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Edmond Kelley, b. 1817.
A Family Redeemed from Bondage; Being Rev. Edmond Kelley, (the Author,) His Wife, and Four Children
New Bedford: The Author, 1851.


Edmond Kelley (1817-?) was born into slavery in Columbia, Tennessee. His owner, Ann White, eventually transferred ownership of him to her daughter, Nancy. Details about his early life are sparse. In 1839, he married Paralee Walker, with whom he eventually had four children. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1843, and the Concord Baptist Association tried to purchase him as a preacher in 1845. However, since the resolution would have kept him as property in trust to the Association, Kelley objected. He continued to work for them until 1846, paying White ten dollars a month for his time. In 1846, after Nancy White's estate became insolvent, she urged him to leave Tennessee to escape being sold. White authorized Kelley to receive a pass that enabled him to preach anywhere in the United States, and in 1847 Kelly left for Boston, a move that gave him de facto freedom. In 1848, Kelley became pastor of the Second Baptist Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts. During his time there, he worked to raise funds to purchase his wife and children. After several years of effort, the Boston Baptist Association assisted Kelley in obtaining his family's freedom. They arrived in New Bedford in May of 1851, reunited four years after Kelley left Tennessee.

A Family Redeemed from Bondage is largely a collection of letters that outline Kelley's ordination as minister in the Baptist Church, his freedom, and his efforts to free his family from slavery. It contains little information about his early life in slavery or his personal life. In the introduction, Kelley explains that he publishes the letters as a record of his efforts to raise the funds to purchase his family's freedom. Some of the funds were raised by newspaper circulars, soliciting donations on behalf of his cause, and Kelley notes that "I stated in my circulars for subscriptions, that I contemplated publishing all the facts relative to the purchase of my family, including the letters from various churches" (p. 3).

Kelley provides only a few biographical details, including his birth and marriage dates. Instead of a personal narrative, Kelley lets the official record and correspondence of his life speak for itself. He includes the licenses that ordain him to preach as a Baptist minister as well as a copy of the resolution by the Concord Baptist Association to purchase his freedom. The Association proceedings include a provision indicating that Kelley would "be held in trust by said Committee and their successors, as the property of this Association," wording that is "sufficient to account for the reason why I was not purchased by the Association" (p. 6). Kelley briefly notes Nancy White's insolvency and then includes the correspondence that indicates White has arranged for his pass to preach anywhere in the United States, thereby allowing him to travel without restriction. Kelley also receives letters of advice and introduction into the New England religious community.

Although Kelley effectively obtains his freedom by leaving for New England to preach, the fate of his family is still a concern, as they remain in slavery. He includes a notice that the funds raised by the Concord Baptist Association to purchase him cannot be used to purchase his family because the donors intended it for him, with any unclaimed funds going "to the beneficiary of this Association at Union University" (p. 9). As Kelley points out in a note, there seems to be a strange logic applied to the Committee's resolution, which will not redirect the funds toward his family's purchase but will redirect it towards a student, highlighting some of the difficulties and complexities of Church involvement in fundraising, purchasing, and manumitting slaves.

Kelley remains committed to obtaining his family's freedom and continues to correspond with James Walker, their owner, who claims such bonds of affection that "Although they occupy the position of servants to me and my family, they in reality, in the tie of affection and regard for their comfort and happiness which exists, are not slaves at all" (p. 9). He refuses to sell them for any purpose but freedom. The narrative includes a series of letters negotiating a sale price for the family, an invitation by Walker to Kelley to "live here a free man with your wife and children nominally slaves," as well as concerns on the part of Walker that his daughter might be too attached to Kelley's youngest daughter to part with her (p. 10). Determined to obtain their freedom, Kelley then includes letters describing efforts to raise the money to meet Walker's price, fundraising circulars, final confirmations of the sale, and safe arrival notices of the entire family. Kelley concludes his narrative with the official affidavit legally declaring their freedom. While no commentary is offered to explain, describe, or celebrate this momentous document, its symbol as a document of freedom, its placement at the end of the text, and Kelley's prefatory remarks make it clear that this document is the most important document of the entire narrative.

Works Cited: Walker, Paul, "Kelley, Edmund," The African American National Biography, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 49-50.

Jenn Williamson

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