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James Curry, b. 1815?
Narrative of James Curry, A Fugitive Slave
The Liberator, 10 January 1840


James Curry's brief autobiography, Narrative of James Curry, A Fugitive Slave is the only major source of information about his life. According to the autobiography, Curry was born in 1815 in Person County, North Carolina, near the Virginia border, and was enslaved to Moses Chambers. His father, Peter Burnet, was a free black man, and his mother, whose name is unknown, was the daughter of a white man and an enslaved woman. After his father was sold into slavery when Curry was a young child, his mother remarried. As a child, Curry worked as a domestic servant; as an adult he worked as a hatter and in the fields, farming tobacco, cotton, and grain. His masters were sometimes violent toward their slaves, and partly because of this violence, Curry decided to escape. In 1837, he fled North Carolina with his two brothers but was separated from them as they made their way north. He arrived in Pennsylvania in July 1837 and was taken in by Quakers, who recommended that he move to Canada. He waited out the Canadian Rebellions of 1837 and 1838 in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and proceeded to Canada in the fall of 1838. One of his Quaker acquaintances received a card saying that Curry had arrived safely in Canada. Nothing more is known about his life there.

Curry's short narrative, dated September 20, 1838, was written in Massachusetts while he waited to travel to Canada. It was published in The Liberator on January 10, 1840, and it took up almost the entire front page, running onto the second page. In her Anti-Slavery Reminiscences (1891), anti-slavery activist Elizabeth Buffom Chace claims to have "narrated" Curry's story in The Liberator (p. 23). In another version of her Reminiscences, Chace includes the full text of Curry's narrative and introduces it by saying, "I will write his story as he told it many times to me but since it is rather long, I will not attempt to give it in his own vernacular" (p. 136). The narrative included in her memoirs is almost identical to what appeared in The Liberator.

The narrative begins with an account of Curry's mother's early attempts to escape from slavery, both of which fail. His mother then marries but is separated from her husband, a slave, when his master moves further south. She loses her second husband, Peter Burnet (Curry's father) when he is sold into slavery after having traveled south with a white man as his servant. Curry's mother's third husband is enslaved to her master, and the two are able to remain together and have six children. Curry learns to spell from his master's oldest son, and though the lessons are soon forbidden, he continues to teach himself and reads the Chambers family Bible on Sundays while the family is away. There, he says, "I learned that it was contrary to the revealed will of God, that one man should hold another as a slave."

At sixteen, Curry leaves his role as house servant in order to work in the field in spring and summer and in a hatter's shop in the fall and winter. He marries a free black woman at age 20, without his master's consent, but evades Chambers' threats to send him away or cut his "throat from ear to ear" because of the intervention of an overseer. While Curry calls his own treatment "comparatively good," the narrative includes accounts of abusive treatment of other slaves, including a nine- or ten-year-old girl whom Curry's mistress beats for several hours because she suspects her of breaking a comb; the girl later dies from her injuries. "There is no sin which man can commit," Curry says, "that those slaveholders are not guilty of."

While being beaten for ignoring an order, Curry resolves to "escape or die in the attempt." He escapes with his two brothers on June 14, 1837. The men become separated just south of Washington, D.C., when several white men and a pack of dogs begin to chase them. Curry runs in a different direction from his brothers, and the dogs follow them, while he escapes. He is nearly apprehended several other times. In Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, just after he has crossed over the border from Maryland, a white man offers him work, but a black woman warns him not to stay with the man because of the risk of being carried back to a slave state. He is taken in by Quakers in Philadelphia and works for them from July to Christmas of 1837.

Curry reports that he finds with "great disappointment" that although he had reached the North, he "could not send for [his] wife from here." His meaning is not entirely clear, but it is certain that his Quaker companions believe Canada is the best place for him to go. Chace, in her Reminiscences, gives several accounts of fugitive slaves being captured and brought back to the South even prior to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and sending for his wife would likely have made Curry susceptible to capture. During 1837 and 1838, armed uprisings against elite rulers loyal to the crown occurred in parts of what are now Ontario, Labrador, and Quebec provinces (Greer). Curry travels to Massachusetts to wait out the period of unrest in Canada. At the end of his narrative, he reports that he will leave for Canada in a few days, for the "free gover[n]ment of Queen Victoria," in order to be able to send for his wife. In her memoirs, Elizabeth Buffum Chace says that she received one card reporting Curry's safe arrival in Canada but does not know whether or not he was reunited with his wife (p. 163).

Works Consulted: Chace, Elizabeth Buffom, Anti-Slavery Reminiscences, Central Falls, RI: E.L. Freeman and Son, 1891, available from Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, online database, accessed August 31, 2010; Chace, Elizabeth Buffom, My Anti-Slavery Reminiscences, in Two Quaker Sisters: From the Original Diaries of Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Lucy Buffum Lovell, New York: Liveright, 1937; Greer, Allan, Review of The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents, Labour / Le Travail, vol. 18 (Fall 1986): 227-28.

Erin Bartels Buller

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