Letters written by people who were enslaved in the United States are rare. Slaves were generally prohibited from learning to read and/or write, often with severe consequences threatened. Some did learn on their own, persevering under extreme circumstances. Others were taught by owners or by missionaries wanting to teach the Bible. A slave having these skills would frequently keep them secret. Some slave letters were actually written down or "transcribed" by sympathetic whites or by other slaves who could write. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that few letters exist. Those that do exist often reveal heart-felt sentiments toward family and human rights.
The following is a list of slave letters in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. These letters vary in content and most have no supporting information about the author. They do provide a glimpse into the lives of people who fought the odds to express themselves. Additional collections held in Rubenstein Library which document slave life are listed in Retrieving African-American Women's History. The descriptions of the letters are linked to catalog records of the larger collections of which they are a part in order to provide a fuller descriptive context.
Joseph Allred Papers, 1819-1864. Randolph Co., N.C.
The Allred Papers contains an August 29th, 1857 letter from Vilet Lester to Patsey Patterson, presumably the daughter of the family who once owned Lester. In this rich 2-page letter, Lester chronicles her sale and change of owners since leaving the Patterson family. In her efforts to locate the whereabouts of her own daughter, Lester gives voice to the feelings resulting from the forced separation of her family. This letter has been published in the 2nd edition of Roots of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (Northeastern University Press, 1996). Digital images and transcriptions of this letter are also available.
Neill Brown Letters, 1792-1867. Philadelphus, N.C.
The Neill Brown Papers includes an addendum to a June 26, 1821 letter written by John Fort, Jr. to Hugh Brown. The addendum is addressed to Master John and signed “your servant." The author refers to himself as black and reproaches Master John for turning his back to the blacks and preaching to the whites. He points to several areas of religious piety that discriminate against blacks such as Christians selling slaves to the highest bidder without considering whether the buyer is Christian or heathen. This letter has been transcribed and published in Blacks in Bondage, edited by Robert Starobin (New Viewpoints, 1974) pp. 116-117.
Campbell Family Papers, 1731-1969. Abingdon, Va.
During the years David Campbell served as governor of Virginia (1837-1841), he and his family moved into the governor's mansion in Richmond, taking several of their slaves with them, but leaving Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson to care for the homestead. Hannah and Lethe wrote to their mistresses and other slave family members during this time period. Three of Hannah's letters remain: November 1, 1837, written to her daughter, Eliza; January 30, 1838, written to her husband, Michael Valentine; May 2, 1838, written to her mistress Mary Campbell and one of Lethe's, April 18, 1838, to Miss Virginia Campbell. The letters provide a rare firsthand glimpse into the lives of slaves and the relationships they had with their owners. These letters have been transcribed and published in Blacks in Bondage, edited by Robert Starobin (New Viewpoints, 1974), pp. 64-77. Digital images and transcriptions of these letters are also available.
A letter dictated by Lethe Jackson's daughter Lucy Clarke to Clarke's son, Washington, April 11, 1843. This letter is in Virginia Campbell's handwriting. In the letter Clarke writes about the birth of her son, Washington's brother, gives him advice about how he should conduct his life, includes news of family members, and describes what is taking place on the plantation.
Addressed to his master, David Campbell Esqr., is also a letter from Jonathan Robinson in March 20, 1829 who states his extreme gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Campbell. Robinson mentions a letter he received from Mr. Campbell in the previous year which may have requested that he return to the Campbell homestead. Robinson states having a wife and six children and has accumulated enough to purchase a comfortable house and therefore could not move to presumably reunite with the Campbells again.
Professor Norma Taylor Mitchell wrote an essay focusing on Hannah Valentine's role within the Campbell family, published in Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women's History, edited by Janet L. Coryell et al, University of Missouri Press, Columbia (1998).
Louis Malesherbes Goldsborough Papers, 1827-1877. Washington, D.C.
The servant of J.R. Goldsborough, Henry Felson, wrote to Louis Goldsborough from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, apparently aboard the U.S. Frigate Macedonia. A notation on the letter indicates Mr. Felson is black, but it is unclear if he was or had been previously enslaved. In this April 22, 1838 letter, Felson apologizes for his conduct toward Mrs. Goldsborough and the servants. Felson goes on to describe his recent visits with other members of the Goldborough family and discusses various military matters.
