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J. D. Green (Jacob D.), b. 1813
Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave, from Kentucky, Containing an Account of His Three Escapes, in 1839, 1846, and 1848
Huddersfield, [Eng.]: Printed by Henry Fielding, Pack Horse Yard, 1864.

Summary

Jacob D. Green (1813-?) was born into slavery on a large plantation owned by Judge Charles Earle in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. As a boy, he worked in the Earle household as a servant. He considered running away during his teenage years, but instead remained because he had been convinced by religious teachings that running away would be sinful. However, after Green's wife was sold away from him, he made his first effort to run away in 1839. Green successfully escaped slavery in 1848 and, assisted by the Underground Railroad, traveled to Toronto, Canada. He eventually journeyed to England, where he became an anti-slavery lecturer and published his Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green in 1864. Little else is known about his life. He disappeared from the historical record following the publication of Narrative.

Green opens his Narrative by describing the typical duties and activities he performed as an errand boy and domestic servant with an ironic tone and wry humor. At age twelve he recalls "being in great danger of losing my life in a singular way," for, having witnessed his master drink with friends from a bottle of what the reader may infer to be alcohol, "I thought what was good for them would be good for me" (p. 5). Unfortunately for young Green, he accidentally drinks from a similarly shaped bottle of oxalic acid and is saved only by quickly vomiting the dangerous liquid. Shortly thereafter, Green's mother is sold to a trader, a circumstance that "caused serious reflections in my mind, as to the situation of slaves, and caused me to contrast the condition of a [white] boy with mine" (p. 5). He relates his frustration at numerous events in which he is punished or forced to confess to crimes committed by white boys. Green is more angry about the unfairness of the difference in treatment between blacks and whites than by the physical punishment: Mr. Burmey, a neighbor, "kicked me away from the white boy, saying if I belonged to him he would cut off my hands for daring to strike a white boy; this without asking the cause of the quarrel, or ascertaining who was to blame" (p. 7).

Green portrays himself throughout the narrative as a trickster who frequently escapes punishment or avenges himself by deceiving others. He resolves to get back at Burmey for his mean treatment and "was determined when I became a man I would pay him back in his own coin" (p. 7). Knowing that Burmey and a Mr. Rogers are both secret lovers of his master's wife and knowing that Burmey was "a great smoker," Green fills Burmey's favorite pipe with gunpowder (p. 7). After the ensuing explosion, a dazed and disfigured Burmey sues his rival Rogers in open court; Green is never suspected. While Green's wiles often enable him to get the better of those who mistreat him, his victories come, at times, at the expense of other slaves. In one instance, Green knows that a note his master charges him to deliver to the overseer contains instructions to have the bearer flogged. He, thus, deliberately forgets to deliver it and agrees to run an errand to Baltimore on behalf of Dick, who wants to stay behind and visit a sweetheart, "providing he would take the note I had to Mr. Cobb" (p. 8). Another time, Green returns too late from a dance to properly groom the horse he has secretly borrowed, so he sets the entire stable of horses loose and pretends the other slaves have played a trick upon him. The master demands a confession. Though Green suffers a crisis of conscience—"My poor guilty heart already bleeding for the suffering I had caused my fellow slaves, was now almost driven to confession"—he decides that Dick, a frequent tattle-tale, "was just the proper sacrifice for me to lay upon the altar of confession" (pp. 14-15).

While Green's tricks, at times, have serious consequences, a reader might view Green's trickery as systematic resistance and rebellion against the system of slavery that otherwise denies him the power to act. His resistant attitude is reflected in his multiple attempts to escape and his cleverness in escaping detection on his journey. Although the Narrative advertises an "Account of His Three Escapes," the text actually describes a series of escapes and recaptures. Green's first escape is prompted by the sale of his wife, whom he loves and with whom he feels "happy and comfortable" (p. 22). Prior to this event, Green "was considered one of the most devout christians among the whole Black population" and "firmly believed to run away from my master would be to sin against the Holy Ghost" (p. 22). However, after his wife is sold, Green confesses, "I firmly made up my mind to take the first opportunity to run away" (p. 22). Green deceives a neighbor and pretends to collect a horse that must be delivered to Baltimore, successfully riding to the city and making his way into Delaware. Green suffers a series of near-captures. He enters a house and accepts food from three women but must tie them up and abandon the house when he discovers them plotting to turn him in. He is arrested when he is caught sleeping in a barn but pretends to be both "deaf and dumb" before the magistrate, who releases him for being "valueless" (p. 26). Green eventually arrives in Philadelphia and finds employment with Mr. Roberts but is thrown in prison when the business fails and its assets are seized. Green's master finds him there and puts him up for auction.

Green works for his new master in Tennessee for nearly four years when he is hired out as a servant to Mr. Steele, who is going to New Orleans. Green escapes from Steele and stows away on a ship bound for New York. There, Green contacts members of the Underground Railroad, who help him get to Utica. Some months later, he runs into his old master on the street, "who laid hold of me, and called to his aid a dozen more, when I was taken before a magistrate . . . and ordered to be given up to my master" (p. 32). On the journey south, which takes them across Lake Erie, the master is forced to un-cuff Green because "a complaint was made that a fugitive slave was placed in irons, contrary to the law of the state of Ohio" (p. 33). Green, assisted by a sympathetic steamboat captain, crawls out of the steamboat window and swims to the Ohio shore. Unfortunately, after four months in Zanesville, Ohio, Green is imprisoned on suspicion of breaking windows and "while in prison I was seen by a Mr. Donelson, who declared to the keeper that I belonged to him" (p. 33). Green is then auctioned to a Kentucky man, Mr. Wheelbanks, whom he serves for a year. He escapes from Mr. Wheelbanks after being ordered to take young Mary Wheelbanks to visit her grandmother. Stopping in the woods, Green orders the frightened girl out of the coach and ties her to a tree with her shawl before heading to Louisville and stowing on a steamboat bound for Ohio. In Ohio, Green is recognized by his master's nephew, but Green violently thrusts him away and runs. Hiding in a cellar, Green meets a servant girl who helps him make contact with the Underground Railroad once more, and they assist him in making the journey to Toronto, Canada, where he "lived for three years and sang my song of deliverance" (p. 35).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., "Green, J.D.," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 326; Andrews, William L., "Green, Jacob D.," Oxford African American Studies Center.

Jenn Williamson

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