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Lewis Garrard Clarke, 1812-1897
Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, During a Captivity of More than Twenty-Five Years, Among the Algerines of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America
Boston: David H. Ela, Printer, 1845.


Lewis Garrard Clarke (1815-1897) was born into slavery in March 1815 in Madison County, Kentucky. At age twenty-one, he began hiring out his time, clothing and boarding himself and paying his master the twelve dollars per month that he earned through hired labor. Approximately one year later, Clarke escaped to freedom, sojourning for a time in Canada before seeking out his brother Milton in Oberlin, Ohio. Once settled in Oberlin, Lewis returned to Kentucky to aid in the escape of his younger brother, Cyrus. Lewis then went on to publish his narrative, which was republished jointly with the addition of his brother Milton's story (more on Milton's contributions to the second edition of the Narrative can be read here). In the 1840s, Lewis became a popular abolitionist speaker, and one of his speeches given at Brooklyn, as recounted by Lydia Child, was published in The Anti-Slavery Standard in October of 1842. His Narrative grew in popularity over time; Joseph Barker included it as the first in a collection of slave narratives, and Steven Hahn quoted Clarke extensively in the preface to his Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. But Clarke was most proud of the similarities that he identified between himself and George Harris, a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. After the Civil War he moved to Kentucky, where he died in 1897.

The preface to Clarke's Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke was written by the Reverend J.C. Lovejoy. Lovejoy, an active abolitionist, also compiled and published the memoirs of his good friend Rev. Charles T. Torrey, who was killed for his involvement in the anti-slavery movement. Lovejoy's preface attests to Clarke's intelligence and Christianity and presents several items of evidence concerning the veracity of Clarke's narrative. Following the Narrative, Clarke includes an appendix containing more detail on the members of the Clarke family, an extensive question and answer section giving insight into the life of an average slave, and a few abolitionist essays and poems.

The Narrative meditates on the effect of slavery on family relationships. His grandmother and mother were both fathered by white slaveholders and held as slaves under their "dear and affectionate father[s]" (p. 9). After Clarke's first master, Samuel Campbell, dies, his children quarrel bitterly over how to divide Lewis's eight siblings and their mother amongst themselves. Lewis, six years old at this time, is sent to one of Campbell's daughters and her husband, an unhappy couple of whom Clarke says that "scarcely a day passed in which bitter words were not bandied from one to the other" (p. 23). In the ten years he spends with them, Clarke sees his mother only three times, although she lives only thirty miles away (p. 22). his siblings are dispersed throughout the South.

Clarke dwells extensively on the brutal treatment that he and others received at the hands of this couple, citing a quote from Thomas Jefferson that "slavery fosters the worst passions in the master" (p. 23). He recounts a story when, at the age of nine, he is sent in the evening to catch and kill a turkey. When he fails, the wife orders him to wake up the husband and request fifty lashes, which the husband, doubly furious for being awakened, readily gives (p. 19). After ten years with this family, Clarke is sold to another plantation, where he spends the next five years.

Clarke illustrates the next five years of his life primarily with anecdotes about stealing food when meals provided by slaveholders prove insufficient. His stories include that of an old woman who repeatedly steals piglets in broad daylight and that of a slave who, caught stealing a pig, is hung by his hands and nearly dies from the three hundred lashes he receives. Clarke himself attempts to steal a pig after being egged on by others. Intending to kill the pig quietly with a blow to the head, Clarke only wounds the animal, sending it away squealing loudly; he only narrowly avoids detection (p. 27). As a finale to this section, Clarke recounts how he and several others break into a storage shed one night after being deprived of food and water until they had finished harvesting a sixty-acre field. After feasting on the stored food, they let the pigs loose and lead them to the storage shed, ruining the whole stock in order to cover their tracks. "We are compelled . . . to waste a good deal sometimes, to get a little," Clarke writes (p. 30).

After five years, Clarke is sold to the plantation owner's son and enjoys greater privileges. He hires out his time, working odd jobs in order to pay for housing and clothes, and provide his new master with twelve dollars per month. When his master dies a year later, Clarke is put up for public auction but is recognized as a "spoilt nigger" because of the privileges he has recently enjoyed (p. 30). Hearing that he will be shipped to Louisiana, Clarke resolves to attempt an escape to the North.

Because of his Caucasian complexion, Clarke successfully avoids suspicion on his journey to the North in spite of traveling the open roads and staying at inns. His experience in the northern states convinces Clarke that "there was no 'free state' in America, all were slave states—bound to slavery" (p. 42), and so he makes his way to Canada.

In recounting his escape, Clarke discusses the extreme ignorance of fugitive slaves, amplified by the lies of slaveholders to scare them out of ever running away. Owners of slaves characterize the northern states as extremely poor and backward. Abolitionists, slaves are told, are people who try to lure in fugitive slaves so they can sell them in Mississippi or Louisiana. Canada, they learn, is a country that will capture runaways, put their eyes out, and force them to work in mines deep under the ground (p. 31). Not knowing what to believe, Clarke wanders the streets of Canada with great fear of the red-coated soldiers at first. Finally, upon seeing two black soldiers hauling away a white man, he begins to feel at ease and starts hiring himself out to replenish his funds.

Once he has earned enough money, Clarke returns to the United States and seeks out his brother Milton, who has also escaped from slavery and resides in Oberlin, Ohio. After settling in Oberlin, Lewis resolves to help his younger brother Cyrus, still enslaved in Kentucky, to escape. In spite of Cyrus' skittishness, they escape without incident.

Works Cited: Child, Lydia, "Leaves from a Slave's Journal of Life," The Anti-Slavery Standard, (Oct 1842): 78-79, 83; Clarke, Lewis Garrard, Milton Clarke, Jonathan Walker, and La Roy Sunderland, Interesting Documents Related to American Slavery, and the Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation, ed. Joseph Barker, (London: Chapman Brothers, 1846), 9-53; Hahn, Steven, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 1-2; Lovejoy, J.C., Memoirs of Rev. Charles T. Torrey, (Boston: John P. Jewett, and Co., 1847); Reynolds, David S., Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, (New York: Norton, 2011), 108-112.

Jacob Sherman

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