Jack Hannibal Papers, 1878. Tuscaloosa, Al.
The Hannibal Papers consists of a letter dated August 9, 1878. Former slave Jack Hannibal writes to his former mistress in North Carolina from Tuscaloosa, Ala., in response to a letter he received from her. He indicates the letter from her is the first time he has heard any news from anyone in North Carolina since the day he left. He is anxious to hear about his friends and relatives. Specifically he inquires about whether his father and brother Ben are still living. He also wants her to write his two sisters in Florida so that she can let them know where he is. He writes he is living in the same place where he was sold after he left her. He states he had a good master who is now dead but that “I am still in good hands.”
Thomas Whitmel Harriss Papers, 1795 (1828-1873) 1891. Littleton (Halifax County) N.C.
Billy Branch, a blacksmith, writes to his master, Thomas W. Harriss, on May 10, 1837. Branch's house in Franklin County, N.C. has burned during the day while he was working at his shop at Peter Foster's mill. All his worldly possessions except the clothes he was wearing have been destroyed. He professes his own religious faith and appeals to Harriss' Christian charity to assist him during this difficult time. Another undated and unsigned letter in the collection is addressed to Thomas Harriss and concerns a runaway slave woman and her child.
John Richardson Kilby Papers, 1755-1919. Suffolk, Va.
On June 26, 1856, Randall Kilby, a slave who resettled in Liberia, responds to former owner John Kilby’s request for information. In the letter, Randall lists many names and describes living conditions. He states that they are greatly troubled with chills and sickness and requests medicines be sent. He displays some spunk at the end of the letter “Hope that all are well excepting Elijah Hampton for the Five Lick he gave me…” Additional letters dated Feb. 1, 1850; Jan. 27, Mar. 2, Apr. 18, 1854; and in 1855 are not written by ex-slaves but do discuss the American Colonization Society.
Joseph Long Papers, 1820-1902. Stephensburg, Va.
The Joseph Long Papers includes one letter written by Joseph Taper, living in Canada, to his former owner Joseph Long. In thisNovember 11, 1840 letter, Taper explains he was forced away but has no regrets because he and his family are able to make a living and attend school. Taper describes what is granted to "every colored man" who wants to settle in Canada. This letter provides some details of his experiences of getting to Canada. This letter has been transcribed and published in Blacks in Bondage, edited by Robert Starobin (New Viewpoints, 1974), pp. 150-153.
John Moore McCalla Papers, 1785-1917. Lexington, Ky. & Washington, D.C.
The McCalla Papers includes two letters from George Crawford written to Master John from Monrovia, Liberia. In his letter of May 3, 1834, Crawford reports that of 150 "emegrants" only 30 remain due to fever. He also advises, "this is not the place for a general imagration of the coloured people." In a letter dated September 25, 1836, Crawford describes lemons, shells and sea weed he would like to send to John McCalla and his family. There are large gaps in the letter due to physical deterioration.
Jacob Mordecai Papers, 1784-1936. Warrenton, N.C. and Richmond, Va.
Former slave Sarah (Sally) Norral writes to Jacob Mordecai’s daughter Emma on November 23, 1867 from Richmond, Va. Norral inquires after Emma’s health and reports on her own well-being. Norral briefly discusses politics and hopes “not to put strangers to rule our people.” She refers to troubled times and having faith to keep up spirits.
Also, letter dictated by a slave named Rebecca, to Judith Ellen Mordecai (grandaughter of Jacob Mordecai), August 29, 1852. In the letter, Rebecca expresses her condolences to Ellen upon the death of her husband Sam Fox Mordecai. It is unclear which of Ellen's cousins performed the dictation for Rebecca.
Person Family Papers, 1754-1971. Louisburg, N.C.
The Person Papers includes one letter (December 28, 1862) from Fannie, a slave, to her husband, Norfleet Perry. Perry was a personal servant to Theophilus Perry, who served in the Confederate Army. It is unclear if this letter was actually written by Fannie or dictated to her mistress. Fannie expresses her longing and love for her husband and refers to her extended family with whom she lives. For a discussion of this letter see: Campbell, Randolph B. and Donald K. Pickens. "Documents: 'My Dear Husband': A Texas Slave's Love Letter, 1862" Journal of Negro History 1980 v. 65, n. 4, p. 361-364.
