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.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

So much of what has reached across time to me about my ancestor has been unbearably painful, yet there’s much to be proud of too. William Grimes was an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. He defied the will of his master and the power of slavery itself. By writing his story, he boldly claimed a free identity and brazenly challenged a new democracy:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a
slave, I would in my will leave my skin as a legacy to the government,
desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then
bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. Let the skin of an
American slave bind the charter of American liberty!

Regina E. Mason is the co-editor of the 2008 Oxford University Press scholarly edition of Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (with William L. Andrews). She is producing a documentary entitled Gina’s Journey, the story of how she recovered the life of her great-great-great-grandfather. She can be reached at