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Noah Davis, b. 1803 or 4-?
A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, a Colored Man. Written by Himself, at the Age of Fifty-Four
Baltimore: J. F. Weishampel, Jr., 1859.


Noah Davis was born into slavery in 1804 in Madison County, Virginia. By his own account, Robert Patten was a kind master, and Davis' family was kept together until the children were old enough to be apprenticed to trades of their choice. At the age of fourteen, Davis moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia to be trained as a boot and shoe maker until the age of twenty-one. Davis states that he strove to be honest and trustworthy, but that he was also susceptible to vices, especially alcohol and, as he got older, pursuing women. Having been raised by pious Baptist parents, Davis admired faith but began attending various churches only to be closer to the women he courted. Following a religious reawakening, Davis devoted himself to the Baptist faith and married a fellow slave. Much of Davis' narrative follows his decision to become a Baptist minister and his quest to free himself, his wife, and their seven children who were born into bondage. Davis had two additional children who were born free. Indeed, he wrote (and sold) his story in an attempt to raise the funds necessary to free two of his sons, the last of his children remaining in bondage, in 1859.

Davis' Narrative opens with his birth and childhood. Born into slavery in Madison County, Virginia in March 1804, Davis "belonged to Robert Patten, Esq., a wealthy merchant" (p. 9). Davis' father was the "head miller" in a mill co-owned by Patten (p. 9). Davis' parents were both "pious members of a Baptist church" and his father often instructed the local children in the New Testament (p. 9). Patten kept the Davis family together until the children were old enough to choose and apprentice trades. In 1818, Davis chose to join his older brother and left home for Fredericksburg, VA, where he would learn boot and shoe-making under the tutelage of Thomas Wright. Davis would serve as an apprentice until he was twenty-one years old.

Davis quickly learns that he will have to "serve one year with Mrs. Wright, in the house and kitchen" in order to "train . . . for future usefulness" (p. 14). Once Davis proves himself "fit," he is able to train with the shoemakers, the "most intemperate of any class of men" (p. 15). He starts as a "runner" and begins bringing "liquor among the men with such [secrecy] as to prevent the boss . . . from knowing it" (p. 15). Unsurprisingly, Davis himself "soon learned the habit of drinking, along with every other vile habit to which my companions were addicted" (p. 15). Davis credits Mr. and Mrs. Wright and their "strictness" for keeping him from becoming "a confirmed drunkard" (p. 16).

As Davis nears the end of his apprenticeship, he "commenced to visit the girls" (p. 18). He begins attending four different churches as he "went wherever my favorites went" (p. 18). While attending a Methodist prayer meeting with a young lady, he is struck with a need to pray and a feeling of intense fear; he feels that God really does see and hear him and thus "It is of no use for me to pray.—If God has seen all my wickedness, as I feel that He has, then there is no mercy for me" (p. 19). Nevertheless, fearing God's wrath, Davis begins to pray fervently. At one point he believes he has been "converted" because of his newfound faith, but he still has doubts because he feels "so very different from what I had expected to feel" (p. 22). He consults his pious mother, who tells him "the devil makes people think themselves converted, sometimes" (p. 23). Fearing he has been misled by the devil, Davis redoubles his efforts at prayer and finally has a vision of "God smiling upon me, through Christ, his Son" (p. 24). Davis joins the Baptist church and is baptized on September 19, 1831.

Davis notes that he "had not been a member of the church a great while" before he "formed an attachment to a young woman" he had known for several years (p. 26). They soon marry after Davis gets permission from both his master and his wife's master. At the time of publication, Davis and his wife had been married twenty-eight years and had nine children (seven of whom were born in slavery); Davis notes, "five out of the seven in slavery I have bought—two are still in bondage" (p. 27).

Davis assumes the role of deacon in his local church, but he "often felt embarrassed" in his new role as he could not "read a chapter in the Bible correctly" (p. 28). His strong desire to read and to lead his congregation prompts him to ask his master for permission to buy his freedom. His master agrees and sets a $500 fee for purchase. His master also gives him a pass to travel "and find friends" to give him the money he needs (p. 29). Davis leaves Fredericksburg in June 1845, originally intending to visit Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and other unnamed cities. Before he leaves, he gathers $150 for his cause; he is only able to generate another $150 on his travels. Davis opens his own shop under the protection of Mr. Wright, his former trade teacher, but the shop is "not very successful" (p. 31). He receives an offer to become a missionary in the city of Baltimore in exchange for assistance raising the remaining funds. Davis, however, is conflicted as he would have to leave his wife and seven children behind. Davis accepts the position with a heavy heart after getting permission from his master.

