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Kate Drumgoold
A Slave Girl's Story. Being an Autobiography of Kate Drumgoold
Brooklyn: The Author, 1898.


Little is known about Kate Drumgoold's life outside of the details she provides in her 1898 autobiography. While her date of birth is unknown, multiple sources estimate that she was born in 1858 or 1859. In her narrative, Drumgoold confirms that she was "born in Old Virginia, in or near the Valley, the other side of Petersburg, of slave parents" (p. 4). While Drumgoold was still young, her mother was sold so that her owner could pay a "poor white man" to go to the Civil War in his stead (p. 5). Drumgoold's mother left a husband, one son, and 17 girls behind; when she returned to her family after Emancipation, she found her husband remarried, her daughters scattered, and her son missing after being sent to fight for the Confederacy. Drumgoold and her mother reunited as much of the family as possible and relocated to Brooklyn, New York. In New York, Drumgoold worked as a domestic, explored her religion, battled significant illnesses, and worked toward obtaining an education. She eventually attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC, and continued her studies in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She spent a number of years fulfilling her dream of being an educator by teaching African Americans. While it appears Drumgoold was forced to relinquish her work due to illness, little is known about the remainder of her life. Her autobiography ends—apparently unfinished—in 1897.

Drumgoold's narrative is not organized chronologically. Instead, Drumgoold often moves forward and backward in time—interspersing, repeating, or adding to stories as she writes. Woven into the narrative are comments and meditations on those things she holds most sacred: religion, faith, family, education, and descriptions of those people who aided her personally and the African American race generally.

For Drumgoold, nothing is feasible without faith in God. In her faith, Drumgoold sees an end to the suffering of her race, "For God loves those that are oppressed, and will save them when they cry unto him, and when they put their trust in Him" (p. 3). Religion also offers her an end to her personal suffering: "my own poor heart was ready and waiting for some one to come to its rescue. It was then and there that I yielded my life and my all to the one that can save to the uttermost all that come unto Him by the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 17). In her struggles, Drumgoold relies on her faith; in her victories, she praises it as the source of her strength.

Drumgoold's family also features prominently in her text. Her definition of family includes her original owner, a woman Drumgoold calls her "white mother," because she "never liked the idea of holding us as slaves," and "always said that we were all that she had on the earth to love" (pp. 7, 4). Still, Drumgoold's feelings for her "white mother" do not stop her condemnation of slavery as an institution. Her most powerful invective against slavery comes when she discusses the sale of her birth mother: "we did not know that she was sold until she was gone; and the saddest thought was to me to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me" (p. 5).

After Emancipation, Drumgoold focuses on education, which she considers both personally necessary and essential to the advancement of African Americans. Her plans to attend school have to be put aside for "three or four years" after she contracts smallpox, but she never wavers in her determination: "for every time that I saw the newspaper there was some one of our race in the far South getting killed for trying to teach and I made up my mind that I would die to see my people taught" (p. 24). This dedication leads her to study at Wayland Seminary and in Harpers Ferry, and she continues to work as a domestic to pay for her education while she battles a series of illnesses. In 1886, she sets out to teach "that I might be of some use to my own people" (p. 29).

While Drumgoold relies heavily on her faith—both in God and in education—she also spends a large part of her narrative praising those who have been helpful to her and to the race. She praises "Father Abraham [Lincoln]," John Brown, Ulysses S. Grant, her birth mother, Frederick Douglass, and a host of former employers, preachers, and doctors who have aided her (pp. 35-36). Her descriptions act as a form of celebration and as a reminder of the needs of both individuals and the community: "we need so many now to go forth and speak the truth" (p. 36).

Drumgoold's narrative ends abruptly as she prays for the strength to finish her work. Nevertheless, it does end with hope: "I hope that all who will may have the pleasure of knowing of something of the joys and of the sorrows that have crowned this little life of mine, but in and through it all I have seen the blessed hand of Him who is wise" (p. 62). Thus Drumgoold ends her narrative much like she began it: with passion and with faith.

Works Consulted: DePriest, Tomika, "Drumgoold, Kate," Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, 356-357; Fleischner, Jennifer, Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives, New York: New York University Press, 1996; Gwin, Minrose C., "Drumgoold, Kate," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 237.

Meredith Malburne

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