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Louis Hughes, b. 1832
Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter
Milwaukee: South Side Printing Company, 1897.


Louis Hughes was born in 1832 on a plantation outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, the son of a white man and a slave. He remained a slave until he escaped behind Union lines near the end of the Civil War.

Hughes's autobiography, Thirty Years a Slave, From Bondage into Freedom, was published in 1897. This chronological account details the daily lives of slaves and the hardships they suffered. At a young age, Hughes was separated from his mother and was traded among slave owners until he was purchased by Mr. McGee of Pontotoc, Mississippi, with whom he remained until McGee's death at the beginning of 1865. At first Hughes worked as an errand boy and house servant at McGee's cotton plantation in Pontotoc, and McGee began to teach him about different medicines and their properties. Hughes used this knowledge to nurse other slaves. In 1850, Hughes was sent to Memphis to help in the construction of a second house for McGee and his family. At this new house, Hughes met Matilda Morgan, whom he married in 1858. Hughes made two attempts to escape from Memphis, but he was captured both times. Late in the Civil War, Hughes and other McGee slaves were removed to Tombigbee, Alabama where they labored at a salt works. It was not until 1865 that Hughes's efforts to escape slavery were finally successful. As Union troops closed in around northern Mississippi, he turned himself in, and with some assistance, managed to rescue his wife and children as well. He and his wife settled in Milwaukee, after brief periods in Cincinnati, Chicago and Canada. Hughes worked as a professional nurse.

Hughes's narrative offers a slave's observations of the Civil War from behind Confederate lines. He briefly describes his family's struggle to earn a living and establish themselves in the North after the War. In his foreword to a recent edition of Thirty Years, scholar William L. Andrews discusses the value of this slave narrative: "By paying a Milwaukee printer to publish the Autobiography of Louis Hughes, the former Alabama slave turned Wisconsin businessman was free to write about his experience in the South and the North in his own way. What he wrote identifies Hughes in several ways as more representative of the African American rank-and-file, both before and after slavery, than Douglass or most of the other celebrated fugitive slaves whose antebellum narratives have dominated our understanding of what slavery was like."

Works Consulted: Hughes, Louis, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2002.

Harris Henderson

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