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William Grimes, 1784-1865
Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Written by Himself
New York: [W. Grimes], 1825.


William Grimes (1784-1865) was the son of Benjamin Grymes, the wealthy owner of a plantation in King George County, Virginia, and an enslaved servant of Grymes's neighbor, a Dr. Steward. William Grimes served at least ten different masters in Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia, working in such varied positions as house servant, valet, field worker, stable boy, and coachman. He was light-skinned, a fact that enabled him to pass as white on various occasions. Often severely mistreated by both his masters and his fellow slaves, Grimes suffered physical abuse in the house and in the field, and at times became combative or despondent. He escaped slavery in 1814 by stowing away on a ship bound for New York and became an entrepreneur in New England. He eventually settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and married Clarissa Caesar in 1817. They had eighteen children together, twelve of whom survived. After eventually finding a small measure of success, Grimes lost all of his property when his master discovered his location and forced him to buy his freedom or risk being returned to slavery. Grimes wrote the Life of William Grimes and published it in 1825, hoping to regain some of his lost funds. He published a second edition of his autobiography in 1855, updating it with humorous anecdotes and tempering some of his earlier bitterness. Grimes died in August 1865.

The Life of William Grimes was the first book-length autobiography written by a fugitive American slave, and its publication, as scholar Yuval Taylor observes, "inadvertently helped inaugurate a genre" (p. 653). Taylor also notes that Grimes's narrative is one of the first to refer to its author as a slave in the title. Yet his narrative is not as famous as other book-length slave narratives and, according to Taylor, has "had no discernible impact on the genre," which was later influenced by the rhetoric of the Abolitionist movement (p. 654). The Life of William Grimes is an important early text in the slave narrative genre, and it provides a raw and engaging first-hand account of the institution of slavery, unmediated by Abolitionist political aims.

Grimes begins his narrative by commenting on the complications of his status as the son of a wealthy and notorious Virginia planter and the slave of Dr. Steward. Grimes is "in law, a bastard and slave, and owned by Doct. Steward," and although his master treats him kindly, his mistress hates him: upon catching him in the house, she beats him until he "could hardly stand" (pp. 5-6). Grimes maintains a dry frankness about the violence inflicted on him by his masters and mistresses throughout his narrative; rather than explicitly lecturing against the violence of slavery, his forthright descriptions of the abuse he suffers stand as a stark critique of the institution of slavery.

At age ten, Grimes is sold to Col. William Thornton and taken to Montpelier plantation in Culpepper, Virginia, where the other slaves regard him jealously because he is a house slave. They sabotage his work, hoping that one of their family members will replace him in the house. Grimes is responsible for making the family coffee, but the mistress's head servant laces the coffee with cough syrup and blames Grimes for trying to poison them. He is eventually assigned to work in the fields, where he finds the hard labor preferable to the problematic politics of working in the house. Because of the cruel treatment of his overseers, Grimes eventually makes a half-hearted escape attempt but runs out of food and returns to his master. Grimes is then given to his master's son George, who later sells Grimes to his older brother, Dr. P. Thornton, who later sells him to an unnamed person.

Grimes is so dissatisfied by his treatment by his new master, that on the journey to Savannah, he tries unsuccessfully to break his own leg with an axe. His abusive master watches him closely, but Grimes dreams of escape: "He would never allow me to leave the yard, unless it was for the purpose of taking out his horses . . . At such times, I would often go to the fortune-teller . . . She told me I should eventually get away, but that it would be attended with a great deal of trouble" (p. 23). Although Grimes professes belief in Christianity and frequently prays to God, his visit to the fortune teller is only part of his involvement with the occult. While with this master, Grimes describes being tormented by Frankee, another enslaved house servant Grimes describes as a "witch." He claims she deliberately makes trouble for him, turning "herself into almost any different shape she chose," and describes nightmares in which she paralyzes him so that she can "exercise her enchantments" (p. 24). Unable to continue with these indignities, Grimes endeavors to obtain a new master by feigning illness and refusing to eat in front of his master "to make him think he must either sell me or lose me" (p. 27).

Convinced of Grimes' imminent demise, Grimes's master sells him once again; his sixth master, Mr. Oliver Sturges, puts him to work driving a carriage. Sturges intends to travel to New York, but Grimes discovers through fortune tellers that his master has decided not to take Grimes for fear that he "should be free" (p. 28), and Grimes is instead hired out as a driver to a Savannah printer for the summer. Grimes falls ill, however, from sun and insect exposure on a fishing trip, and with his master's permission, goes to live with and work for Doctor Collock. Grimes is treated kindly during his recovery in the doctor's house. He serves Collock for several years as a house servant, and since Grimes is light-skinned, he can travel the streets of Savannah at night, where the guards mistake him for a white man. He even helps a free African American from Richmond to walk the streets unmolested by inviting him to "walk behind me in the capacity of a servant," with "no doubt but I could deceive the watch as I had done before" (p. 42). Though Collock jails him for eight weeks under inhuman conditions for drunkenness, Grimes still calls him "the best and most humane man I ever lived with, or worked under" (p. 39). However, Grimes grows afraid at the increasing threat that Collock might sell him to New Orleans and away from Savannah, so he seeks a new master.

He is sold twice more before being purchased by his final owner, a Mr. Wellman. When the Wellman family travels to Bermuda, Grimes takes his opportunity to escape. Left behind to work for wages, Grimes gets a job loading the Brig Casket from Boston. Grimes makes friends with the "Yankee sailors," who help Grimes escape by leaving "in the centre of the cotton bales on deck, a hole or place sufficiently large for me to stow away in, with my necessary provisions" (p. 51). Grimes stows away and avoids detection at Staten Island, but he is in New York only a short time before he meets Oliver Sturges, his former master, on the street. Sturges apparently assumes Grimes has been sent to New York at the behest of one of his many masters, and Grimes evades detection without telling a lie: "He asked me how all things were going on at his yard in Savannah. I answered, all well, I just came from there, sir. After a few moments conversation, he passed on one way, and I went on towards my lodgings" (p. 53). Knowing that his safety may be in jeopardy, Grimes leaves New York for Hew Haven, Connecticut, where he runs into another former master, Mr. Bullock, prompting him to move once more. Grimes finds it difficult to earn a living in the North, working jobs for low wages and seeking work wherever he can find it: "I found it much harder at this time to be a free man, than I had to be a slave; but finally got to be able to earn fifty cents per day" (p. 55).

Moving from town to town in New England as a barber, Grimes finds financial success elusive, and he is frustrated by the costs of legal suits in which he becomes entangled. He eventually returns to New Haven and develops a thriving business as a barber. Not long thereafter, Grimes overhears a constable identify him as a runaway and flees New Haven, but he realizes he must return to his friends and employment. Upon his return, Grimes is notified that he will be arrested and re-enslaved "if I did not buy myself. I instantly offered to give up my house and land, all I had" (p. 66). Grimes willingly gives all of his financial wealth to keep his freedom. He writes his autobiography hoping that its sale will help remedy his dire financial situation, and he bitterly records the mistreatment he received in both the North and the South. Grimes closes his autobiography with an unforgettable and powerful condemnation of American society as a whole: "If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave, bind the charter of American Liberty" (p. 68).

See also the Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time [1855 edition].

Works Consulted: Hinks, Peter, "Grimes, William," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, ed. Paul Finkelman, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 124; Taylor, Yuval, "Grimes, William," The African American National Biography, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 653-654.

Jenn Williamson

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