Slave Narratives

African slaves brought a tradition of oral narratives to the U.S., a tradition that persisted after the abolition of slavery.
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Slave Narratives

The oral tradition that captives brought with them from Africa persisted in their communities in the American colonies. Stories and song generally revolved around African themes and subjects. However, the mid-to-late eighteenth century saw the birth of a new genre, the slave narrative.

Briton Hammon's 1760 autobiography was the first. With it, attention shifted to what would become, and remain, a central theme in African-American writing: the social condition of the African-American people.

The 20-year period between 1840 and 1860 saw the publication of the narratives of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave; Henry Bibb, An American Slave; Solomon Northtrup, Twelve Years a Slave; Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave; and two individuals who would become household names, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

On the March

Frederick Douglass's writings emphasized autonomy, self-sufficiency, and education, and his writings show a firm moral sense that is unafraid to challenge social conventions. He once wrote of his time as a slave, “I prayed for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

To learn more about Frederick Douglass, visit the website “American Visionaries: Frederick Douglass,” maintained by the Museum Management Program and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site:

Frederick Douglass's narrative appeared in 1845 with a preface by New England abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator. Garrison had noticed the escaped slave, who had managed to make his way to an anti-slavery meeting in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Garrison spotted the young man's verbal gifts early on and recruited him as a speaker for the cause.

Douglass went on to become a stirring orator, an important leader in the abolitionist movement, an adviser to presidents, and one of the great figures in American letters. After the Civil War, he focused his efforts on the struggle for equal opportunity and education for African-Americans.

Frederick Douglass was, for most of his public life, a prominent and outspoken supporter of women's rights. He attended the historic Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

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