Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Mattie J. Jackson
The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Her Parentage, Experience of Eighteen Years in Slavery, Incidents During the War, Her Escape from Slavery: A True Story
Lawrence [Mass.]: Sentinel Office, 1866.


The only available record of Mattie Jackson's life comes from her own narrative, which was recorded on her behalf by her stepmother, Dr. L. S. Thompson. Jackson was born around 1846 in St. Louis, Missouri, to an enslaved father named Westly Jackson and an enslaved mother, Ellen Turner, who was owned by a different master. Although Turner was repeatedly sold to owners who moved the family further apart, Westly Jackson fathered three daughters with Turner: Sarah Ann, Mattie Jane, and Esther J. With Turner's assistance, Westly Jackson eventually escaped to freedom in the North and became a preacher. Six years later, Turner remarried a man named George Brown, and the couple had two sons before Brown also escaped to Canada. Turner made six unsuccessful escape attempts herself, but was thwarted by exhaustion and the dependency of her children. Jackson, however, eventually escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad in 1863. Not long after her getaway, Jackson's sister, mother, and half-brother all successfully fled slavery. Jackson eventually reunited with her mother and half-brother, but they were never able to find her sister again. After Emancipation, Jackson returned to St. Louis with her mother, who again remarried. Shortly after settling in St. Louis, Jackson's stepfather, George Brown, discovered the family's whereabouts and sent for her and her half-brother to join him in Lawrence, Massachusetts. There she became acquainted with Brown's new wife, a physician, and settled into Lawrence society.

The Story of Mattie J. Jackson has a double mission. As its preface asserts, the narrative's first object is to "gain sympathy from the earnest friends of those who have been bound down by a dominant race in circumstances over which they had no control" (p. 2). The text's second goal is to raise educational funds. Jackson solicits readers "to buy my little book to aid me in obtaining an education, that I may be enabled to do some good in behalf of the elevation of my emancipated brothers and sisters" (p. 2).

The narrative is somewhat unusual because it tells Jackson's life story almost entirely as a family history, relating the experiences of her mother and siblings as an integral part of her own story. Although the body of the narrative is titled "Mattie's Story," large portions are devoted to Jackson's mother's courtships, marriages, and separations from Jackson's father and step-father. While her mother assists in her husbands' escapes, finding "solace in the contemplation of her husband becoming a free man" and "hope that her little family . . . might be enabled to make their escape also, and meet to part no more on earth" (p. 6), these passages also highlight the psychological trauma inflicted on those who attempt to develop relationships in the midst of slavery's constant threat of forcible separation. Furthermore, the narrative emphasizes how these traumas affect the children of those relationships: "I shall never forget the bitter anguish of my parents' hearts, the sighs they uttered or the profusion of tears which coursed down their sable checks" (p. 5). Jackson's focus on lineage and family in the narrative emphasizes both the value and fragility of those relationships.

As it unfolds, Jackson's story remains largely entwined with that of her mother, who often comes to her aid during their enslavement. In one significant moment, a master named Mr. Lewis is induced by his wife to beat Jackson, who reports that Lewis "would have punished me more had not my mother interfered" but that he "was aware my mother could usually defend herself against one man, and both of us would overpower him" (p. 12). This alliance between mother and daughter not only shows the significance of the bond between them, but it also reveals that bond as a potentially powerful source of resistance.

Jackson portrays the increased opportunities for rebellion offered by the unrest of the years leading to the war's end, and interaction with Union troops reveals much about the social uncertainties during the concluding years of the Civil War. Enslaved African Americans find hope in the Union occupation, relying on rumor as well as illicit newsgathering for information about the country's slow progress towards Emancipation: "My mother and myself could read enough to make out the news in the papers. The Union soldiers took much delight in tossing a paper over the fence to us. It aggravated my mistress very much" (p. 10). Although Union troops could not prevent the sale of slaves within the borders of the state and had few powers to interfere with the master-slave relationship, they did offer limited protection and occasionally intervened to prevent harsh public punishments.

After her escape to Indianapolis, Jackson begins her formal education, which she considers both a benefit of her new freedom and a fundamental quality for advancement: "I now began to feel that as I was free I could learn to write . . . I would advise all, young, middle aged or old, in a free country, to learn to read and write" (p. 23). Jackson later expands on this sentiment when describing her experiences in Lawrence, noting that she took the opportunity to attend school but "needed more attention than my kind teacher could possibly bestow upon me" (p. 29). Jackson thus publishes her story in order to obtain "aid towards completing my studies" (p. 29).

Jackson briefly describes her reunion with her mother and half-brother as well as the proceedings that lead her back to St. Louis and then to Lawrence, to live with her stepfather and stepmother. Although she misses her mother, she feels "immediately at home among such kind and friendly people" (p. 28). She is quick to pick up on cultural differences in her new town, noting that her skin color no longer causes public remark nor bars her from public arenas: "I was not reminded of my color . . . I was never permitted to attend a white church before, or ride in any public conveyance without being placed in a car for the especial purpose" (p. 29). While Jackson does not characterize Lawrence as a place of utopian racial equality, she does take notice of the ways in which the changes wrought by the Civil War and Emancipation removed many social and economic barriers for African Americans, and she seems to feel the most free as she travels the city, able to "ride where I please, without the slightest remark" (p. 29).

Jenn Williamson

Document menu