In the Wake of 12 Years, More Slave Narratives Deserve Attention

William Grimes was the first fugitive slave to tell his harrowing tale of life on the run from his masters.

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Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

In 1825 my maternal grandfather three times removed, William Grimes, wrote and published the first fugitive slave narrative in America—Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Published in New York at a time when black autobiography was rare, this life story was written by Grimes after his master from Savannah, Ga., issued him an ultimatum: Either pay $500 for freedom, or be sent back to Savannah in chains. My grandfather gave up the deed to his home, the roof over his family's heads, to pay for so-called freedom in Connecticut, where he had lived as a fugitive for nine years. He wrote his story to recoup money from his self-purchase and, in the process, unwittingly initiated a new literary genre, the American slave narrative.

My ancestor's story was a precursor to Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography, which became the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. As I watched that movie and the public's reaction to it, I realized that finally, the American public might be ready to explore a relationship with slavery that we've never had before. And the basis for that dialogue is coming, quite powerfully, from the voices of those who lived it.

Born in 1784 in King George, Va., William Grimes was, by law, a bastard and a slave. His father, Benjamin Grymes Jr., was a wealthy white planter; his mother remains an anonymous enslaved woman owned by a Dr. Stuart on a neighboring plantation. I discovered my ancestor's book following clues about this ancestor Grimes, which my aunt Katherine Webb had given me when I was a child. But strangely enough, no one in the family knew he had written his life's story.

Nevertheless, after the day I found a reprinted version of this man's narrative in a local bookstore, my life would never be the same. I would spend 15 years authenticating his words and linking him to my family. Yet nothing I had ever read about slavery had prepared me for his story.

William was 10 years old when he was sold to Col. Thornton of Montpelier near the Blue Ridge Mountains. He grew up like a wild weed without a surrogate slave family to embrace him and was repeatedly driven from the house servants' circle by those looking out for their own interests.

He fared no better in the field under malicious slave drivers, who were often black. Col. Thornton kept his slaves poorer than most and hungrier, too. Once, William, so starved for meat, ate hog entrails that had been thrown out a few days earlier. "Before morning," he wrote, "I was so much swollen I liked to have died." 

The pages of his book reeked of blood and gore from knock-down-drag-out fights he had with other slaves during his teen years. William went from house servant to field hand to valet and carriage driver before being sold out of state to a Jewish man in Savannah, Ga. Rebellious, he would be sold several more times to business cohorts in urban Savannah before he escaped North when his final owner, named Welman, left him to hire his time out when the family traveled to Bermuda.

Casket, a brig from Boston sat in the harbor; William went to assist in loading the vessel. There he met black Yankee sailors who befriended him. A hideaway was made amid cotton bales where he took refuge when the vessel set sail for New York. From there, he was directed on foot to New Haven, Conn. 

For years, William lived in constant fear of capture; he had been spotted numerous times by relations of both current and former masters. Always on the go, he lived in a half-dozen New England cities, where he started a variety of businesses that had only marginal success due to scrapes and run-ins with jealous white competitors and selectmen eager to shut him down. Eventually he returned to New Haven, met and married a free black woman named Clarissa Caesar, and began working at Yale College as a barber and servant.

Fearing that his former master was on his trail, William retreated to the town of Litchfield, where he set up a barbershop. For all of his foibles, he was an industrious man; eventually he bought land and a building near the Tapping Reeve Law School, where the students, even the governor, frequented. Soon after, his worse nightmare came true. Master Welman sent an emissary with the power to send William back to Savannah in chains.

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