Sketches of Slave Life and From and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit

Sketches of Slave Life and From and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit

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This book is the first anthology of the autobiographical writings of Peter Randolph, a prominent nineteenth-century former slave who became a black abolitionist, pastor, and community leader.

Randolph’s story is unique because he was freed and relocated from Virginia to Boston, along with his entire plantation cohort. A lawsuit launched by Randolph against his former master’s estate left legal documents that corroborate his autobiographies.

Randolph's writings give us a window into a different experience of slavery and freedom than other narratives currently available and will be of interest to students and scholars of African American literature, history, and religious studies, as well as those with an interest in Virginia history and mid-Atlantic slavery. 


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943665051
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Series: Regenerations Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter Randolph (1825e-1897) was born enslaved in Prince George County, Virginia. Randolph was freed upon his master’s death along with the entire plantation workforce. In 1847, sixty-six newly freed men, women, and children made the journey to begin life anew in Boston.

Katherine Clay Bassard is professor of English and interim associate dean for Faculty Affairs in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing and Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible, along with numerous articles on gender, race, and religion in literature. 


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Sketches of Slave Life and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit

By Peter Randolph, Katherine Clay Bassard

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2016 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-943665-07-5


Sketches of Slave Life: or, Illustrations of the 'Peculiar Institution'

by Peter Randolph, An Emancipated Slave

Boston: Published for the Author. 1855.


In giving the following Sketches of Slave Life to the public, the writer hopes that, whatever may be their literary defects, they will help to increase the sympathy now so widely felt for the poor crushed and perishing slaves in this land — a land most untruly styled "the home of the free and the brave." He has known what it is to be a slave; and now that he has been set free, it is the ruling desire of his heart to do something, however feeble it may be, towards effecting the emancipation of the millions of his afflicted brethren, who are still held in the galling chains of bondage at the South. Remembering that he has never had any education, except such as he has been able to pick up for himself, the readers of this little work (especially in view of its object) will kindly overlook such errors of style as may be found in it.

The writer was formerly owned as a slave by one C. H. EDLOE, of Prince George's County, Virginia, who also owned eighty others. His plantation was located on James River, in what was called Upper Brandon. He always seemed to have some conscientious scruples in regard to holding slaves, and would not join any church, because "he did not believe he could be a Christian, and yet be a slaveholder." Six years before he died, he made his will, in which he set all his slaves free at his death, which took place July 29, 1844. This was truly a Christian act. More than three years passed away, however, before we obtained our liberty, when, being compelled to leave the State of Virginia, we came to Boston, (sixty-six in number,) Sept. 15, 1847, where we were received with Christian sympathy and kindness. Men, women and children, from twelve months to seventy-five years old, constituted our happy company. Some of these have gone the way of all the earth: the remainder continue in Massachusetts, and are proving to the world, by their conduct, that slaves, when liberated, can take care of themselves, and need no master or overseer to drive them to their toil. All that they need is — first, freedom — next, encouragement and a fair reward for their labor, and a suitable opportunity to improve themselves — without which, no people, black or white, can reasonably be expected to be industrious laborers or enlightened citizens.

May God hasten the day when not a slave shall be found in America, to water her soil with his tears, or stain it with his blood


Boston, May 10, 1855.


The blood of the slave cries unto God from the ground, and it calls loudly for vengeance on his adversaries.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the rice swamps.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the cotton plantations.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the tobacco farms.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the sugar fields.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the corn fields.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the whipping-post.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the auction-block.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the gallows.

The blood of the slave cries unto God from the hunting-dogs that run down the poor fugitive.

The blood of men, women and babes cries unto God from Texas to Maine. Wherever the Fugitive Slave Law reaches, the voice of its victims is heard.

The mighty God, the great Jehovah, speaks to the consciences of men, and says, "LET MY PEOPLE GO FREE!" And the slaveholder answers, "Who is Jehovah, that we should obey him?" Then the Anti-Slavery voice is heard, calling, Awake! AWAKE! And cry aloud against this great evil; lift up your voice like a trumpet, and show the people their sins, and the nation its guilt. Pray that God may have mercy upon us. O, forgive us this great evil, — the evil of selling, whipping, and killing men, women and children! O, God of justice! Give us hearts and consciences to feel the deep sorrows of this great evil that we have so long indulged in! Lo! We have sinned against Heaven; we have sinned against light, — against the civilized world. We have sinned against that declaration which our fathers put forth to the world, "All men are created equal."

O God! Forgive us this great sin! O let this prayer be heard!


THE auctioneer is crying the slave to the highest bidder. "Gentlemen, here is a very fine boy for sale. He is worth twelve hundred dollars. His name is Emanuel. He belongs to Dea. William Harrison, who wants to sell him because his overseer don't like him. How much, gentlemen — how much for this boy? He's a fine, hearty nigger. Bid up, bid up, gentlemen; he must be sold." Some come up to look at him, pull open his mouth to examine his teeth, and see if they are good. Poor fellow! He is handled and examined like any piece of merchandize; but he must bear it. Neither tongue nor hand, nor any other member, is his own, — why should he attempt to use another's property?

