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Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave

Annotated Edition

Hank Trent

Publication Year: 2013

The American Anti-Slavery Society originally published Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave in 1838 to much fanfare, describing it as a rare slave autobiography. Soon thereafter, however, southerners challenged the authenticity of the work and the society retracted it. Abolitionists at the time were unable to defend the book; and, until now, historians could not verify Williams's identity or find the Alabama slave owners he named in the book. As a result, most scholars characterized the author as a fraud, perhaps never even a slave, or at least not under the circumstances described in the book.

In this annotated edition of Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Hank Trent provides newly discovered biographical information about the true author of the book -- an African American man enslaved in Alabama and Virginia. Trent identifies Williams's owners in those states as well as in Maryland and Louisiana. He explains how Williams escaped from slavery and then altered his life story to throw investigators off his track. Through meticulous and extensive research, Trent also reveals unknown details of James Williams's real life, drawing upon runaway ads, court cases, census records, and estate inventories never before linked to him or to the narrative. In the end, Trent proves that the author of the book was truly an enslaved man, albeit one who wrote a romanticized, fictionalized story based on his real life, which proved even more complex and remarkable than the story he told.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xlviii

The fugitive who arrived at Emmor Kimber’s home on Christmas Day 1837 seemed different from the numerous enslaved people the wealthy old Quaker had helped along the Underground Railroad over the years. Like many, James Williams arrived alone, tired, poorly clothed, and afraid of capture. But as he rested and talked about his years in slavery, he impressed Kimber not only ...


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pp. 1-1

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pp. 3-27

“American slavery,” said the celebrated John Wesley, “is the vilest beneath the sun!”2 Of the truth of this emphatic remark no other proof is required than an examination of the statute books of the American slave states. Tested by its own laws, in all that facilitates and protects the hateful process of converting a man into a “chattel personal”;3 in all that stamps the law-maker and ...

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pp. 29-130

I was born in Powhatan County, Virginia,1 on the plantation of George Larrimore, sen.,2 at a place called Mount Pleasant,3 on the 16th of May, 1805.4 My father was the slave of an orphan family whose name I have forgotten, and was under the care of a Mr. Brooks, guardian of the family.5 He was a native of Africa, and was brought over when a mere child, with his mother. My mother ...

Note by the Editor

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pp. 131-135


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pp. 137-144


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pp. 145-145

A. George Larimer’s Letter

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pp. 147-150

B. Poisoning Trial Transcript

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pp. 151-155

C. Runaway Ads

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pp. 156-157

D. Recapture in Baltimore

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pp. 158-160

E. Slatter v. Holton

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pp. 161-177


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pp. 179-190

E-ISBN-13: 9780807151037
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807151020

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 860711623
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave