Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> First-Person Narratives, North American Slave Narratives , The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Thomas H. Jones
Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina
Boston: Published by H. B. Skinner, [185-?].

Summary

Thomas H. Jones originally published his memoir in order to raise money to purchase his son's freedom. The first edition of his narrative appeared in the mid-1850s—sources variably assert 1854 and 1855 as publication dates—as an abolitionist pamphlet titled Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. After its initial publication, Jones continued to revise and reprint the narrative, and later editions appeared in 1855, 1862, 1868, 1871, 1880, and 1885. These publication dates and the names of the publishers who released them remain a major source of controversy for Jones scholars. In each edition, Jones further develops the story of his time in slavery and capitalizes on popular abolitionist sympathies, promoting his cause and refining his image as a community and religious leader.

The edition of Jones' narrative summarized here appeared sometime in the 1850s. It combines Jones' original Experience and Personal Narrative with The Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina. This added material, according to scholar David A. Davis, is actually an excerpt from Richard Hildreth's The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore. The result is a dual narrative: the first half of the text is devoted to Jones' personal experience of slavery, while the second half relates the fictional account of Wild Tom, a South Carolina slave prompted by his wife's murder to "do as much mischief as possible" and escape into the swamps to avoid retribution (p. 30).

The personal narrative begins with Jones' declaration of the emotional suffering imposed on men by slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe's immensely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin had just appeared in 1852, so—just as he did in the first edition of the narrative—Jones deliberately repeats the familiar name of "Uncle Tom" in his text and includes an illustration of a cabin on its frontispiece, assuming his readers would be equally sympathetic to his new, autobiographical version of Stowe's virtuous hero. Designed to appeal to a white abolitionist readership and drawing from both personal experience and conventional slave narrative tropes, Jones' story describes the moral journey of a slave who is degraded and mistreated but who nevertheless seeks both education and Christian salvation while he strives to save his wife and children from slavery.

Jones opens the narrative with childhood recollections of family life as well as his master's "severe and cruel" treatment on the John Hawes plantation in Hanover County, North Carolina (p. 8). At age nine, Tom Jones (then called "Tommy" by his mother) is sold away from his family to Mr. Jones of Washington, North Carolina. Once in Washington, Jones works a succession of jobs and is eventually employed in the family store. This post provides Jones with an important opportunity: he is not only shielded from working long hours in the fields, but he also meets James Dixon, the young white boy who introduces him to the idea of gaining an education. Dixon is hired to assist Mr. Jones but spends part of his day studying, which arouses Jones's curiosity. When Tom Jones asks about Dixon's books, the young clerk responds that the educated would "get along very well in the world," while the uneducated are likely to "be compelled to work very hard for a poor living all their days" (p. 11-12). Inspired by this observation, Jones devises a way to secretly acquire a spelling book and sneaks moments to study. He even endures a severe beating by Mr. Jones in order to protect his spelling book from discovery. Tom Jones' self-education leads him to Christianity, and he recounts his spiritual struggles in the face of his master's threats of more violence for praying or attending church meetings. Jones's desire for spiritual salvation parallels his love of learning, however, and Mr. Jones eventually gives up his beatings when Jones doggedly persists in his religious devotion.

Jones also emphasizes his strong commitment to marriage and family. In addition to mourning the breakup of his childhood family, Jones details his desire to marry and to protect his own family, yet he agonizes over "the wretched home of the unprotected slave" (p. 23). He marries Lucilla Smith, a slave and seamstress belonging to a Mrs. Moore, and together they have three children. He describes their love for each other in addition to their well-founded fears of "a cruel parting" (p. 24). They are indeed eventually separated when Mrs. Moore moves Lucilla and the children with her from Wilmington to New Bern (spelled "Newburn" in Jones's narrative), North Carolina, and finally to Alabama. He is never able to find them again.

After Mr. Jones dies, Tom Jones is sold to Owen Holmes and experiences his most prosperous time under slavery. He marries Mary R. Moore, and together they have several children. Mr. Holmes allows Jones to hire himself out as a dockhand, enabling him to save money and eventually purchase his family's freedom. Jones closes his personal narrative with his departure North. Although like many previous African American writers, such as Frederick Douglass, he does not detail his escape, he describes the careful pains he took to save money and deceive his master as well as his failed attempts to recoup investments in local property. The focus on the preparations for his departure underscores Jones's portrayal of himself as an intelligent, industrious man and thereby strengthens his argument that slavery is an immoral, degrading institution because it denies millions of people just like him the freedom to achieve their potential.

Jones's personal narrative ends with this departure and is followed by the Wild Tom excerpt. In this fictional tale, Wild Tom grieves over his wife's murder at the hands of an overseer and turns from "promoting his master's interest" to doing "as much mischief as possible" (p. 30). Stirring up trouble, he leads raids on neighboring plantations, though Wild Tom "had little use for his share of the plunder" and "generally distributed it among his companions" (p. 32). On the last raid in a rice field, the party is nearly caught by a patrol before fleeing to the "safety" of their own plantation. Wild Tom cannot, however, elude the drunken farce of a tribunal that investigates the crime; he flees into the local swamps, murders the pursuing overseer in vengeance for his wife, and is eventually caught and lynched. This adventure tale provides a counterpoint to Jones's memoir. In this second story, the fictional Thomas begins as a model worker and a Christian, but unlike Uncle Tom, he is driven over the edge of sanity by slavery's sanctioned mistreatment and oppression, transforming him into Wild Tom, a dangerous, irrational and uncontrollable slave. Further, the story is sympathetically narrated by Archy, the mixed-raced son of a plantation owner, who is still enslaved despite his light skin and patrilineage. Thus, while the moral plea against slavery might still appeal to the abolitionist audience, the trickster Tom's violence and Archy's heritage play into white fears about black masculinity and miscegenation. By publishing the two stories together, Jones illustrates alternative views of slavery's moral consequences: the enslaved must resist the forces imposed on them by the immoral institution of slavery, or they may come to embody and reflect the violence they have suffered at the hands of "civilized" white society.

See also The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years [1862 edition].

See also The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones [1885 edition].

Works Consulted: Davis, David A., Introduction to The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, in North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, & Thomas H. Jones, edited by William L. Andrews, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Jenn Williamson

Document menu