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William H. Robinson, b. 1848
From Log Cabin to the Pulpit, or, Fifteen Years in Slavery
Eau Clair, Wis.: James H. Tifft, 1913.


No published biographical articles exist for William H. Robinson, leaving his autobiography as the only source for information about his life. This text, dictated to his secretary Florence Mitchell, opens with letters of endorsement reminiscent of the authenticating documents appended to many antebellum slave narratives. The narrative itself follows Robinson from his birth on March 11, 1848, to the height of his ministry in the 1890s. Through most of the text, people call him Bill Cowens, a name which was given to him by his master. After emancipation, he assumes the surname "Robinson," which he explains at the end of the narrative is a shortening of "Robinson Crusoe," the translation of his father's African name. Robinson says in his preface that the narrative will tell the story of his life "and of slavery from a historical standpoint" (10); thus, the narrative also includes biting criticisms of slaveholders and laudatory remarks about African American perseverance and bravery, especially during the Civil War.

Robinson, one of twelve children in an enslaved family, grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. Robinson recounts that his family was tearfully separated in 1858, when their master, Tom Cowens, sold his father to a trader bound for Richmond, and all but three of the children to other plantations. Master Tom dies shortly thereafter, and the mother and remaining children, Robinson among them, are given to Master Tom's cruel son, Scott, who beats Robinson's mother. Having promised his father that he would protect his mother at any cost, the eleven-year-old Robinson hits Scott Cowens with an axe handle and flees to a camp for runaways.

He is caught and taken to an auction pen in Richmond where he is promptly sold to a poor and brutal farmer. Based on signs from heaven and nature, twelve-year old Robinson decides to flee once again, with the help of a sympathetic slave trader whom Robinson identifies as Robert E. Lee. Robinson eventually ends up with his original master's son, Joseph Cowens, who falsely claims that he plans to reunite Robinson's entire family. When the war breaks out, Cowens takes Robinson to the battlefield with him, but after nearly nine months, Cowens is killed in Greenville, Tennessee. Robinson stays with the Confederate army as a cook until the unit is ambushed by Federal troops, and he is liberated. After helping the troops free his mother and others, Robinson joins the U.S. Army in July 1863 and serves in the 54th Massachusetts and the 28th Indiana regiments. He leaves the army December 29, 1865, and after fifteen years of chasing leads, he eventually finds his mother.

Robinson visits with her for several weeks before returning to his new home in Nashville, where he works first as a fireman, then as a traveling singer and banjo player. This latter job takes him to London where, during his eleven-month stay, the daughters of a white family teach him how to read and write. He describes this as a turning point in his life and reports that at this time, "The spirit of manhood which lay slumbering in my breast began to awaken" (130).

After returning to America with money and clothes from his English patrons, Robinson enters Nashville's Central Tennessee College, a school established by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and supported by the Freedmen's Bureau. He becomes a teacher, but is frustrated with the pay and resigns to become a sleeping-car porter, then a steamboat worker, and later a cook in Illinois. Robinson becomes a drinker and gambler but repents and joins the church upon hearing his mother's and God's voices call to him. In March 1892, he becomes an elder in the AME Church. He then rides the preaching circuit, establishing churches in Michigan and Indiana and holding revivals across the Midwest. The narrative ends with two sermons written by Robinson, more letters of endorsement, and a plea for readers to support the expansion of his ministry to Africa. An index provides an additional form of access to the chapters and their subjects.

Jennifer L. Larson

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