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William Greenleaf Eliot, 1811-1887
The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863
Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company; Old Corner Bookstore, 1885.


Archer Alexander (ca. 1813-ca. 1880) was born outside of Richmond, Virginia, into a life of slavery. When he was a young boy, his father, Aleck Alexander, was sold away by his master, a man named Mr. Delany. Archer never saw or heard from his father again. When Archer was 18 years old, Delany suddenly passed away, leaving his oldest son, Thomas Delany, in charge of Alexander and his family. When Delany decided to leave home for Missouri, Alexander was chosen to go with him, a decision that separated the young slave from his mother for the rest of their lives. Once in Missouri, Archer met a slave woman named Louisa who lived nearby and "was regularly married to her with religious ceremony, according to slavery usage in well-regulated Christian families" (p. 40). To keep the couple together, Thomas sold Alexander to Louisa’s master. For the next 20 years, Alexander and Louisa lived together in a cabin, raising ten children. In February of 1863, Archer was accused of secretly feeding Union troops information and was ordered to go before an examination committee to be judged. Archer saw mortal danger in reporting to the committee and escaped to St. Louis, obtaining employment working at the home of William Greenleaf Eliot; he continued working for the Eliot family for the remainder of his life. Eliot, the author of the narrative, remained a close and loyal friend to Alexander and his family. After his arrival, Louisa and one of their daughters, Nellie, ran away from their master and joined him in St. Louis. On January 11, 1865, all slaves in Missouri were freed. Louisa died shortly thereafter, and Alexander remarried a twenty-five year-old woman named Judy. Together, the newly married couple moved into their own house, the first Alexander had owned in his life. Judy died in 1879, one year prior to Alexander’s death in St. Louis, Missouri, around 1880.

William Greenleaf Eliot (1811-1887) was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When he was a young child, his family moved to Washington D.C., where he attended Colombia College, graduating in 1830. Eliot later attended Harvard Divinity School and was ordained a pastor when he graduated in 1834. Twenty years later, Harvard Divinity conferred a doctorate in divinity upon him. Eliot then traveled to St. Louis, where he founded the "First Congregational Society of St. Louis." He was also twice elected president of the St. Louis public school board. Eliot furthered his work in education by helping to establish Washington University in St. Louis, and in 1869 he became chancellor of the university. Throughout his life, William Eliot labored for the emancipation of slaves. He died on January 23, 1887.

The Story of Archer Alexander, From Slavery to Freedom (1885) is an account of Archer Alexander’s lifelong battle for freedom. Eliot adds supplemental material at the beginning and at the end of the narrative to help frame and contextualize the events. He begins by referencing a statue commemorating the abolition of slavery recently erected in Washington, D.C., and called Freedman’s Memorial. Unbeknownst to him, Alexander was the slave whose image the statue memorializes. Eliot records Alexander’s words when he is shown a photograph of the monument: "Now I’se free! I thank the good Lord that he has ‘livered me from all my troubles, and I’se lived to see this" (p. 88).

Eliot begins the biography portion of the narrative in the year 1828 with the introduction of Aleck Alexander and his yearning for freedom. He is later sold as a punishment for becoming "too uppish" (p. 25). Eliot describes in great detail the pain that Aleck’s spouse and family feel at the sudden, permanent separation from him. The importance of families is a theme throughout the narrative and is amplified when Archer Alexander, Aleck’s son, leaves his mother to accompany his master Thomas on his journey to Missouri. Alexander’s memory of his mother continues to help and guide him throughout his life. When asked at the end of his life if he still remembered his mother, Archer replies, "Yes, sir, I remembers her like yesterday. Seems like I never forgets her, nohow. ‘Specially when trouble comes, and I’ve had a heap of that" (p. 32). Once in Missouri, family continues to play an important role in the narrative, as demonstrated by Archer’s marriage to a slave woman named Louisa. After his union, Archer is sold to his wife’s master, Mr. Hollman. Eliot describes Archer’s new master as a Christian man who looks upon slavery as a "patriarchal institution, sanctioned by divine law" (p. 41). Hollman trusts Archer due to his faithful nature; Archer reciprocates this goodwill and does not blame Hollman for his sufferings, even when some of his children are sold away for misbehaving.

The evils and injustices of slavery are constantly explored in the narrative and become a driving force in the actions taken by Alexander throughout. Though he and his family enjoy what they consider relatively liberal treatment, Eliot reminds his readers that, "Under the best of circumstances, the best condition of slavery was worse than the worst condition of freedom—I doubt if a man or woman could be found who would exchange freedom, such as it is, for the old relation under the best master that ever lived" (p. 29). This oppression leads Alexander to run away from his master. He thinks to himself, "Go for your freedom, ef you dies for it" (p. 48). The narrative describes Alexander’s sensational escape, from not only his own master, but the slave-catchers who capture him and take him to a boarding house to spend the night before being taken to a new master in the South. Instead of settling for a continued life of slavery, Alexander miraculously climbs out of a high window and avoids a ravenous dog long enough to slip away from his pursuers. His desire for freedom allows him to reach St. Louis and secure his freedom.

Once in St. Louis, Archer is hired as a gardener at the home of the author, William Eliot, with whom Alexander forms a close friendship. Eliot tries to help Archer legally secure his freedom and writes a letter to Hollman, his former master, so that Archer can buy his freedom. Soon thereafter, Alexander finds himself captured again by slave-catchers and thrown in a prison to await transportation back to Hollman’s plantation. Eliot, however, is able to find Alexander with help from local city leaders and arranges to have Archer’s captors arrested on a military arrest warrant. The slave-catchers, upon learning of their impending arrests, leave St. Louis without Alexander. Looking back, Alexander is able to forgive the men involved, saying, "I don’t feel hard against them, sir, though they was rough and most killed me" (p. 73). Wary of writing Hollman again, Alexander arranges for his wife and as many children as possible to escape from Hollman instead. Eliot documents the escape of Louisa and her daughter dramatically and portrays the risks many slaves and abolitionists encountered on the road to freedom.

Having chronicled the family’s reunion, Eliot describes the laws passed in Missouri that gave freedom to the slaves within their state: a gradual emancipation ordinance passed in June, 1863, followed by the conclusive act in January, 1865. Eliot ends the biographical portion of the narrative detailing Archer’s final days and how he relished in the freedom he fought so hard to secure. According to Eliot, "his last words were a prayer of thanksgiving that he died in freedom" (p. 87).

The portion following the biographical account of Archer Alexander is made up of Eliot’s own thoughts on slavery in the Border States as well as a brief account of events that led to freedom for slaves in Missouri and the social struggle that ensued. Three additional appendices follow that help to explain the narrative. The first appendix discusses the institution of marriage in slavery, both the limitations and the social advantages involved. The second appendix unveils the conditions of the union troops stationed in Missouri and the charity they received from the citizens. The third appendix outlines and describes additional military actions in Missouri.

Works Consulted: Eliot, Charlotte, "William Greenleaf Eliot," in Heralds of a Liberal Faith, Vol. III, ed. Samuel Atkins Eliot, Boston: The American Unitarian Association,1901; Eliot, Charlotte, William Greenleaf Eliot, (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1904).

Alex Hymas

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