William Wells Brown
Born on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814, William Wells Brown was the son of a white man and an enslaved woman. Living principally in and around St. Louis, Missouri until the age of twenty, Brown was exposed to and experienced slavery amid remarkably wide-ranging conditions. William worked as a house servant and field slave and was hired out as an assistant to a tavern keeper, a printer, and the slave trader James Walker, who voyaged extensively, traveling to and from the New Orleans slave market on the Mississippi River. After at least two failed attempts, Brown did escape slavery on New Year's Day, 1834. Aided in his flight from Ohio into Canada by the Quaker Wells Brown, William adopted the man's names out of gratitude and admiration. For the next nine years, Brown worked aboard a Lake Erie steamboat while concurrently acting as an Underground Railroad conductor in Buffalo, New York.
Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, theNarrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself.
Brown's earliest memories are of serving as a house servant, first near Lexington, Kentucky, and then in Missouri. Later, when his master, Dr. Young, pursues his political career and is absent from the plantation, Young subjects his slaves to the cruel tyranny of Mr. Cook, the overseer. Once Dr. Young relocates to just outside St. Louis, both Brown and his mother are hired out. Working under the harsh Major Freeland, he first attempts escape; yet, the young Brown is treed quickly by hounds and severely whipped upon his return.
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. 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.
As a 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" 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. They entered into a common-law marriage since legally binding marriages were a privilege withheld from slaves by most slaveholders.
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 waited for his family in Cincinnati, but two men betrayed Bibb to his owner. Bibb was recaptured and shipped down river where he escaped yet again. He left word for his family to meet him in Ohio. The cycle of escape and capture repeats several more times until Bibb discovered his wife had taken up with another man. He abandoned hope of being reunited with her and fled to Canada.