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Isaac D. Williams, b. 1821?- and William Ferguson Goldie
Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life. Reminiscences as told by Isaac D. Williams to "Tege"
East Saginaw, Mich.: Evening News Printing and Binding House, 1885.


The circumstances of Isaac D. Williams' life are unknown, outside of what is narrated in Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life, an 1885 biography based on conversations between Williams and a man who identifies himself as "Tege." According to the biography, Williams was born in 1821 or 1822 in King George County, Virginia, which is situated between the Potomac and Rappahanock Rivers. He grew up on large estate owned by John O. Washington and claims to have been a free servant prior to being sold fraudulently as a slave during his teen years. The names of Williams' parents are unknown; he explains that his father was a free black man who emigrated to England when Isaac was five years old, and that his mother remained in Virginia until her death in 1855. Williams was left under the guardianship of John Washington when his father left for England. Tege claims that after Washington's death, Williams was left without a protector and, although such a sale should have been illegal, was first leased and then sold to Drewey B. Fitzhugh, who owned a farm nearby. Williams lived on Fitzhugh's farm until 1854. At some point during this period he was married without ceremony to a woman named Eliza Wheeler. Suspecting Williams of inciting slaves to riot, Fitzhugh sold him to George A. Ayler of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1854. Ayler then sold him to a slave dealer from Tennessee, but Williams escaped with his friend Henry Banks. Both men were shot and captured. After they recovered from their injuries, they were jailed, only to escape again. They journeyed to St. Catharines, Canada, arriving on Christmas Day 1854. In 1868, Williams settled in East Saginaw, Michigan, where he owned property and made a good living as a landlord and a janitor for several banks. The date of his death is unknown.

Written by an author who calls himself "Tege" (presumably William Ferguson Goldie, who registered the text for copyright protection), Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life, is based on notes from Tege's conversations with Williams. Tege claims to have "taken a chaotic mess of notes, and reduced [them] into a narrative form," using phrases that "are not what Uncle Ike used literally," but instead "express the ideas he wishes to convey" (p. 4). However, he presents the narrative in the first person, adopting Williams' perspective. Tege mingles stories from the lives of other slaves and former slaves with Williams' experiences. Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life was originally published in 1885 and was reprinted in 1975 by AMS Press.

In the narrative, Williams' childhood is described as relatively happy. He grows up with his parents and siblings as a servant on one of the five farms of John O. Washington, whom he describes as kind, though Washington employed overseers who were sometimes tyrannical. When Williams is five, his father leaves for England to avoid being sent to Liberia; Williams claims that a law passed at this time in Virginia required all free blacks over the age of 21 to relocate to the colony, which had been established a few years earlier as a place of resettlement for free blacks from the United States. After Washington's death, his widow's new husband first leases and then sells Williams to Drewey B. Fitzhugh in order to pay debts. "Then I felt I was indeed a slave," Williams says in the narrative (p. 8). He begins to associate with two men from Boston who talk to him about escape to the North. Believing that he is "a slave now only through fraud," Williams begins to think of escape, but a friend betrays his plans to his master (p. 9). Neighboring farmers convince Fitzhugh to sell Williams for fear that his "dangerous ideas" will create discontent among other slaves (p. 9). Williams and his friend Henry Banks escape from the slave dealer who buys them. They rub their shoes with spruce pine and red onions to confuse the bloodhounds they know will be put on their trail and hide in a cave in a riverbed for three weeks before they are discovered. When discovered, they refuse to surrender and are shot, Williams in the arm and leg and Banks in the back.

The two men are placed in a jail cell for twenty-eight days after they heal. Williams experiences a religious conversion during this imprisonment, and after he is unable to escape by his own methods, he prays God will show him how. He perceives a voice telling him to pry open a window that he has been trying for days to open with his own strength; it opens, and he and Banks escape. The slave owner who has recently purchased them offers a reward of six hundred dollars for each of them, dead or alive. After a brief interval, they head north toward Pennsylvania on December 1, 1854. Christopher Nicholas, an older escaped slave, joins them. The three men make the first half of their journey on foot, through woods and along rail lines, begging for food when they need it.

Near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, the three men meet a black man who puts them on the track of the Underground Railroad. A man named Stephen Whipper then directs them toward Columbia, Pennsylvania. Taken to Philadelphia by an underground railway agent named Mr. Rice, they are put on a train for Niagara Falls, New York, in the care of the train conductor. A horse-drawn bus carries them across the suspension bridge into Canada on Christmas Day. Welcomed by anti-slavery activist Hiram Wilson, Williams, Banks, and Nicholas each receive an axe, clothing, and boots, so that they can find employment.

Much of the second half of the narrative offers more general descriptions of slavery and the life of slaves, describing slave funerals, the experience of being whipped, and the hunting, fishing, and pilfering Williams and his friends did at night in order to obtain food. It also tells the stories of other slaves before returning to Williams, describing his life in Canada and the northern United States. Having worked chopping wood until buckshot lodged in his thumb leaves him unable to work, Williams risks a trip to Syracuse, New York, to have an operation. While in Syracuse, he gives two lectures and earns enough money to support himself until he recovers. He works on the Great Western railway of Canada from 1855 to 1867 and moves to Pontiac, Michigan, and then East Saginaw, Michigan.

The narrative ends with an account of a trip Williams takes to Virginia in 1872. He passes through Washington, D.C., and meets President Grant, with whom he has a lengthy conversation about the prosperity of Saginaw. He also asks Grant's advice on whether he can travel safely in the South due to Ku Klux Klan activity. In King George County, Williams encounters Drewey Fitzhugh's nephew, who says he is glad that Williams escaped safely, and that Fitzhugh is away and will be sorry not to have seen him. Williams visits his wife and children, who still live in Virginia. Both he and his wife have remarried. The story of his escape had become famous in that area of Virginia, and both whites and blacks are interested in hearing Williams tell his story. After six weeks, he returns to Michigan.

Works Consulted: Freedman, Jacob Andrew, "Williams, Isaac D.," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 8, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Erin Bartels Buller

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