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Henry Bibb, 1815-1854
Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself
New York: Author, 1849.


Henry Bibb (1815-1854) was born in Shelby County, Kentucky. His father was state senator James Bibb, and his mother was a slave named Mildred Jackson who worked for Willard Gatewood. Henry Bibb was married twice, once before his escape to a slave named Malinda, and again after his escape to a woman named Mary Miles. In 1842, Bibb began lecturing on slavery and became a well known African American activist. In 1849 he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Bibb helped create Canada's first black newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive a publication that worked to convince African slaves to settle in Canada. He was also the founding director of a Canadian black colonization project, the Refugee Home Society. He died in 1854.

Lucius C. Matlack, author of the introduction to Bibb's Narrative, was born on April 28th, 1816, in Baltimore. He was a member of and preacher in the Union Church in Philadelphia and was recommended to join the Philadelphia Annual Conference, but because of his abolitionist beliefs, his application was rejected and he was removed from the Local Preachers' Association. He lost his preaching license in 1839. Matlack continued to preach anyway, even under threat of expulsion, and in 1839 he was ordained a junior preacher in Massachusetts. He eventually helped organize the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, with which he remained affiliated for the duration of his life. During the Civil War, he served as an army chaplain, working his way up the ranks to colonel, and in 1867 the Philadelphia Annual Conference reversed their previous decision and welcomed him back into their conference. He spent the rest of his recorded life preaching throughout the eastern United States.

Bibb begins his narrative by recalling his birth in 1815 to a slave woman named Mildred Jackson. Though he never knew his father, Bibb was told that he was the son of a white man named James Bibb. Mildred was also the mother of six other boys after Henry. Henry and the rest of his family were the legal property of a slaveholder named David White, a widower with a little girl around the same age as Henry. While she was being schooled, Henry was loaned out as a laborer to neighboring farms; his wages were used to pay for her schooling.

As a young teenager, Bibb was sold to a man in Newcastle, Kentucky, named Mr. Vires, whose wife treated Bibb poorly. Recalling the abuses he received in that household, Bibb says that the Vires' cruelty inspired him with a desire to escape. He would run away for days at a time, and though they would beat him for it, he never gave up. Eventually they grew tired of his escapes and returned him to Mr. White, who was now remarried to a woman Bibb describes as a "tyrant" (p. 16). Mr. White began to hire Bibb out again, and again he resumed his escape attempts.

In 1833, at the age of eighteen, Bibb was introduced to his future wife, Malinda, a slave who lived on a farm four miles from Bibb. At first he was reluctant to get romantically involved with her because he knew that such a relationship would impede his aspirations to freedom, but the more he spent time with her, the more he was distracted from his goals. Though everyone except for Malinda's owner opposed their union, they entered into a common-law marriage since legally binding marriages were a privilege withheld from slaves by most slaveholders. After marrying Malinda, Bibb was moved from farm to farm until, because of fear that he would run away to see his wife, he was contracted to labor for the Malinda's slaveholder. He quickly became disturbed at seeing the abuses that his wife was subjected to, and even more so once Malinda gave birth to their daughter, Frances, who was likewise abused.

In December of 1837, Bibb made another, more successful, bid for freedom. He left his wife and child without their knowledge and crossed the Ohio River into the free state of Indiana. From there he took a steamboat to Cincinnati, all the while hiding his identity from those onboard. In Cincinnati, he came into contact with the Underground Railroad and started on his journey to Canada. Along the way many people helped Bibb while others refused, but his greatest assistance came from a small community of African Americans, many of whom were themselves fugitive slaves. In Canada he found work and saved enough money for a return trip to Kentucky and his family.

Bibb met with his family in a joyous reunion and quickly made plans for their escape. He traveled to Cincinnati to await their arrival, but while he was there, two men professing to be abolitionists came and spoke to him, offering their help in his escape. But when these men obtained the name and address of his owner, they betrayed him, and a mob soon came to recapture him. They shipped Bibb downriver, offering him money to assist in the capture of other slaves, but he refused. Bibb eventually learned that he was not in fact returning to his family, but was to be sold further south. He was able to escape again from his captors in Louisville, Kentucky, where they were attempting to sell him, and he headed back to Bedford to attempt to rescue his family once again. The guard placed on his family was so strict, however, that he was forced to abandon his attempt to liberate them for a space of time. He left instructions for his wife to meet him in Ohio as soon as the excitement about his escape had died down, and then took his leave up the river once again.

Again Bibb was betrayed and captured and sent to a slave prison, where he was unexpectedly reunited with his wife and child. He contrived to be sold with his family to a pious-looking man named Whitfield, who turned out to be a horribly abusive and neglectful slaveholder. They suffered many atrocities at his hands, including the loss of his second child, whose mortal illness was caused by neglect. Bibb escaped yet again only to be recaptured when he returned for his family. This cycle of escape, return, and recapture occurs a few more times before he finds himself in the hands of a Cherokee slaveholder and separated from his family. His new owner was comparatively liberal and provided for his slaves, but before long he passed away and Henry made another break for Canada. He again attempted to find his wife, only to learn that she was living with another man and had given up hope for a reunion. Neither this event nor the many captivities he endured quelled his spirit entirely, and he ultimately found his freedom.

Bibb finishes his narrative with the earnest hope that "this little volume will bear some humble part in lighting up the path of freedom and revolutionizing public opinion upon this great subject" (p. 204). Following the narrative is a section titled "Opinions of the Press," which features several of "the many favorable notices of the Press which this volume has received" (p. 205).

Henry Bibb was above all determined in his dream of freedom and never gave up no matter how hard it got. He loved freedom, but he was not willing to sacrifice the lives and freedom of those he loved and several times he risked recapture to save them. Though he was recaptured several times that never dampened his spirit and ultimately he found his freedom.

Works Consulted: Landon, Fred, "Henry Bibb, a Colonizer," The Journal of Negro History 5.4 (1920): 437-447; Wheaton History A to Z, "Lucius C. Matlack," 11 Dec. 2011.

Matthew Connell

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