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Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend

Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend

by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

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Merging comprehensive research and grand storytelling, Mr. and Mrs. Prince reveals the true story of a remarkable pre-Civil War African-American family, as well as the challenges that faced African-Americans who lived in the North versus the slaves who lived in the South.

Lucy Terry, a devoted wife and mother, was the first known African-American


Merging comprehensive research and grand storytelling, Mr. and Mrs. Prince reveals the true story of a remarkable pre-Civil War African-American family, as well as the challenges that faced African-Americans who lived in the North versus the slaves who lived in the South.

Lucy Terry, a devoted wife and mother, was the first known African-American poet and Abijah Prince, her husband, was a veteran of the French and Indian wars and an entrepreneur. Together they pursued what would become the cornerstone of the American dream—having a family and owning property where they could live, grow, and prosper. Owning land in both Vermont and Massachusetts, they were well on their way to settling in when bigoted neighbors tried to run them off. Rather than fleeing, they asserted their rights, as they would do many times, in court.

Here is a story that not only demonstrates the contours of slavery in New England but also unravels the most complete history of a pre-Civil War black family known to exist. Illuminating and inspiring, Mr. and Mrs. Prince uncovers the lives of those who could have been forgotten and brings to light a history that has intrigued but eluded many until now.

Editorial Reviews

David Waldstreicher
Years of strenuous digging in the account books and personal papers of whites who knew the Princes have enabled Gerzina to present a moving, if less than rounded, portrait of a striving family. Eighteenth-century Yankees kept track of everything: the work and pay of the slaves they owned and rented, even what they bought at the store. But Mr. and Mrs. Prince isn't—it can't be—the inner life of a vernacular poet and her enterprising husband. Instead of lamenting the limits of the evidence, the author spins a parallel story out of the dig for evidence.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Long before the Civil War, former slaves Lucy and Abijah Prince became, respectively, the first published African American poet and an entrepreneur. With a family and property, they achieved the American dream-though they had to fight to keep their land. Gerzina (Black London) crafts an inspiring tale.

—Ann Burns
School Library Journal

Gerzina (English, Dartmouth Coll.) shifts locales from her well-noted Black London: Life Before Emancipationto piece together the engaging and remarkable story of the love, family, defiance, and persistence of Lucy Terry Prince (1724-1821) and her husband, Abijah Prince (1705-94). The Princes were cash-poor, hard-working, self-made settlers, first as slaves and then as free persons in Massachusetts and Vermont, revealing terrain seldom glimpsed in writings on blacks in early America. The story of their family and their surroundings flows beyond slavery into a fluid narrative of personal contacts and encounters only distantly bordered by the institutional dictates and legislative directions commonly offered to define early American black life. Individualizing the broad strokes in historian William D. Piersen's Black Yankees, Gerzina offers a New England version of T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes's "Myne Owne Ground,"their 1980 piece on race and freedom in colonial Virginia. Gerzina illuminates the deep shadows where free blacks in early New England, and elsewhere, still remain barely glimpsed. Her often riveting first-person research report is recommended for collections on early America and African Americans.
—Thomas J. Davis

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
Enthusiastic research into a family of freed New England slaves reveals some unsettling truths about the treatment of blacks in colonial America. NPR host Gerzina (English/Dartmouth; Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden, 2004, etc.) and her husband lived in Guilford, Vt., just across the mountains from the onetime home of freed slave Abijah Prince and his poet wife, Lucy Terry. Delving into the couple's history over seven years of recondite genealogical research, the modern-day spouses' evident excitement at unearthing threads in the Princes' lives is infectious. Born in 1706, Prince spent his early life as the single black slave of minister Benjamin Doolittle in Northfield, Mass., before joining the army in 1747. Gerzina believes that Prince cunningly engineered his own manumission, probably by handing over his military pay to an outside buyer. Certainly he knew how to read and write and had already learned the value of legal documents. Moving in Massachusetts among a thriving "Negro network," Prince met and courted Lucy, a much younger slave woman who had arrived from Africa in her youth and composed a now legendary poem called "Bars Fight" during the French and Indian War. The two married in 1756 and lived with their growing family in Deerfield; however, they were able to purchase various plots of land in Vermont, where the family eventually settled by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Gerzina and her husband track the Princes' movements through purchases, medical records and court papers, especially those documenting the antagonism between the couple and their racist white neighbor, John Noyes, who continually attacked the family inorder to drive them out. Lucy argued against Noyes and took one case to the State Supreme Court, where she won. The authors effectively shatter the myth of white benevolence in favor of black ingenuity, including a surprising amount of African-American access to the judicial system. Occasionally footloose in citing sources, Gerzina pursues a remarkable American story. Agent: Neeti Madan/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.

