Recently, I’ve read four 19th century biographies and autobiographies of men and women who escaped slavery in the South. If you want to read about what slavery was really like in that time, these classic books will let you hear the stories in the words of those who experienced it.
Sarah Hopkins Bradford, Harriet, the Moses of Her People.
This biography, written by a white friend of Harriet Tubman gives a firsthand account of the amazing life of an amazing woman who bravely made so many trips to the South to rescue over 300 of her people along the “Underground Railroad.” The author is somewhat patronizing toward African-Americans, yet beautifully portrays the unwavering Christian faith that sustained Harriet through it all, and the events surrounding her that some call “supernatural.” Her story has recently been made into the film, Harriet.
Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave.
The most dramatic story I have read of someone escaping slavery is that of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped in New York, and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he suffered until his dramatic rescue. Northrup himself vividly describes his experiences, which shows the cruelty of slavery in the Deep South. The events surrounding his rescue will have you on the edge of your seat. No wonder this was made into an Academy Award Winning film!
Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself.
This account of a female former slave, using the name Linda Brent, shares graphic details of brutality and especially sexual abuse by white owners. There is a constant tension between Linda and her owner, Dr. Flint, whose affections she continually rejects. Although a true story published at the outbreak of the Civil War, it reads like a novel, and I read it quickly. It gives so many insights into slave life in the South, and even discrimination against blacks in the North.
Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave.
This true story was the basis for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I downloaded it and read it in one day. Henson was an industrious man with great leadership and organizational skills. The storyline moves quickly and is so emotional, that it overcomes the 19th century formal writing style. I highly recommend this short read to get a feel for the heartless institution of slavery in the South.