Again the bidding goes on: "I will give one thousand dollars for that boy." The auctioneer says, "Sir, he is worth twelve hundred at the lowest. Bid up, gentlemen, bid up; going, going — are you all done? — once, twice, three times — all done? — GONE!"

See the slaveholder, who just bought the image of God, come to his victim, and take possession of him. Poor Emanuel must go away from his wife, never to see her again. All the ties of love are severed; the declaration of the Almighty, which said, "What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder," is unheeded, and he must leave all to follow his Christian master, — a member of the Episcopal Church, — a partaker, from time to time, of the Lord's sacrament! Such men mock religion and insult God. O that God would rend the heavens, and appear unto these heartless men!

Next come Jenny and her five children. Her husband was sold and gone. The oldest of her children is a girl seventeen years old, — her name, Lucy.

Auctioneer — "Here, gentlemen, is a fine girl for sale: how much for her? Gentlemen, she will be a fortune for anyone who buys her that wants to raise niggers. Bid up gentlemen, bid up! Fine girl; very hearty; good health; only seventeen years old; she's worth fifteen hundred dollars to anyone who wants to raise niggers. Here's her mother; she's had nine children; the rest of them are sold. How much, gentlemen, — how much? Bid up! bid up!"

Poor Lucy is sold away from all the loved ones, and goes to receive the worst of insults from her cruel taskmaster. Her poor mother stands by heartbroken, with tears streaming down her face. O! Is there a heart not all brutish, that can witness such a scene without falling to the earth with shame, that the rights of his fellow-creatures are so basely trampled upon? The seller or buyer of a human being, for purposes of slavery, is not human, and has no right to the name.

The next "article" sold is Harry, a boy of fifteen.

Auctioneer — "Gentlemen, how much for this boy? He is an honest boy, can be trusted with anything you wish; how much for him?"

Harry is sold from his mother, who is standing watching for her turn. She began to scream out, "O, my child! My child!" Here the old slaveholder said, "Ah my girl, if you do not stop that hollering, I will give you something to holler for." Poor Jenny, the mother, tried to suppress her grief, but all in vain. Harry was gone, and the children cried out, "Goodbye, Harry; goodbye!" The broken-hearted mother sobbed forth, "Farewell, my boy; try to meet me in heaven."

The next of the children was Mary. She was put upon the block and sold. Then the mother became so much affected that she seemed like one crazy. So the old rough slaveholder went to the mother, and began to lay the lash upon her; but it mattered not to her — her little Mary was gone, and now her turn had come. O, mothers, who sit in your comfortable homes, surrounded by your happy children, think of the poor slave mother, robbed so cruelly of her all by a fate worse than death! O, think of her, pray for her, toil for her, even; teach your blooming daughters to think with compassion of their far-off colored sisters, and train them up anti-slavery women! Teach your sons the woes and burning wrongs of slavery; make them grow up earnest, hard-working anti-slavery men. When mothers all do this, we may hope yet to live in a free country.

Wretched, childless, widowed Jenny was placed upon the block for sale.

Auctioneer — "Gentlemen, here is Jenny, — how much for her? She can do good work. Now, gentlemen, her master says he believes her to be a Christian, a very pious old woman; and she will keep everything straight around her. You may depend on her. She will neither lie nor steal: what she says may be believed. Just let her pray, and she will keep right."

Here Jesus Christ was sold to the highest bidder; sold in Jenny to keep her honest, to bring gold to the slaveholder. Jenny was sold away from all her little children, never to see them again. Poor mother! Who had toiled day and night to raise her little children, feeling all a mother's affection for them, she must see them no more in this world! She feels like great mourning, — "like Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were not." So she commends them to the care of the God of the widow and the fatherless, by bathing her bosom in tears, and giving them the last affectionate embrace, with the advice to meet her in heaven. O, the tears of the poor slave that are in bottles, to be poured out upon this blood-stained nation, as soon as the cup of wrath of the almighty Avenger is full, when He shall say, "I have heard the groanings of my people, and I will deliver them from the oppressor!"

Slaveholders carry the price of blood upon their backs and in their pockets; the very bread they eat is the price of blood; the houses they live in are bought with blood; all the education they have is paid for by the blood and sorrows of the poor slaves.

In parting with their friends at the auction-block, the poor blacks have the anticipation of meeting them again in the heavenly Canaan, and sing —

"O fare you well, O fare you well,
God bless you until me meet again;
Hope to meet you in heaven, to part no more.
CHORUS — Sisters fare you well; sisters, fare you well;
God Almighty bless you, until we meet again."

