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Peter Randolph, 1825?-1897
Sketches of Slave Life: Or, Illustrations of the "Peculiar Institution"
Boston: The Author, 1855.


Peter Randolph (c.1825-1897) was born enslaved on Brandon Plantation—which was owned by Carter H. Edloe—in Prince George County, Virginia, and his mother was enslaved to Edloe. Randolph's father was a black slave driver owned by George Harrison on an adjacent plantation. Their names are unknown. Randolph was a sickly child who felt called around the age of ten to preach Christianity to other slaves. Randolph's master died in 1844, emancipating his slaves in his will. However, Edloe's relatives contested the will, and Randolph was at the forefront of a three-year legal fight to obtain the freedom granted to eighty slaves by their former master. As a result, sixty-six slaves were eventually freed, and each received a reduced inheritance of fifteen dollars from the original fifty dollars stipulated in the will. Randolph led the group of former slaves, ranging in age from twelve months to seventy-five years, to Boston, where prominent citizens and abolitionists—including William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel J. May, and the future governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrews—welcomed them. In Boston, Randolph became involved with the Anti-Slavery Society. He also became a licensed preacher for the Baptist Church, and in 1852 he served as a missionary in Canada for fugitive slaves. In the years before the Civil War, Randolph was a minister in small churches in Connecticut and New York, but he returned to Boston when each position ended. During the Civil War, Randolph served as a chaplain for one of the black regiments stationed in the South, and, at the end of the war, he became the first African American pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. In Richmond, he enacted important gender reforms in the church, giving women a greater role in church affairs. He also worked to legalize slave marriages and helped freed slaves. After four and a half years, Randolph returned to Boston and established an Ebenezer Church there, which became one of the largest black churches in the city. He also ministered to other congregations throughout New England. According to scholar Julia Lee, Randolph helped turn the Baptist Church into a national force, so that by the turn of the century, Baptists had become the largest denomination among African American Protestants.

Randolph published Sketches of Slave Life in 1855. According to scholar Marion W. Starling, this story of a fugitive slave who had become a prominent abolitionist in the 1850s was destined for popularity. Indeed, Randolph's narrative went through the first edition and appeared in an expanded second edition in the year of its first printing. The first edition of Sketches of Slave Life lives up to its title, offering brief, segmented descriptions of life under slavery as well as an abbreviated explanation (only two paragraphs) of the circumstances under which Randolph and Edloe's former slaves finally obtained their freedom. Randolph's goal in publishing Sketches was to garner support for the anti-slavery cause, and public interest created a demand for an expanded edition. The second edition, which, at eighty-two pages, more than doubled the size of the first, added details about the fight in Virginia courts over the Edloes' emancipation of the slaves and a prefatory statement by abolitionist Samuel J. May. A third edition of Randolph's narrative was published in 1893, titled From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: the Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life. This edition extends Randolph's earlier narratives, increasing the text to 220 pages and discussing his religious experiences, African American religious "customs," and ministerial work.

Sketches is not a chronological account of Randolph's life. Instead, it is composed of a series of observations on selected aspects of slave life, all drawn from Randolph's experiences in slavery. Randolph's "sketches" range from explanatory essays on "Food and Clothing" (p. 18), "The Hours for Work" (p. 19), and "How The Slaves Contrive To Get Food" (p. 19) to more passionate treatises on the inhumanities of slavery in "Slaves On The Auction-Block" (p. 7), "Flogging" (p. 20), and "Overseers" (p. 22). In each of his essays, Randolph strongly emphasizes the humanity of the enslaved and the suffering caused by both the everyday regulations and the extreme abuses of the plantation system. Randolph's text is particularly notable in its active efforts to undermine contemporary views that enslaved African Americans lack the same emotional responses as whites; that they are content in slavery; and, as scholar Marion W. Starling has pointed out, that slave-holders would not deliberately harm slaves because they were valuable property. Randolph even exposes the ways in which slaves have been coached to provide deceptive responses to non-slaveholders: "These slaves know what they must say when asked as to their treatment at home . . . They leave their wives, their mothers, brothers and sisters, and children, toiling and being driven and whipped by the overseer, and tortured and insulted on every occasion" (p. 16).

In the latter portion of Sketches of Slave Life, Randolph's observations become more clearly autobiographical. In "My Own History," Randolph explains how he converted to Christianity at a young age, why he felt called to become a preacher to other slaves, and how he taught himself to read and write (p. 25). A friend had taught Randolph some letters and how to spell a few words; he strongly desired to be able to read from the Bible, so he learned to read by attending the sermons of a white pastor: "When I heard him read his text, I would read mine . . . This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave" (p. 26). Randolph also provides an account of the religious practices of slaves in "Sabbath and Religious Meetings" (p. 30) and brief information about his familial history in "My Parents" (p. 33). Thus, Randolph's text operates on two levels: each section of the autobiography may stand as a generalized description of life under slavery or can be seen as extending Randolph's personal history into an indictment of the system of slavery and a plea for the humanity of all slaves Read together, these sections provide insights into the man who wrote the entire text. The third edition of Randolph's narrative, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: the Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life (1893), is available from Documenting the American South.

Documenting the American South has not published an electronic version of the 1855 second edition of Sketches of Slave Life. Researchers can locate a copy through WorldCat. In addition, Google Books has published an online copy.

Works Consulted: Lee, Julia Sun-Joo, "Randolph, Peter," Oxford African American Studies Center Online, 23 April 2009; Starling, Marion Wilson, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History, Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988, 186-187.

Jenn Williamson

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