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G. W. Offley (Greensbury Washington), b. 1808
A Narrative of the Life and Labors of the Rev. G. W. Offley, a Colored Man, Local Preacher and Missionary; Who Lived Twenty-Seven Years at the South and Twenty-Three at the North; Who Never Went to School a Day in His Life, and Only Commenced to Learn His Letters When Nineteen Years and Eight Months Old; the Emancipation of His Mother and Her Three Children; How He Learned to Read While Living in a Slave State, and Supported Himself from the Time He Was Nine Years Old Until He Was Twenty-One
Hartford, Conn.: [s. n.], 1859.


Greensbury Washington Offley was born into slavery December 18, 1808, in Centerville, Maryland to a free black man and an enslaved woman whose names are now unknown. After being purchased by his father as a child, Offley spent his youth helping to support his family. When he turned twenty-one, Offley became free and in 1835 he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he became an influential preacher. Dedicated to the struggles of African Americans, Offley was involved with the Underground Railroad, raised money for freedmen, and wrote on behalf of African American interests. Beginning in 1847, he solicited funds to help build a church for the Colored Methodist Zion Society in Worchester, Massachusetts, receiving donations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other well-known New Englanders. After completion of the project, Offley returned to Hartford as the minister of Belknap Street Church and later led congregations in North Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Calling for an end to divisions within the African American Methodist community, Offley publicly argued for the union of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Churches. Offley was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by Livingstone College in 1891. He died in his New Bedford, Massachusetts home March 22, 1896.

A Narrative of the Life and Labors of the Rev. G. W. Offley was published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1859. Although it bills itself as a "Life," Offley's Narrative recounts only the portion of his life prior to his moving to Hartford in 1835. Offley describes his youth and his quest for literacy and then follows with a sermonic description of his theological beliefs. He ends by appealing directly to his readers to be "respectable, honest, and upright, with God, ourselves, and our fellow man." He appends two hymns, "What a Mercy" and "Jacob's Ladder," to his narrative.

The Narrative begins with Offley's brief biography of his parents, whom he describes as determined resisters of the slave system. Born into slavery in Virginia before being sold in Maryland, Offley's mother, along with several of her children, is freed upon her master's death. When the master's family destroys a will containing instructions to free Offley's youngest brother, Offley's father resolves to purchase the remaining members of his family, including a sister and Offley's elderly grandmother. Purchasing his children, however, proves to be a difficult task, as their master's family threatens to shoot Offley's father if he attempts to bid on them at auction. Offley's mother, intent on seeing her children freed, threatens to "cut all three of their throats while they are asleep" rather than see them return to a life of bondage (p. 4). Although contemporary scholars have shown that infanticide was rarer than other forms of resistance by enslaved women, and although his mother has "no intention of doing as she said," the slave owner's family nonetheless takes her warning to heart (p. 5). Although they downplay the influence of the threat, explaining instead that "it would bring disgrace upon the family to prohibit a man from buying his own children," their masters allow Offley's father to purchase them (p. 5).

Offley's parents struggle to support the family on the little money they are able to earn. Frustrated by her inability to feed her family even as well as they were fed under slavery, Offley's mother "would often think of her old master's kitchen and wish for some of the good victuals she had given to the poor whites, and the field slaves" (p. 6). When Offley is old enough, his father hires him out to help provide for the family, and the young boy teaches himself to make baskets, foot mats, and horse collars from cornhusks to make extra money. At sixteen, he begins hiring enslaved men to chop wood or catch fish and oysters at night, an enterprise that allows him to aid not only his own family, but also those still in bondage, some of whom he was able to help free under cover of darkness (p. 8).

Offley's independent determination is also evident in his quest for literacy, which he gains without "the advantage of one day's schooling in my life" (p. 9). At age nineteen, Offley finds a piece of a Bible and seeks reading lessons from a man who works for his father, and then from a slave owner's son, whom he repays by teaching him to wrestle, box, and fight. Later in his narrative, Offley explains why he taught fighting skills, noting that he "was trying to be respectable by doing like the rich," who refuse to be insulted without retaliation (p. 14). Since then, he notes, he has "been enabled to see things in a different light" and denounces violence (p. 18). When Offley moves to Delaware and begins working in a hotel, a poor white boy asks Offley for food and begins teaching him to write in exchange for provisions.

Although the narrative does not detail Offley's life as a preacher, it features religion prominently, as Offley describes the religious beliefs he inherited from his mother and father, what he calls his "family theology" (p. 14). His parents were illiterate, but the slaveholder who owns Offley's mother often reads the Bible to his slaves. As a result, Offley's understanding of Christian theology reflects the use of Biblical teachings to encourage subordination to masters. He notes, for example, that to go to Heaven, children must be "obedient to their parents or their owners" (p. 13). But Offley also emphasizes the idea that all people are equal before God, as he "gave his son to die for all, bond or free, black or white, rich or poor" (p. 14). In addition, Offley maintains that those chosen for God's work are "immortal until his work is done," and he offers examples of an enslaved man named Praying Jacob and a Methodist preacher to illustrate this tenet of his family theology (p. 14).

Offley ends his narrative with "a word to my colored friends," taking issue with the word "degradation," which was often used to describe the condition of African-Americans (p. 18). The term, he argues, should not be applied to them, as they "may be oppressed by man, but never morally degraded" as long as they "are respectable, honest, and upright with God, ourselves, and our fellow man" (p. 20).

Works Consulted: Doughton, Thomas L. and B. Eugene McCarthy, From Bondage to Belonging: The Worchester Slave Narratives, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007; Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the Old South, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1988; Offley, G. W., "The Question of the Union," The Christian Recorder, 10 May 1883.

Christy Webb

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