U.Va. Library Acquires Unknown Slave Narrative

February 26, 2007
Feb. 27, 2007 -- The University of Virginia Library has acquired a previously unknown African-American slave narrative, which has been added to the University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

“Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery,” first published in Stratford, Ontario in 1869, was not listed in any library or bibliographic catalog. The 72-page autobiographical account relates the experiences of Henry Goings, a Virginia-born slave who escaped to freedom in Canada.

“It is unusual to find new examples that were previously unrecorded,” said Edward Gaynor, a curator at the Small Special Collections Library, who has been investigating the volume.

More than 200 book-length slave narratives are known to have been published in the United States and England between 1760 and 1947. The University of Virginia Library possesses 90 of them in their original editions among its large holdings of rare books and manuscripts relating to African-American history, literature and culture.

The library also has a large collection of plantation documents (many of which are on microfilm), passage records, Bibles, photographs and personal letters, including 150 from former slaves to John Hartwell Cocke, a Fluvanna plantation owner and an original member of the University’s Board of Visitors. Cocke, a planter, reformer, general and statesman, freed many of his slaves to emigrate to Liberia and many wrote back telling of their experiences in Africa, about the ocean passage and conditions in their new country.

“Much of the history of slavery was written from the owners’ records,” said Michael F. Plunkett, a Harrison Institute fellow and director emeritus of the special collections library. “These letters are significant because they give the history from the slave’s point of view.”

Slave narratives do, too. They are personal accounts by fugitive or former slaves of their experiences while enslaved and their attempts — not always successful — to gain freedom. Former slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, wrote and published their own accounts, while other stories were written or edited by abolitionist activists who thought circulating such accounts could aid their cause.

The authenticity of Goings’ account is supported by contemporary accounts. In 1855, Boston journalist Benjamin Drew traveled to Canada where he interviewed dozens of fugitive slaves from the United States. Among the interviews that he published the following year in “A North-Side View of Slavery,” is one given by a Henry Gowens of Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario. Gowens mainly talks about his life as a slave in Lauderdale County, Alabama, but adds “I shall give the particulars more in detail when I publish the whole history of my life to the people of the United States and Canada.”

“Close correspondence between several details from Gowens’ interview and those in Goings’ book make it almost certain that they were same the man,” Gaynor explained. Spellings of family and place names were fluid during the period.

According to Goings’ published narrative, he was the son of enslaved parents, Abraham and Catharine Turner, born in Virginia on the estate of James Walker, “within three miles of a place called Window Shades” — possibly Windsor Shades Plantation in New Kent County. His birth name was Elijah Turner. He was sold several times, married, and when it looked as if he were destined for Mississippi, he escaped. He assumed the name of Henry Goings, a free man of color, whose “free paper” he had purchased for $15. He then fled north, leaving his wife behind. As Henry Goings, he lived in various places in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, before settling in Canada.

“The commemoration of birthdays is a luxury unknown to expatriated Africans; in fact, there is little cause for grateful recollection of the day which added but another victim to a state of miserable servitude,” Goings said in his book.

Goings says that he owned a one-acre homestead in Chatham, Ontario, which he had to sell at one point to pay legal bills. The 16 December 1852 issue of the “Voice of the Fugitive,” Canada’s first black abolitionist newspaper, advertises the sale of a farm belonging to Henry Goings, thus corroborating Goings’ narrative and supporting its authenticity.

It is not known whether Goings penned his own account or whether it was dictated to an unidentified ghostwriter. The preface is dated 1864, but the volume, “Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery,” was not published until 1869. It was printed by J. M. Robb, a newspaper publisher in Stratford, Ontario, a city with links to the Underground Railroad movement.

The back flyleaf of the volume contains a penciled inscription by Nellie Mackyes of Onondaga, near Syracuse, N.Y. During the mid-19th century, Syracuse was a major center of abolitionist activity that supported anti-slavery societies in Canada. U.Va.’s special collections library acquired the volume in August 2006 from a New Jersey bookseller who had purchased it in the Syracuse area.

Narratives published by fugitive and former slaves are a fundamental resource for the study of 18th and 19th century American history and literature. These narratives provide first-hand accounts of slave life and relate the difficulties faced by African-Americans as they struggled against racism and second-class citizenship in the North.

“The need for and the power of these narratives did not diminish with the conclusion of the Civil War,” Gaynor said. “Former slaves documented their experiences of enslavement, both to remind Americans what had precipitated the Civil War and to continue the struggle for full inclusion in American society.”
Christian Dupont, director of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, said the library will pursue the re-publication of Goings’ narrative in print and electronic form. Currently, the volume may be consulted in the Small Library reading room.

About the U.Va. Library
With 13 physical locations as well as the original Rotunda, the U.Va. Library contains more than 5 million volumes, 17 million manuscripts, rare books and archives, and rapidly growing digital collections. The library is a leader in developing collections, tools and collaborations that foster scholarship at the University and worldwide. It is known in particular for its strength in American history and literature, as well as its innovation in digital technologies.