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Matilda G. Thompson
Aunt Judy's Story: A Tale From Real Life. Written for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Fair
Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, Printers, 1855.


Matilda G. Thompson published several works of abolition-themed children's literature during the 1850s, but little else about her life is known today. The short story "Aunt Judy's Story: A Tale From Real Life" appeared in 1855, followed by "Mark and Hasty, or, Slave Life in Missouri" in 1856. In 1859, Thompson and Julia Colman published the The Child's Anti-Slavery Book, which reprints Thompson's two stories along with a third story by Colman. Scholar Donnarae MacCann speculates that Thompson was probably "among the huge corps of workers connected to the Sunday School Union movement" that sought to establish libraries for children (77).

Although "Aunt Judy's Story" claims to be "A Tale From Real Life," scholars generally consider it a work of fiction. Set in Indiana, the story centers on the Fords, a family of well-to-do white Christians who provide charity to Aunt Judy, a free African American woman whose advanced age and poor health mark her as having lived a life of "hardship and exposure" (p. 5). When the Ford children become curious about Judy's past, Mrs. Ford tells them that Judy was once a slave and "has led a very unhappy and sorrowful life" (p. 8). The children, appalled by the cruelties of slavery, want to hear more about Judy's life, but their mother admits that she is "not very well acquainted with [Judy's] history" (p. 9). Later, to satisfy her children's curiosity, Mrs. Ford takes a sleigh ride to Judy's cabin, where she delivers food and asks Judy to "recollect all that has past and happened to [her] since childhood" (pp. 18-19). Judy does so, but readers do not hear her tell her own story. Instead, much of the rest of Thompson's story consists of an extended scene in which Mrs. Ford appropriates Judy's narrative and retells it to her own family.

According to Mrs. Ford, Judy is born into slavery on "the eastern side of the beautiful Roanoke," where she is owned by a Mr. Madison (p. 22). Madison's first name is never given, but Mrs. Ford says that Judy spent her childhood "singing songs, and dancing for the amusement of General Washington, and the other officers of the Revolution," implying that Judy's first master was President James Madison (p. 22). After Madison's death, Judy cares for his ailing wife, who grants Judy's freedom just before she dies. When Mrs. Madison's daughter decides to move to Kentucky, Judy, "being much attached to her and the family," chooses to follow (p. 23).

Once in Kentucky, Judy's situation worsens. She marries a slave named John, and after he tries and fails to escape, Judy is left to treat both his despair and the physical wounds he receives as punishment. John is then sold to a new master, Mr. Lawrence, who plans to take John to Indiana and keep him enslaved, even though Indiana is a free state. Terrified of losing her husband, Judy follows after the men, and the trio settles in Vincennes, Indiana. But John, who "had suffered so much from severe whipping and abuse of every kind," dies of tuberculosis soon after their arrival (p. 30). Lawrence then illegally sells Judy and her young son Charley back into slavery, separating them forever. After working for a master in New Orleans for several months, Judy is taken to Memphis, Tennessee, and again put up for sale. It is here that a white friend of Mrs. Madison's daughter recognizes Judy and, knowing that she is legally free, finally rescues her from slavery.

After Judy's life story is recounted, the story ends with Mrs. Ford's sympathetic tears "falling fast, and the children" likewise "sobbing around her" as they contemplate how slavery has left Judy "old, infirm, and a beggar" after "a long life of toil and suffering" (p. 36). This ending highlights the story's abolitionist themes and educational purpose. By empathizing with Judy's life history, the Ford family comes to see slavery as a monstrous system, because it sanctions violence and separates families. With the Ford family's tears, Thompson models a white Christian's appropriate response to slavery: outrage and sadness over the sufferings of its black victims.

Still, while "Aunt Judy's Story" condemns the institution of slavery, scholars have pointed out that its depiction of non-white people nevertheless remains troubling. For example, in one scene, Mr. Ford explains to his children that Africans, "like all heathen . . . were debased, and were cruel and warlike among each other" and that the enslavement of Africans was wrong only because they "never annoyed us in America," not because they are people with the same basic human rights as whites (p. 13). So while Thompson's story argues for the abolition of slavery, it simultaneously works to perpetuate what MacCann calls "race hierarchies": systems of belief that consider whites as distinct from and superior to blacks (p. xiii). Thus, even in a story named for her, Judy herself remains largely silent and helpless, while the sympathetic members of the white Ford family are depicted as the heroes of her life story.

Works Consulted: De Rosa, Deborah C., Domestic Abolition and Juvenile Literature 1830-1865, Albany, NY: The State University of New York Press, 2003; MacCann, Donnarae, White Supremacy in Children's Literature: Characterizations of African-Americans, 1830-1900, New York: Garland, 1998.

Harry Thomas

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