“Into the inner life of the Negro Race”: Highlights from Black Authors, 1556-1922
The September release of Black Authors, 1556-1922: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes Louis Hughes’ heart-pounding and heart-wrenching autobiography as well as several works of fiction by prolific author Sutton Elbert Griggs.
Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter (1897)
By Louis Hughes
In 1832, Louis Hughes was born a slave on a plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. Writing of his early life, Hughes quickly captures his readers’ attention:
My father was a white man and my mother a negress, the slave of one John Martin. I was a mere child, probably not more than six years of age, as I remember, when my mother, two brothers and myself were sold to Dr. Louis, a practicing physician in the village of Scottsville.
After the doctor’s death, the family is again sold and eventually separated. Hughes writes movingly about the last time he saw his mother:
…she bade me good-bye with tears in her eyes, saying: “My son, be a good boy; be polite to every one, and always behave yourself properly.” It was sad to her to part with me, though she did not know that she was never to see me again, for my master had said nothing to her regarding his purpose and she only thought, as I did, that I was hired to work on the canal-boat, and that she should see me occasionally. But alas! We never met again. I can see her form still as when she bade me good-bye. That parting I can never forget.
Hughes tells of several daring escape attempts and his recapture before eventually succeeding and finding his way to Union-held territory. Risking recapture and certain death, he soon went back behind Confederate lines and successfully rescued his wife.
Offering far more than a tale of adventure and emancipation, Hughes provides interesting perspective on life behind Confederate lines during the war.
Describing the funeral for fallen Confederate soldier Mack Dandridge, Hughes writes:
…it was not until late in the evening that his father and mother came down to view the body for the first time. I remember, as they came down the broad stairs together, the sorrow-stricken yet calm look of those two people. Mrs. Dandridge was very calm—her grief was
too great for her to scream as the others did when they went in. She stood and looked at her Mack; then turning to Boss, she said: “Cousin Eddie, how brave he was! He died for his country.” Poor, sorrowing, misguided woman! It was not for his country he died, but for the perpetuation of the cruel, the infamous system of human slavery.
Under the heading, “Slaves Hung and Left to Rot as a Warning,” Hughes writes of the terror tactics used by the Confederates:
Two slaves belonging to one Wallace, one of our nearest neighbors, had tried to escape to the Union soldiers, but were caught, brought back and hung. All of our servants were called up, told every detail of the runaway and capture of the poor creatures and their shocking murder, and then compelled to go and see them where they hung. I never shall forget the horror of the scene – it was sickening. The bodies hung at the roadside, where the execution took place, until the blue flies literally swarmed around them, and the stench was fearful. This barbarous spectacle was for the purpose of showing the passing slaves what would be the fate of those caught in the attempt to escape, and to secure the circulation of the details of the awful affair among them, throughout the neighborhood. It is difficult at this day for those not familiar with the atrocities of the institution of slavery to believe such scenes could ever have been witnessed in this or any other civilized land…
Selected works by Sutton Elbert Griggs
Sutton Elbert Griggs was born in Chatfield, Texas, in 1872. He attended Bishop College and Richmond Theological Seminary before becoming a pastor of the First Baptist Church in Berkley, Virginia. Griggs wrote over thirty books and pamphlets in his lifetime, often selling them door-to-door and at revival meetings.
Included in this month’s release are three of Griggs’ early novels: Overshadowed, Unfettered, and The Hindered Hand. The following are extracts from the prefatory material of those novels.
A farmer who is planting corn in a fertile field, halts beneath the shade of a huge oak to rest at noon. Accidentally a grain of corn drops from his bag, finds lodgement in the soil, and in time begins to grow. The grains that fell in the field will have their difficulties in reaching maturity. There is the danger of too much water, of the drought, of the coming worms. But the grain that came to life under the oak has its peculiar struggles. It must contend for sustenance with the roots of the oak. It must wrestle with the shade of the oak. The life of this isolated grain of corn is one of continuous tragedy. Overshadowed is the story of this grain of corn, the Anglo-Saxon being the oak, and the Negro the plant struggling for existence.
It is the aim of Unfettered to lead the reader into the inner life of the Negro race and lay bare the aspirations that are fructifying there. Those who come to these pages in quest of pen pictures of either angels or demons, are not likely to find what they seek, for our story has to do with human beings, simply. That is, we should say, with the exception of—but you will make your own exceptions when the tale is fully told.
The Hindered Hand: The Reign of the Repressionist (1905)
SOLEMNLY ATTESTED.—Upon a matter of such tremendous importance to the American people as is the subject herein treated, it is perhaps due our readers to let them know how much of fact disports itself through these pages in the garb of fiction.
We beg to say that in no part of the book has the author consciously done to view them, amid which conditions he has spent his whole life, up to the present hour, as an intensely absorbed observer.
If in any of these pages the reader comes across that which puts him in a mood to chide, may the author not hope that the wrath aroused be not wasted upon the inconsequential painter, but directed toward the landscape that force the brush into his hand, stretched the canvas, and shouted in irresistible tones: “Write!”