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Mr. and Mrs. Prince

Chapter One

The Attack

On Tuesday, October 4, 1785, half a dozen men, later described by the courts as a "mob," armed themselves with clubs and crashed through a farm gate and into the Guilford, Vermont, house of Abijah and Lucy Prince. Several of the attackers had wrangled with the Princes in court on and off over small debts and trumped up transgressions. For months, financed and encouraged by the Princes' nearest neighbor, they hounded the former slaves, but the elderly Bijah and Lucy not only refused to be intimidated but responded to every assault with defiance. Only five months before, Lucy had left behind her eighty-year-old husband to guard the house while she traveled north to take their complaints to the highest governing body of the independent republic of Vermont, and she powerfully impressed the Governor and Council with the first speech they had ever heard by an African American. She returned with an order of protection, but it had no effect against the thugs who were now breaking down her door.

They made their way inside, brutally beating the Princes' hired man, a mulatto. Bijah and Lucy escaped harm, but the attackers set fire to their hayrick as they raced off. No hay could mean no food throughout the coming winter for the livestock, and therefore no food for themselves, or transportation, or way to make a living. It was likely to mean poverty, starvation, and failure. Others might have given up, but Bijah and Lucy had not faced a lifetime of warfare and the struggle for their own freedom in order to be run off their hundred acres. Instead, they went straight to the authorities and lodged complaints.Within days, arrest warrants were issued for all six attackers. One absconded, but the others were locked up, and all eventually ended up before the law, with three of the Princes and a large number of others subpoenaed to testify against them.

The Princes, as we shall see, were no strangers to the courts. Had they lived in the South, they would not have been allowed to testify against whites, let alone file charges. So much of how they became who they were depended upon the fact that they lived in New England, a place of contradictions. Slavery was firmly ingrained in the economy and social network of many of the states, but the principle of legal fair play also prevailed, sometimes awkwardly, alongside enslavement in a complicated world inhabited by Africans, Indians, and Europeans. In the stories about the Princes, Lucy always appears as the one who repeatedly acted as a lawyer, but it would turn out that it was Bijah who taught her to pursue her rights through the courts. How did he learn this? To understand that we begin where his life began, nearly eighty years before the attack, and long before the state of Vermont was even imagined.

It was Bijah's luck, or perhaps his misfortune, to enter life in this complex, violent, and troubled part of New England, far from the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and farther still from the yet-to-be-developed southern plantations. In an interesting historical coincidence, he was born about three hundred years ago, in 1706, the same year as Benjamin Franklin, another self-made man who left his home to begin a new life. Their life spans were almost exactly parallel—Franklin died just four years before Prince at the end of the century—but aside from Franklin's eventual opposition to slavery and the fact that they both came of age in Massachusetts, they occupied different universes. Franklin was completely urban: when he left the family home in Boston, he set out for the city of Philadelphia, and he later spent years in Paris serving the American cause. He abandoned his wife for years and was a largely absent father. Bijah lived in the country and in small towns, clearing land and building a house with his own hands, fighting in an earlier war, and devoted to his family. Black and white, rural and urban, their paths never crossed, but they both lived out important versions of a new country.

Tradition says that Bijah began his journey in Wallingford, Connecticut, near New Haven, just after the time when the Congregationalist descendants of the Puritan settlers had bought out, killed, or decimated by illness the native population with whom they came to trade. Yet how can one be sure? Although the early New Englanders were meticulous record keepers, if you were black, your name—such as it was—was put on paper only if you had dealings with a court, if you were bought or sold or inherited, or if you were baptized. If you ran away, newspaper advertisements might describe your height, coloring, distinguishing features, the clothes you ran off in, and your facility with the English language, since English might be your second or even third language. If you did none of these things, you probably faded into obscurity as another "John Negro" or "Coffee" or "Mary" whose origins or fate seemed negligible, your tastes and your life unremarked. In New England you were likely to be given a first name that was English or biblical, just as were the whites, but rarely a last name, unless occasionally that of an owner. Abijah Prince's first name comes, like most Puritan names, from the Old Testament and was prescient: one of the biblical Abijahs was appointed by his father to become a judge. Many male slaves were named Prince, but very few from three hundred years ago had both a first and last name; Bijah wore his name proudly, insisting in later years on signing his full name rather than an X on legal documents.

He may have gotten his last name from a slave owner, or his father may have been named Prince. Two entrepreneurial ship captains near New Haven, Samuel Prince and Josiah Prince of Milford, Connecticut, made many runs up and down to the Caribbean on their "coasters." The owners of this sort of trading sloop often dealt in slaves on a small scale, for themselves or for friends. They carried supplies grown on several Connecticut slave plantations to feed slaves on West Indian plantations, returning with rum, molasses and sugar, and other products.

Mr. and Mrs. Prince. Copyright © by Gretchen Gerzina. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is the author and editor of several books, including Carrington; Black London (a New York Times notable book); Black Victorians, Black Victoriana; Frances Hodgson Burnett; and others. She is the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography at Dartmouth College, where she also chairs the English Department, the first African-American woman to do so in the Ivy League. She has won grants from Fulbright and the National Endowment for Humanities and hosts The Book Show, a nationally syndicated weekly radio program that airs on ninety stations across the country, interviewing current authors of literary fiction, biography, and history.

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