bibliographical Note," Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green, (Formerly a Slave.) Written by Himself by William Green, Philadelphia: Rhistoric Publications, 1969, i.

Jenn Williamson

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