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William Grimes, 1784-1865
Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time.
New Haven: Published by the Author, 1855.


William Grimes (1784-1865) was the son of Benjamin Grymes, a wealthy plantation owner in King James County, Virginia, and an enslaved servant of Grymes's neighbor, 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 achieving 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 published the Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Written by Himself 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.

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time reproduces Grimes's original 1825 narrative—with minor corrections for grammar and punctuation, It tells the story of his life in slavery, his escape to freedom, and his attempts to become an entrepreneur in New England. A summary of that original narrative is available here.

Following the original narrative is an appended "Conclusion." Writing thirty years later, when very few copies of the original narrative remained in circulation, Grimes admits that "it was only when I advertised in the public papers, that I was myself enabled to procure a perfect one" (p. 84). Grimes claims to have been urged by friends to print a new edition "with such additions as I can find time to add in this my old age" (p. 84).

"Old Grimes," as he calls himself, is more than seventy years old and the father of eighteen children, though he believes only twelve are still living at the time of the second writing. His family has dispersed, and he no longer knows where all of them are: "The youngest child, now eight years old, a smart and active lad, is the only one now with me. The other children that are living are scattered all over the world, one son being now in Australia, digging for gold" (p. 85). Though Grimes praises his wife, Clarissa Caesar, and provides no information about the circumstances of their separation, he indicates that she, too, has left and now resides in California: "Like her noble son, she too is seeking for gold" (p. 85).

Grimes offers an account of his frequent movements throughout New England in the years following the first narrative's publication, describing his work as a barber and broker as well as some of his legal troubles. He describes his membership in the Methodist Church, which was complicated by community disapproval of his business venture selling lottery tickets. Grimes also provides information to follow up on stories he related in his original narrative, including the fate of the old slave-woman Frankee, "that witch that I mentioned in the book, riding me" (p. 91). Grimes had heard from his former master, who told him that "when he thought Frankee was agoing to die he told her that she had been a good slave, and asked her what he could do for her" (p. 91). Frankee's dying wish was to be buried with all of her possessions, so when she died "my old massa dug a trench beside of her grave, and put in everything--bed and bed-clothes, tables, chairs, frying-pan, dishes . . . and buried them all up with her" (p. 91).

Although Grimes admits to some legal troubles and debts, he displays much less bitterness in this updated version of his narrative than in the first. He acknowledges the wrongs committed against him but offers his forgiveness to those who treated him badly: "I said in the former part of my book, that the poor and friendless are not entirely free from apprehension, even in this land of liberty," he writes. "But on reflection I have concluded not to rake up old affairs . . . I have forgiven all, and hope, if possible, to forget them. But when they are called to mind, I think those persons who have oppressed poor Grimes, should recollect that although his skin is perhaps a little darker than theirs, he yet has the feelings of a man, and knows when he is abused" (p. 92). The concluding tone of this second edition, thus, does not remove the clear-sighted critique of the original narrative that offers "the skin of an American slave" to "bind the charter of American Liberty" (p. 83), but it tempers that bitter tone by offering forgiveness and the hope that all men will be recognized as feeling men, regardless of the color of their skins.

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. and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 653-654.

Jenn Williamson

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