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Henry Bibb


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(1815–1854), fugitive slave narrator and journalist.

Henry Bibb is best known through his Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, which was first published by Bibb himself in 1849. While Frederick Douglass gained credibility through his assertion of authorship and by way of the introductions composed for his narrative by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, Bibb enjoyed no such reception and was forced to subvene the publication of his own story. The narrative is rich in detail, including an account of Bibb's use of “conjuring” to avoid punishment for running away, and the use of “charms” to court his slave wife. Bibb also gives eloquent testimony to the conditions and the culture of slavery in Kentucky and the South. John Blassingame describes it as “one of the most reliable of the slave autobiographies,” and it firmly established Bibb, together with Douglass and Josiah Henson, as one of the leading antebellum slave narrators.

Bibb was born on 10 May 1815, one of seven children. His mother was a resourceful woman named Mildred Jackson, and his father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb. He was owned by Willard Gatewood on whose plantation he served an early life of misery. His siblings were sold away to other plantations, and in his frustration and anger he attempted escape and suffered horrible punishments. He was sold to six different owners, ultimately escaping to Detroit where he became active in the antislavery movement and abolitionist lecture circuit. Outraged by the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its Fugitive Slave Act, Bibb is said to have remarked, “If there is no alternative but to go back to slavery, or to die contending for liberty, then death is far preferable,” a clear echo of Patrick Henry. As he was an escaped slave, he emigrated to Canada, an action appropriated by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the character of George Harris, who rejects America for Canada. In Canada Bibb became a journalist and founded Canada's first Black abolitionist newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive. Bibb devoted much of the decade preceding the Civil War to activities supporting the removal of American slaves to Canada, collaborating with the Underground Railroad. He viewed Canada as a safety zone for escaped Negroes and purchased a two thousand-acre tract of land near Windsor, Ontario, to become a center for Negro culture. He organized the North American Convention of Colored People, a group that opposed the colonization of African Americans back to Africa. He died young, at age thirty-nine, in 1854. His Narrative provides a superb picture of life on the plantation even as it censures slavery as inhuman oppression.

Roger W. Hite, “Voice of a Fugitive: Henry Bibb and Antebellum Black Separatism,” Journal of Black Studies 4.3 (Mar. 1974): 269–284.John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, 1979.Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Slave's Narrative, 1985.William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1986.Charles Heglar, ed., Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, 2000.


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