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W. Mallory, b. 1826
Old Plantation Days
[Hamilton, Ontario?: s.n., 1902?].


Little is known about the life of William Mallory (1826-1907) aside from the account provided in Old Plantation Days. According to the narrative, he was born to enslaved parents near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1826 and was sold at the age of seven to a man named Leblanc before being given to Susten Allen, whom Mallory introduces as "a member of the White House" (p. 3). Whether or not Allen was involved in politics is unclear, and while Mallory describes living in Washington, D.C., a biographical blurb appended to the narrative suggests he was enslaved in Louisiana, a more likely location for the cane field that serves as the setting of an incident in the narrative. After escaping to Hamilton, Ontario, in 1859 or 1860, he returned to America during the Civil War to fight for the Union Army. When the war ended, Mallory opened his own hay, straw, and wood business and became a missionary, often speaking and writing on behalf of black Canadian interests. He died April 18, 1907, after collapsing in downtown Hamilton while peddling copies of Old Plantation Days.

Records suggest that Mallory's narrative was received with great enthusiasm by readers in Hamilton, where the book was first published in 1895. An article printed that July in The Hamilton Herald praises the author's "long and interesting career" and reprints a letter comparing Mallory to Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and William Shakespeare. Moreover, the existence of a third edition of Old Plantation Days, printed in 1902 or 1903, suggests that the book continued to enjoy enough success to warrant subsequent publications. In addition to the autobiographical narrative, the third edition also includes stories by unidentified authors describing Mallory's heroism as well as that of his father and brother. It concludes with a set of hymns, possibly written by Mallory, because they are unlike several of the poems in the narrative, which were reprinted, with minor changes, from other sources.

Old Plantation Days provides few details of Mallory's early life and mentions his family only briefly. Foreshadowing his escape, Mallory also notes his early questioning of the master-slave relationship. "I thought it was strange that I should have to call him master," Mallory remembers, "and I thought it was stranger still that he should be allowed to whip the negroes till the blood flowed" (p. 3). After Mallory is separated from his parents, he becomes the property of Leblanc—a man he identifies as "a half-brother" of Harriet Beecher Stowe's villainous Simon Legree.

Mallory is later sold to Susten Allen, whom he suggests is a government official (p. 3). While in Washington, D. C. with Allen, Mallory learns about Canada—"a land where slavery was unknown, and where the negro could live free and untrammeled"—by listening to conversations among politicians (p. 3). The flogging and subsequent death of a field worker on the Allen plantation prompts him to consider fleeing. The brutal beating, Mallory writes, "impressed itself on my mind and showed me the vital necessity of escaping to freedom if I ever wished to call my life my own" (p. 4).

Mallory's chance to escape comes in 1860. After being separated from his fellow fugitives, Mallory continues on his own toward Canada, surviving freezing weather and narrowly escaping capture on several occasions. In one particularly dramatic anecdote, a white man claims to be an abolitionist and invites Mallory into his home only to alert slave-hunters of the runaway's whereabouts. Thanks to his quick thinking and remarkable speed, he escapes with only slight injury. After Mallory's brief stay with a farming family near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, two men on horseback accuse him of being a runaway slave, but become frightened by the sight of a dagger in Mallory's hand and return to the village. Mallory flees on foot, hiding in swamps, barns, and outhouses and relying on "Providence" (p. 9). With the help of abolitionists along the Underground Railroad, he finally makes his way to Hamilton, Ontario around the time of Abraham Lincoln's election, a circumstance Mallory emphasizes with an overview of Lincoln's presidency and death. He also includes a poem honoring Lincoln, although he borrows much of it from an earlier poem by Phillis Wheatley.

When the Civil War breaks out, Mallory returns to join the Union Army. Mallory claims to fight in the Battle of Bull Run, Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Because Gettysburg was fought during the concluding battle at Vicksburg, his participation in both is highly unlikely, but Mallory's account indicates his desire to place himself in the war's most important engagements. Likewise, his promotion to the rank of colonel after Bull Run is doubtful, as Lt. Col. Alexander T. Augusta is frequently cited as the highest-ranking African American in the Civil War. Mallory is honorably discharged, "rewarded with the consciousness that we had assisted in liberating millions of our brethren from bondage and had freed them forever from the hand of the oppressor and the whiplash of slavery" (p. 16). Upon returning to Hamilton after the war, Mallory establishes his own business and becomes a missionary, calling for black Canadians to carry the Christian gospel to "dark Africa" (p. 17). He visits Africa and praises the "great vigor" of the missionary work taking place in "that benighted country" (p. 17). Mallory's narrative ends by describing the political honors he receives late in life and presenting his life as evidence of the possibilities Canada holds for African-Americans: "this only goes to show that the colored man, by honesty, industry and sobriety, combined with self-respect, may hold up his head and move on terms of equality with the white people in this fair country of Canada" (p. 19).

While the contradictions and apparent fabrications in William Mallory's autobiography make discerning fact from fiction challenging, they also provide the text with much of its interest. Like Mallory's connection between his own freedom and the election of Abraham Lincoln, his inclusion of significant contributions to Union victory underscores the relationship between his personal successes and those of African Americans on a larger scale. Moreover, the willingness of Hamiltonians to accept the image Mallory constructs of himself reveals the author's remarkable ability to recreate his own identity, perhaps the ultimate exercise of his freedom.

Works Consulted: "An Appreciative Tribute," The Hamilton Herald, 26 July 1895; "Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System," National Park Service website, referenced 9 March 2009; "Colonel William Mallory Dead," The Hamilton Spectator, 19 April 1907; Henley, Brian, "Ex-slave won Hamilton's Heart," The Hamilton Spectator, 08 Feb 1997, W3.

Christy Webb

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