Upon reaching Baltimore, Davis begins teaching Sunday school out of his rented room. He recruits a "few grown persons" but he cannot "find half a dozen colored Baptists, who would take hold with me in this missionary enterprise" (p. 33). Davis begins to feel "lonely" and "thrown among strangers in a strange place" (p. 34). He is cheered by a few white Baptists who become his "dear friends" (p. 34). Davis realizes that many African Americans in Baltimore are "advanced in education," which intensifies his feelings of isolation (p. 35). Still, Davis persists as "there was no turning back: God had called me to the work, and it was His cause I was advocating" (p. 36).

In the middle of his Narrative, Davis offers an aside, in order to temporally locate his readership. He notes that he had been in Baltimore "more than a year" and only able to see his family "three or four times" (p. 37). His wife's mistress offers to see him his wife and two youngest children for "eight hundred dollars cash" and Davis is given a year to find the funds (p. 37). Davis feels torn between "properly" fulfilling his "missionary duty" and raising the money (p. 37). During the year, he finds "a better place for the Sabbath school" and increases attendance at his sermons (p. 37). By the close of the year, he has only one-half of the necessary funds. His wife's mistress increases the cost of his children by one hundred dollars but offers to release them if Davis pays $600 cash and gives a bond for the remainder.

Davis and his wife had now been separated more than three years. Davis turns to Mr. Wright once more for help; Mr. Wright agrees to give bond for the remaining three hundred if Davis can raise the $600 cash. Davis travels to Washington and Baltimore, raising $400 along the way. A "very dear friend," whom Davis does not identify, gives him the remaining $200, telling him to "Go, get your wife, and you can keep collecting, and repay the two hundred dollars when you get able" (p. 40). Davis is reunited with his family and returns to Baltimore with his wife and two youngest children, but he is forced to leave his oldest children behind. Despite a salary of "only three hundred dollars a year," Davis and his wife are able to pay back the borrowed $200 in a year through "hard exertion . . . close economy" and his wife's labors (p. 42). At the same time, however, Davis' $300 bond came due. In order to make the payment, Davis convinces a man to take in his daughter as a "little servant girl" and advance him $300 from her wages (p. 42).

Davis quickly returns to his discussion of the church. He notes that friends of the church purchased land in 1853 to expand and relocate the small church, which had previously been located in a "very inconvenient upper room" (p. 44). The chapel finally opens "to a crowded audience" in February 1855 (p. 44). Named the Saratoga Street African Baptist Church, the facility includes worship space, room for regular Sunday school, and space for separate male and female high schools "where colored missionaries for Africa might be educated" (p. 47). The upper story also includes "four separate rooms" to be rented out in order to help pay down the remaining debt on the building (p. 47). Davis spends a significant amount of time outlining the costs and debts of the church.

Davis admits that as dedicated as he is to his own work, he has "been necessarily much hindered in my own labors, from pecuniary embarrassments, arising from the sale of my children, who were left in Virginia—two daughters and three sons" (pp. 54-55). He is repeatedly forced to raise money quickly as his children are set to be sold or traded. He manages to save his oldest daughter just before her sale into the Deep South. He raises part of the funds necessary to save one of his sons, and convinces a nearby family to advance the remaining funds and hire the young man on to repay the remaining debt. His remaining children are endangered again when their mistress dies in 1856 and the court decides to sell her property, including her servants. Thwarted in his attempts to purchase his remaining children, Davis sees his two sons sold to "their young master," presumably the child of their former mistress (p. 58). His daughter is sold to a slave trader who pays $990 for her and agrees, after the sale, to release her to Davis' friends for $1100. Two of Davis' friends "gave their bond jointly for the amount" and Davis insures her life for $1000 as a security for them (p. 59). Davis notes that "the girl was of course left in the hands of these gentlemen, [in whom] I had the most implicit confidence" (p. 59).

Davis goes back on the road to raise money for his daughter. He travels to Philadelphia, Boston, New Bedford, Providence, and New York. Through his efforts, he raises the necessary $1100. At the time of publication, Davis notes that his daughter "is now with me, and doing well" (p. 70). He then turns his attention to his sons, but he also must face the continued financial burden carried by his new church. He decides to write and to publish his narrative, "setting forth the trials and difficulties the Lord has brought me through to this day, and offer it for sale to my friends generally, as well as to the public at large; and, I hope it may not only aid me, but may serve to encourage others, who meet with similar difficulties, to put their trust in God" (p. 72).

Davis concludes his piece with one of his sermons, a report detailing the "Colored Protestant Churches and Sabbath Schools in Baltimore," excerpts from religious magazines, and excerpts from several other publications.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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