Confronting the Soul Destroyers
I will try to write a short account of my life, as nearly as I can remember, though it makes me sorrowful to think of my past days... very dark and full of tears. I always longed and prayed for liberty and had at times hoped that I would obtain it. I would pray and try to study out some way to earn money enough to buy myself by working in the night time. Then something would happen to disappoint my hopes and it seemed as though I must live and die a slave, with none to pity me.
I will begin. I was between two and three years old when the soul destroyers tore me from my Mother's arms, somewhere in Africa, far back from the sea. They carried me back a long distance to a ship; all the way back I looked back and cried. The ship was full of men and women with chains, but I was so small they let me run about on deck.
After many long days, they brought us into Charleston, SC. A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Ky. I suppose I stayed with him about six months. He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called. This man was considered a wonderfully kind master and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew. I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip but oh, my soul! I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell. My master often knocked me down when I was young. Once, at about nine years old, he struck me so hard I fell down and lost my senses. I remained thus for some time and when I came to myself, he told me he thought he had killed me. Another time, he struck me with a currycomb and sunk the knob into my head. I have said I had food enough; I wish I could say as much concerning my clothing.
I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored until dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner. When I was about 15 years old, I took what was called the cold plague in consequence of being overworked and I was sick a long time. My master came to see me one day, and hearing me groan with pain, he said, "This fellow will never be of any more use to me. I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum." His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head. But I have said enough of this. The Lord at length raised me up from my bed of sickness but I entirely lost the use of one of my ankles. Not long after this, my master moved to Arkansas territory and died. Then the family let me out but after a while, my mistress sent for me to carry on the plantation, saying she could not do without me.
My master kept me ignorant of everything he could. I was never told anything about God or my soul. Yet from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. It was my heart's desire. I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave. I looked back on all I had suffered and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hoppers bondage. My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.
After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself. After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks. I could weave one in about eight hours and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week. I sold them for 50 cents each. One summer, I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak and I was obliged to sleep more. With my first money, I bought a pig. The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next, about $30.
There was a good deal of wild land in the neighborhood that belonged to Congress. I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches which I planted with corn…got up at night to tend it. My hogs were fattened with this corn and I used to sell a number every year. Besides this, I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs. In this way I worked five years. At the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160. With this money I hired my own time for two years. During this period, I worked almost all the time, night and day. The hope of liberty stung my nerves and braced my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest. I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before. At the end of two years, I had earned $300 besides feeding and clothing myself. I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money. Here I earned enough to buy myself, including what I gave for my time, about $700.
As soon as I was free, I started for a free state. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city. I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge. I asked for admission to the seminary. They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the studies which were required for admission. I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution. But in all respects I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own. Thanks to the Lord, prejudice agsint color does not exist at Lane Seminary! If my life is spared, I shall probably spend several years here and prepare to preach the gospel.
In the year 1828, I saw some Christians who talked with me concerning my soul and the sinfulness of my nature. They told me I must repent and live to do good. This led me to the cross of Christ, and then, oh how I longed to read the Bible! I made out to get an old spelling book, which I carried in my hat for many months until I could spell pretty well and read easy words. When I got up in the night to work, I used to read a few minutes, if I could manage to get a light. Indeed, every chance I could find, I worked away at my spelling book.
After I had learned to read a little, I wanted very much to write and I persuaded one of my young masters to teach me. But the second night, my mistress came in, bustled about, scolded her son and called him out. I overheard her saying to him, "You fool! What are you doing? If you teach him to write, he will write himself a pass and run away." That was the end of my instruction in writing, but I persevered and made marks of all sorts and shapes that I could think of. By turning every way, I was, after a long time, able to write tolerably plain.
I have said a good deal about my desire for freedom. How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave and yet be contented. I do not believe there ever was a slave who did not long for liberty. I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make people in the free states believe that slaves are happy but I know likewise that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.
There is one thing people do not understand. When they ask slaves whether they wish for their liberty, they answer, "no" and very likely they will go so far as say they would not leave their masters for the world. At the same time, they desire liberty more than anything else, and have, all along, been laying plans to get free. The truth is, if a slave shows any discontent, he is sure to be treated worse and worked the harder for it; every slave knows this…they are careful not to show any uneasiness when white men aske them about freedom. When they are alone…all their talk is about liberty, liberty, liberty! It is the great thought and feeling that fills the mind full all the time.
By James Bradley, written in 1834 for The Oasis