Richard H. Riddick Papers, 1840-1879. Pantego, N.C.
Two letters dated November 1, 1850 and December 5, 1850 are from runaway slave Thomas Rightso to his father. The first letter appears to have been transcribed by Mrs. Ann Eliza James of Boston. The letters describe his escape “in the knight when the Moon was gon away…” and detail a plan to purchase his wife and children so that they can join him. The collection also contains newspaper accounts, correspondence, and a map documenting Riddick’s unsuccessful attempt to recapture a slave named Lewis who escaped to Boston in 1851. The slave letters have been transcribed and published in Blacks in Bondage, edited by Robert Starobin (New Viewpoints, 1974), pp. 153-156.
William Slade Papers, 1751-1929. Williamston, N.C.
An August 5, 1867 letter dictated by Fanny to “My dear sister” inquires after various family members. Her main concern, however, are her children and she asks that this letter be shown to Mr. Slade so that he can write to Mr. J. Paul Jones (who is writing this letter for Fanny) and tell all he knows “in connection with the sale of my children.” Fanny is living in Texas.
William Alexander Smith Papers, 1765-1949. Ansonville, N.C.
Some mystery surrounds copies of two letters credited to a William Smith. The first letter, dated April 12, 1842, is written to "Dear Son" and is a response to his son's request for assistance in escaping. Mr. Smith explains the details of the escape he has planned for his wife and son. These details include assumed names for both. The second letter is undated and is addressed to a Mr. Pemberton. Mr. Pemberton is apparently the person who will assist Mr. Smith's son and his wife. Mr. Smith is writing from Cincinnati. The connection to the William Alexander Smith family is unclear.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens Papers, 1822-1911. Crawfordville, Ga.
On March 26, 1860, Rody Jordan, who had just been sold, writes to someone named Pearce, whom he addresses as “Dear Brother.” He writes, “ I am now in Lee Co. not far from Albany. Belong to Leonadus A. Jordan and I am well pleased with my master & home.” He expresses his desire to know how his friends and family are and entreats Pearce to “write me immediately upon your receipt of this.”
Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas Diary, 1848-1889. Augusta, Ga.
The Thomas Collection includes photocopies of two letters written in 1905 and 1906 by Carrie Carr to her former owner, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas. In these letters, Carr describes her failing health and asks Thomas to pave the way for Carr to seek medical treatment from Thomas' son Julian, whom Carr had nursed as a child.
Phillis Wheatley Papers, 1770. Boston, Mass.
The Wheatley Papers consists of a November 12, 1770 letter transcribed by Phillis Wheatley while she was still a slave owned by the Wheatley family of Boston. The letter was written on behalf of Nathaniel Wheatley, who was the son of John Wheatley, who was Phillis' master. The letter is addressed to William Channing and refers his attempt to settle a legal case.
John Whitford Papers, 1829-1921. New Bern, N.C.
The Whitford Papers contains a letter written by Jack Williamson to his former master. In this October 8, 1864 letter, Williamson is asking for assistance; the horse he owns is at risk of being stolen and his crops are being damaged.
Recommended Secondary Sources
Numerous books have been published that describe slave life from the perspective of the slaves themselves. For a list of slave narrative and autobiographies, search the on-line catalog using the subject heading: Slaves--United States--Biography. The following books specifically address slave letters:
Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves edited by Robert S. Starobin
New York, New Viewpoints, 1974. (Includes information and transcriptions of slave letters found in the Campbell family papers and the Neill Brown papers listed above)
"When I Can Read my Title Clear" : Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South Janet Duitsman Cornelius University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia, 1833-1869 edited by Bell I. Wiley. Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Documenting the American South (DocSouth)
Documenting the American South is a collection of sources on Southern history, literature, and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century. The Academic Affairs Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors DocSouth, and the texts come primarily from its Southern holdings. One of the sections on the web site is titled "North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920." This section documents the individual and collective story of the African American struggle for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When completed, it will include all the narratives of fugitive and former slaves published in broadsides, pamphlets, or book form in English up to 1920 and many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves published in English before 1920. (Excerpted from the Documenting the American South web site)