Voices From the Past: The Filson's Slave Narrative Collection

By Ebert Haegele
Reference Specialist

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The Filson Historical Society collects, preserves and shares the significant stories of Kentucky and theLewis Clarke (a slave who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and fled to Canada), and Milton Clarke (the brother of Lewis Clarke, a slave who also escaped to freedom). Ohio Valley history and culture. In keeping with its mission, The Filson’s slave narratives, part of the Library’s Rare Book Collection, tell the story of slavery in Kentucky as told by those who suffered from its injustices the most. These works offer researchers a rare insight into Kentucky’s dark past, and also enlighten the present generation to the daily struggles African Americans faced while slaves and during Reconstruction. They share the stories of the good and the bad, the horrors of slavery and the indomitable spirit to overcome injustice in the world. They also serve as a constant reminder to people of all races where we have been and how far we have yet to go. 

The Bluegrass State was the gateway to freedom for many slaves, but it also served as a grim reminder of evil in the world for those who were enslaved within its borders. Those who dared to escape, such as Lewis and Milton Clarke, were often forced to take fake names and live in constant fear of slave catchers. The catchers had authority to travel into the North and across state borders to capture fleeing slaves. In Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke among the Slaveholders of Kentucky (1846), the Clarke brothers shared their story in an attempt to spread abolitionist thought and enlighten the Northern states to the horrors of slavery. Lewis Clark escaped from slavery in Kentucky and fled to Canada. He soon Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, the first pastor of The Beargrass Baptist Church, tells how he transformed himself into "God fearing" soldier in the Union Army. returned to Kentucky to lead other family members to freedom. Lewis and his brother Milton then toured the Northeast, lecturing on their experiences. They devoted their lives to the abolitionist cause even though it disheartened them to find, “most ministers say they are abolitionists, but truth compels me to add that, in talking with them, I find many are more zealous to apologize for the slave holders then they are to take any active measures to do away slavery.” 

Although many of the slave autobiographies are tragic, they often provide an underlying sense of inspiration. In the Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs (1885), Marrs, the first pastor of The Beargrass Baptist Church, tells how he transformed himself from a slave to a “God fearing” soldier in the Union Army, fighting for his people’s freedom. Marrs lived the first 20 years of his life as a slave, served 19 months in the military and then devoted his free life to education and spreading the Gospel. Upon reaching freedom, many slaves looked for ways to improve their lives and the lives of their people. These slaves, such as the Rev. J. W. Loguen, used their new lives to preach the Gospel, not just in church but also by living for their fellow brethren. In his autobiography, The Rev. J. W. Loguen as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life (1859), Loguen tells of his life as a slave, and then as a free man and how he spread the Gospel to his African American people. 

The Refugee (1856), is a collection of narratives from free slaves who escaped slavery and settled in upperThe title pages to "Life and History" and "The Refugee" Canada. This collection of stories contains 117 stories connected thematically. They all search for the answer to the question: “How much longer in the name of God, shall my people remain in their state of degradation under the American republic.” Although many of the African Americans in this book were scared to share their story, they did so in hope that they could inform the world of the atrocity of slavery.

 These works are a sample of the numerous slave narratives in The Filson’s Library. Along with The Filson’s slave schedules from our census collection and the extensive manuscripts in Special Collections, these books offer a broader sense of slavery in both Kentucky and the United States. By placing these priceless treasures from America’s past in the Rare Book Collection, The Filson ensures they will endure for future generations.

Volume 7, Number 1

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