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Lunsford Lane, b. 1803
The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin. Published by Himself
Boston: J.G. Torrey, Printer, 1842.


Born in Raleigh, North Carolina on May 30, 1803, Lunsford Lane was the only child of Clarissa and Edward Lane. His mother was a house servant enslaved to Raleigh planter and bank agent Sherwood Haywood, and his father was the slave of a neighbor. During his teen years, Lane began profitable ventures as a woodcutter and tobacconist, and by 1834 he had saved enough money to buy his freedom. A North Carolina law barring free blacks from entering or residing in the state frustrated his goal of purchasing his wife and the rest of his growing family. Despite his associations with prominent citizens of Raleigh, Lane was forced to leave North Carolina in 1840. He arrived in Boston after a short stay in New York and began raising funds by telling his story at anti-slavery meetings. By 1842 he had enough money to purchase his family. When Lane returned to Raleigh to complete the transaction, he was arrested on grounds of having delivered abolitionist lectures in Boston. The authorities released him, but a mob tarred and feathered him, and he feared for his life. Lane was able to buy his family's freedom the next morning, and although another mob pursued him to the train, he was able to escape to Philadelphia with his wife, children, and mother. The Lanes soon relocated to Boston, where Lunsford published his Narrative within a few months. Though little is known about his subsequent life, there is some evidence that he continued to speak publicly about his experiences. Austin Willey, for instance, names him among the speakers at an 1848 Massachusetts state anniversary. According to William Hawkins' 1863 biography, Lane had practiced as a physician while still living in Raleigh, and after his arrival in Boston he began to market herbal medicines. The 1870 census, the last to include him, lists Lane as a physician and a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Four editions of The Narrative of Lunsford Lane were published in the 1840s, all in Boston. The first appeared in 1842, and the second edition (reproduced here) came out the same year, "without any enlargement or material alteration," due to quick sales of the first (p. ii). The third edition was published in 1845 and the fourth in 1848, also without any significant alterations. The "friend" who helped Lane edit his account, "bringing this Narrative into shape for the public eye," has not been conclusively identified (p. iv). Cynthia Current remarks in her biographical sketch of Lane that the Narrative is unusual because it describes comparatively mild treatment during his enslavement and a more violent life afterward. In Lane's own words, the Narrative "dwel[ls] as little as possible upon the dark side," but his account of fearing for his life at the hands of a mob and his descriptions of unending legal persecution belie the "bright" account he promises (p. iv).

From childhood on, Lane occupies what he calls a "comparatively . . . happy, indeed a highly favored" position for a slave (p. iii). He expresses thanksgiving for not having been born "a plantation slave, nor even a house servant under what is termed a hard and cruel master" (p. iv). At age ten or eleven, however, Lane begins to suffer emotionally from the knowledge that he is enslaved. At about the same time, he earns thirty cents by selling a basket of peaches given to him by his father and begins to plan to purchase his freedom. He spends his nights cutting and selling wood and then, at a suggestion from his father, develops a new and popular mode of preparing tobacco and becomes a well-known tobacconist, supplying members of the North Carolina General Assembly and other customers.

In 1828 Lane marries Martha Curtis, also a slave. After the birth of the couple's first two children, Lane's wife is sold to Raleigh merchant Benjamin Smith, who refuses to provide food and clothing for her or her children, most likely because Lane's income is sufficient to meet his family's needs. Providing these necessities consumes Lane's savings, and he despairs of ever purchasing his freedom, until his master dies; Mrs. Haywood allows Lane to compensate her for his time and to pursue his own business ventures, in spite of a law against such practices. To ensure his safety, Lane is careful to avoid the appearance of accumulating wealth. He also manages to cultivate friendships with many of Raleigh's elite white citizens.

By 1834, Lane has saved one thousand dollars, and he arranges with Mrs. Haywood to purchase his freedom. His manumission is formally recorded in New York in 1835. In addition to continuing his tobacco and woodcutting businesses, Lane goes to work in the office of North Carolina Governor Edward Bishop Dudley. In 1839 he purchases a house, and while he is unable to raise the negotiated price to redeem his family ($2,500), he arranges to make yearly payments, and Smith permits them to live with Lane. The next year, however, Lane receives a notice demanding that he leave North Carolina within twenty days because it is unlawful for "any free negro or mulatto to migrate into this State" (p. 25). In the Narrative, Lane reproduces the text of both the note and the law in question, along with a number of letters concerning his ensuing legal troubles.

Although 25 prominent citizens sign his petition to the North Carolina General Assembly to extend his residence until he can purchase his family, the proposal is defeated. In May 1841, Lane travels to New York with his daughter Laura, whom Smith releases to him. They proceed to Boston, and by February 1842 Lane acquires the remainder of the needed sum through contributions. Both Smith and Governor John Motley Morehead assure Lane that although the Governor has no legal authority to permit him to enter North Carolina, he is unlikely to encounter danger when he returns to purchase his family.

Two days after Lane's arrival, police summon him and charge him with having delivered abolitionist lectures in Massachusetts. During an impromptu hearing, Lane explains that he has made speeches recounting only the facts of his life, and only in order to raise money. He additionally produces the letter in which the Governor has promised him a safe stopover. The court accepts his statements and discharges him, but Lane's wealthy friends are unable to protect him from public outrage, and that night a mob seizes him and drags him first toward the gallows, then into the woods. Lane expects to be hanged. Instead he is able to convince the mob that his ambition to pay for his family's freedom is incompatible with abolitionist principles. Satisfied with his answers, they tar and feather him rather than hang him, then express "great interest in [his] welfare" and encourage him to stay as long as necessary to secure his family's freedom (p. 47). This reprieve is short-lived; the next morning a "mobocratic portion" of Raleigh's population follows him to the train station, and Lane's wealthy friends help him escape. In his Narrative, Lane notes the marked distinctions between the "first men and the more wealthy," who are his friends and protectors, and the less genteel "rabble" who seek to kill him (p. 42). On Tuesday, April 26, 1842, Lane leaves North Carolina with his family, including his mother, whom Mrs. Haywood permits to accompany them. They arrive safely in Philadelphia and then proceed to Boston, where friends provide them with provisions and clothing. Lane continues to cultivate friendships with members of the abolitionist community.

As an appendix to his Narrative, Lane reproduces the Bills of Sale for his wife and children, explaining that his readers might be curious to see this evidence of "trade in human beings" (p. 53). Also included at the end of the text is the poem "The Slave Mother's Address," by Joshua Pollard Blanchard.

Lane's Narrative is noteworthy because of his apparent resistance to identifying as an abolitionist and his determination to earn money to pay for his family, both of which could be considered signs of a commitment to working within the system of slavery. And yet it is hard to believe that Lane accepted the slave system, when he also describes the loss of his savings and delay of his freedom as the "very night of despair" and includes numerous accounts of the legal obstacles and even violence that obstruct his desire to take his family to a free state (p. 14). His real goal, despite his friendships with wealthy white slave owners, was to escape to a state where slavery was illegal and free blacks were bound by fewer restrictions. Lane refers at the end of his Narrative to the "spirit-bruised (worse than lash-mangled) victim[s] of oppression" that he prays might experience liberty. In a speech delivered at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1842, Lane is reported to have said, "I never professed that my heart was full of abolition, but I now stand on this platform and say, that if any man ought to be an anti-slavery lecturer, Lunsford Lane is the man" ("Anti-slavery Meeting"). William Andrews calls Lane a "Franklinesque role player whose success was due as much to his shrewd manipulation of appearances as to his industry, frugality, and perseverance" and suggests that Lane continued to manipulate his appearance after his arrival in Boston, in order to prosper in his new home (Andrews 116).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986; "Anti-slavery Meeting: A Whole Family Set Free," New York Evangelist (1830-1902); May 26, 1842; 13, 21, available from American Periodicals Series Online, accessed April 3, 2010; Bassett, John Spencer, Anti-Slavery Leaders of North Carolina, ed. Herbert B. Adams, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1898, available from Documenting the American South, accessed February 17, 2010; Blassingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977; Cotten, Alice R., "Lane, Lunsford," in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 4, ed. William Stevens Powell, 14-15, available from NetLibrary, accessed March 4, 2010; Current, Cynthia, "Lane, Lunsford," in African American National Biography, Oxford African American Studies Center, online database, (accessed February 25, 2010); Evans, Tampathia, Introduction to The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, in William L. Andrews, North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003; Hawkins, William G., Memoir of Lunsford Lane, Boston: Crosby and Nichols, 1863, available from Documenting the American South, accessed February 25, 2010; McCarthy, B. Eugene and Thomas L. Doughton, From Bondage to Belonging: The Worcester Slave Narratives, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007; North Carolina General Assembly, Slaves and Free Persons of Color, available from Documenting the American South, accessed March 16, 2010; Willey, Rev. Austin, The History of the Antislavery Cause in State and Nation, Portland, Maine: Brown Thurston, 1886, reprinted by Mnemosyne, Miami, Florida, 1969.

Erin Bartels

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