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Peter Bruner, 1845-1938
A Slave's Adventures Toward Freedom. Not Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle
Oxford, Ohio: s .n., 1918.


Peter Bruner was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1845. His mother was enslaved to John Bell Bruner, a tanner, whom Peter Bruner describes as a cruel man and a heavy drinker, prone to whipping his slaves without provocation. Although Bruner does not identify his father in his narrative, some biographical sketches state that he was John Bruner. Peter passed the first part of his childhood in Winchester before moving to nearby Irvine, Kentucky, with his sister and his master. As a child, he served as a children's nurse and "house boy"; later he began to work in the tanyard (p. 13). John Bruner beat him frequently, and he often went hungry. He responded to this ill-treatment by using force to defend himself and by repeatedly attempting to escape, until he finally succeeded in 1864. Bruner enlisted in the Twelfth United States Colored Heavy Artillery when it was created in 1864. After the war, he moved to Oxford, Ohio, where he married Frances Procton and fathered five children. Bruner worked at Western Female Seminary, Oxford University, and Miami University of Ohio in several capacities. His jobs included watchman, maintenance worker, and messenger. Bruner died in Oxford in 1938. John Blassingame lists a number of archival records that confirm the facts and dates in his narrative (p. lvii).

A Slave's Adventures Toward Freedom: Not Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle was published in 1918 in Oxford, Ohio. At the end of the text, Bruner credits the narrative to his daughter Carrie, who "wrote this book when she was a girl" (p. 52). Carrie apparently failed to finish the book before her death in 1900. Her daughter Edna Bradley took dictation in order to finish the narrative, according to a 1932 notice of Bruner's 64th wedding anniversary in the Chicago Defender. Although Bruner claims that his daughter "wrote" the book, the narrating voice is his, he signs his name to the introductory letter, and he maintains that he has "given the actual experiences of my own life" (p. 7). Bruner's narrative is the only known account of his life, other than a short WPA Federal Writers' Project interview conducted in 1936 by Evelyn McLemore.

Descriptions of frustrated escape attempts and brutal whippings dominate the first half of the narrative. The bulk of these scenes occur before Bruner is eighteen. Determined not to be dominated by his master, Bruner fights back against whippings and beatings or hides to avoid them, often successfully. He runs away repeatedly in order to resist his owner's attempts to "break" him in (p. 31). However, he rarely travels far from home and occasionally returns voluntarily or in response to a promise of better treatment. In most of his early escape attempts he mistakenly travels south. Although he does express a desire for freedom, his early escapes are usually impulsive and seem halfhearted. At one point in the narrative he agrees to return to Irvine if John Bruner will hire him out rather than whip him. He refuses to take orders from the man Bruner hires him out to, however, and comments, "I thought while he was breaking me in I would break him in" (p. 31).

Bruner's later escape attempts come closer to being successful. He and a slave named Phil flee together and are stopped by slave catchers within one night's walk of the Ohio River. The man who comes to claim them chains them together by the neck and forces them to walk barefoot back to Irvine. Bruner escapes again in 1864, this time successfully. He arrives safely at the Union Camp Nelson in central Kentucky and joins the Twelfth U.S. Heavy Artillery, a regiment for black soldiers, on July 24, 1864. Much of the second half of Bruner's narrative chronicles his wartime experiences. After a serious illness, he becomes a nurse in the camp hospital, but unable to tolerate the constant death, he returns to the artillery. During his military service, he suffers from frostbite, smallpox, and hunger. He also describes his role in raids to requisition horses, oats, and other supplies from civilians.

In 1866 Bruner finishes his service in the army and moves to Oxford, Ohio, to live with relatives. He begins attending school but leaves because he is frustrated with his progress. After his marriage in 1868, Bruner falls into debt because of a lack of steady employment, but he eventually begins working at Western Female Seminary while attempting unsuccessfully to make a living as a farmer. After running a stone quarry for a short period, he becomes a janitor at Oxford College and then Miami University, a job he holds for many years. Bruner describes his position at these colleges with pride, noting the names of the university presidents under whom he served and adding that he had "the pleasure of waiting on President [William Howard] Taft" (p. 52). The Bruners' silver and golden wedding anniversaries, celebrated with friends from the universities, are described in the narrative as well as in the WPA interview and several newspaper articles. In the final lines of the text, Bruner grieves for his daughter Carrie but concludes, "Though my life has been one of many hardships, I feel there awaits for me a crown of righteousness, and I shall have rest forever more" (p. 52). A poem about Bruner appears at the end of the text; its author is Edna Bradley, the granddaughter who took dictation in order to finish his narrative for publication.

Works Consulted: Blassingame, John W., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977; McClain, A. Bradley, "Peter Bruner and Richard Burns: Civil War Veterans," accessed March 19, 2010; McLemore, Evelyn, "Story of Peter Bruner, a former slave," WPA Slave Narrative Project, Kentucky Narratives, vol. 7, 1936, 88-90, accessed March 4, 2010; Murphy, Laura, "Bruner, Peter," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., accessed March 4, 2010; "Peter Bruners Celebrate 64th Wedding Anniversary," Chicago Defender (March 19, 1932), 6, accessed March 8, 2010.

Erin Bartels

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