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Octavia V. Rogers Albert (Octavia Victoria Rogers), 1853-1889?
The House of Bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, Original and Life Like, As They Appeared in Their Old Plantation and City Slave Life; Together with Pen-Pictures of the Peculiar Institution, with Sights and Insights into Their New Relations as Freedmen, Freemen, and Citizens
New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1890.

Summary

Little is known about Charlotte Brooks other than the material in her 1890 biography, The House of Bondage. The biography written by Octavia V. Rogers Albert has become the authoritative text on her life and experiences. Albert (1853-1889?) was born Dec. 24, 1853, in Oglethorpe, Georgia. After the Civil War, she attended Atlanta University and studied to be a teacher. Through her teaching career, she was able to meet Dr. Aristide Elphonso Peter Albert, whom she married in 1874. Octavia converted to the Methodist Church in 1875 and became a strong advocate for education and the "American religion," as she called it, from that time forward. The Alberts also used their religious and educational background to help former slaves. Octavia and her husband taught reading and writing lessons from their home and taught frequently from the Bible. In 1879, Octavia met Charlotte Brooks for the first time and later decided to interview her, as well as other former slaves from Louisiana, for a biographical sketch of slavery's "House of Bondage." These sketches were originally published in the Methodist newspaper Southwestern Christian Advocate but were not compiled into book form until 1890, after Octavia Albert's death.

Rather than provide a comprehensive chronology of the events in Charlotte's life, Albert focuses on episodes that illustrate hostility from slave masters, as well as the ways in which religion influenced the slaves' everyday lives. In addition to interviewing Charlotte Brooks, Albert interviews several other former slaves, including John and Lorendo Goodwin, Lizzie Beaufort, Colonel Douglass Wilson, and a woman known merely as Hattie—though Charlotte's interviews make up the bulk of the text. These anecdotes are woven together to provide a harrowing image of the horrors suffered by slaves, as well the progress that former slaves are able to make through education.

Albert's biography of "Aunt Charlotte" begins four years after Charlotte arrives in Louisiana, after being sold as a slave in Virginia. At this time, Jane Lee, another female slave from Virginia, was purchased by a nearby plantation, and the two become fast friends. Though they are not related, Charlotte explains, "I felt that she was [family] because she came from my old home" (p. 8). Jane tells Charlotte that she was forced to leave her children behind in Virginia and it "almost killed her to think of them" (p. 8). Despite threats from her master, Charlotte visits with Jane on Sundays to learn about the Bible. Jane would "read about the Hebrew children" (p. 11) and sing hymns like the ones Charlotte heard from her mother back in Virginia. It is through these continued visits that Charlotte claims she "finally got religion" (p. 11).

Jane eventually becomes the leader of a make-shift religious group on the plantation. Though Charlotte is forbidden by her master to have a prayer meeting, they devise a means to avoid getting caught in their religious activities. Charlotte remembers that "when we met to hold our meetings we would put a big wash-tub full of water in the middle of the floor to catch the sound of our voices when we sung" (p. 12). These religious meetings provide comfort to Charlotte, as well as a social opportunity for her to meet slaves from nearby areas.

Around this same time, Charlotte's first child dies "for want of attention" (p. 14). Her master's son who fathered her child never notices or bothers to take care of it. Charlotte reflects mournfully that she had more children, but "they all died" (p. 14). Despite these hardships, Charlotte's faith in God is not shaken. "Sometimes," she comments, "I don't have bread to eat; but I tell you, my soul is always feasting on my dear Jesus. Nobody knows what it is to taste of Jesus but them that has been washed by him. Many years ago, my white folks did not want me even to pray, and would whip me for praying, saying it was foolishness for me to pray. But the more old marster whipped me the more I'd pray. Sometimes he'd put me in jail; but, la, me! it did not stop me from praying" (p. 16).

In addition to describing her own struggles, Charlotte relates stories she has heard from Jane Lee about other cruel slave masters. Jane tells her about a pretty slave named Nellie who was forced to wear men's clothing as a punishment for her good looks and pale skin (p. 21). Nellie also gave birth to a child while on the road, and was forced to give it away since she had no way to care for it. Sam Wilson, another slave owned by Nellie's master, avoided similarly cruel punishments by hiding out in the Louisiana swamp at the peril of his life. A slave at Charlotte's prayer meeting named Richard suffers because his wife lives on another plantation and their masters do not approve of the time they spend together. Patrollers catch Richard at his wife's home many times, and threats of punishment eventually force him to jump out the window and escape through the swamp. Richard risks his life to visit and remain faithful to his wife because "Richard loved Betty, and he would die for her" (p. 25). Charlotte also compares the bondage of slaves to that of the children of Israel in Egypt (p. 31) who need God to deliver them from their burdens.

Charlotte and Alberts also discuss the social changes that took place during Charlotte's time as a slave. When talk of the Civil War begins in Louisiana, Charlotte's master hears a slave named George talking about freedom, and consequently puts out his eye and gives him "nine hundred lashes" for speaking out (p. 40). Later, her master is thrown from a horse-pulled carriage, which Charlotte views as retribution for his treatment of George and other acts of abuse. Charlotte also addresses the temperance movement, and claims that whisky causes "more suffering among the colored people than slavery, or as much, any way" (p. 52). Because of these hardships, Charlotte is glad when the "Yankees" fight to free them, and she believes that "God sent them down here to set us free" (p. 55).

Albert also interviews Colonel Douglass Wilson about the political and social issues after the Civil War. The Colonel refers to the year 1866 as a "perfect reign of terror" (p. 138) where "hundreds" of colored people are innocently killed in a political protest against Louisiana being readmitted into the Union. Of this incident, the Colonel says, "the streets of New Orleans were flooded with negro blood. Hundreds of them were killed without any knowledge of the murderous intentions of their enemies" (p. 139). Though emancipated, the prejudice against former slaves continued to subject them to horrible, inhumane acts of violence and oppression.

Despite these remaining problems, Albert closes her narrative with a call to religion, and praises to God. She invites more missionaries in the South to help the "millions" of "lately emancipated souls" who are plagued by "superstition" (p. 57). Through education and religious faith, Albert believes, the slaves will find solace for their suffering. In recalling the heroic and tragic stories of the slaves she interviewed, Albert ends her biography expressing gratitude for the eradication of slavery: "Let us all thank God and rejoice that the unearthly institution has been swept away forever in a sea of blood never to rise again" (p. 161).

Works Consulted: Bolden, Tonya, "Octavia V. Rogers Albert," Biographies, New York Public Library, accessed 08 Dec. 2011; "Georgia Marriages, 1808-1967," FamilySearch, 08 Dec. 2011; Page, Yolanda W., Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Vol. 1, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007; Vaz, Kim Marie, Black Women in America, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995.

Abigail Pace

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