Among the slaves, there is a great amount of talent, given by the hand of inspiration; talent, too, which, if cultivated, would be of great benefit to the world of mankind. If these large minds are kept sealed up, so that they cannot answer the end for which they were made, somebody must answer for it on the great day of account. O think of this, my readers! Think of that great day when it shall be said to all the world, "Give an account of thy stewardship!" Among the slaves may be found talents which, if improved, would be instrumental in carrying the blessed Gospel of truth to distant lands, and in bringing the people to acknowledge the true and living God. But all has been crushed down by a Christian world, and by the Christian Church. With these solemn facts written against this nation, see to it, my readers, before this iniquity overthrow you, and it be too late to repent.

The sin of holding slaves is not only against one nation, but against the whole world, because we are here to do one another good, in treating each other well; and this is to be done by having right ideas of God and his religion. But this privilege is denied to three millions and a half of the people of this our own "free" land. The slaveholders say we have not a true knowledge of religion; but the great Teacher said, when he came on his mission, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to preach deliverance to the captive, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." This ought to be the work of the ministers and the churches. Anything short of this is not the true religion of Jesus.

This is the great command of the New Testament — "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." "Do unto others as ye would that they should do to you," is the golden rule for all men to follow. By this rule shall all men be judged. We have got to hear, "Come, ye blessed; depart, ye cursed!" These are my convictions, and my belief of the religion of Jesus, the wonderful Counselor of the children of the created Adam, our great progenitor.

This I respectfully submit to my readers, and earnestly beg of them to renew their interest in the anti-slavery cause, never turning a deaf ear to the pleadings of the poor slave, or to those who speak, however feebly, for him. The anti-slavery cause is the cause of HUMANITY, the cause of RELIGION, the cause of GOD!



THE colored overseers are not over the slaves because they wish it, but are made so against their will. When they first commence to lash the backs of their fellows, they are like soldiers when they first go to the battlefield; they dread and fear the contest, until they hear the roaring of the cannon, and smell the powder, and mark the whizzing ball; then they rush into the battle, forgetful of all human sympathy while in the fight. So it is with the slave-drivers. They bear the angry tones of the slaveholder's voice, admonishing them that if they refuse to whip, they must take it themselves. After receiving the instructions of their owners, they must forget even their own wives and children, and do all they can for "Master." If they do not do this, they must receive all that would be given the others. In this manner, their hearts and consciences are hardened, and they become educated to whipping, and lose all human feeling.

This is the way the slaveholders take to hide their own wickedness. They say the colored driver is more cruel than the white overseer, and use this as an argument against the poor colored man, to show how cruelly they would treat each other if they had the power. Pardon me, my readers, if I say this is an insult to God; since my own experience teaches me better. Reader, when they say that colored drivers are worse than white, the question may well be asked, Why is this? Is it the fault of the colored people, or is it the fault of the white man? Good sense answers to every thinking mind, and says the poor negro is not the greatest transgressor here, but the white men are the tyrannical instigators of this wrong.

It is said that the slaves love their masters so much, it is a sin to disturb their peace and harmony. This is as false as the institution itself. To illustrate, let me name one fact, and you will see how the slaves love their masters. There was my uncle Tom, who was owned by Mr. George Harrison, the owner of Brandon. Uncle Tom, being his head plougher, ploughed wrong one day; so Harrison came to Uncle Tom, and began to beat him very brutally. To escape the whipping, Uncle Tom cried out, (it showed his love for his master!) "Do, pray, my master, don't fret so; I am afraid you will be sick." It is said the slaves will not leave their masters, they are treated so well. All I have to say is, give them an opportunity, and then see how close they will stick to their beloved masters.

It is also said, that they have the true gospel preached to them. If this were true, all slaves would be free, and think and act for themselves. Sail on, sail on, sweet times, and let the poor slaves go free!


THEY go to the overseer, and obtain leave to sit up all night with their dead, and sing and pray. This is a very solemn season. First, one sings and another prays, and this they continue every night until the dead body is buried. One of the slaves makes the coffin — and a very bad one it generally is. Some wheat straw is put in the coffin, and if they can get it, they wrap the body in a piece of white cloth; if they cannot get it, they put the body in the coffin without anything around it. Then they nail up the coffin, and put it in a cart, which is drawn by oxen or mules, and carried to the grave. As they have no tombs, they put all the slaves in the earth. If the slave who died was a Christian, the rest of the Christians among them feel very glad, and thank God that brother Charles, or brother Ned, or sister Betsey, is at last free, and gone home to heaven, — where bondage is never known. Some, who are left behind, cry and grieve that they, too, cannot die, and throw off their yoke of slavery, and join the company of the brother or sister who has just gone.


Excerpted from Sketches of Slave Life and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit by Peter Randolph, Katherine Clay Bassard. Copyright © 2016 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Negotiating Freedom: Writing the Emancipated Narrative,
Sketches of Slave Life, First Edition,
Sketches of Slave Life, Second Edition,
From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit,
Selected Bibliography,

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