Freed slaves and fugitive slaves played a vital role in building the Underground Railroad and organizing for abolition. As slaves began to tell their stories, some wrote private, or in some cases public, letters to their former owners, defying their attempt to return them to slavery. Here is one of those letters1, from Henry Bibb, who was born a slave to a Kentucky state senator and fought for years until he eventually won his freedom in 1841.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
Dear Sir:—I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man whom you sold as property, and received pay for as such. But I thank God that I am not property now, but am regarded as a man like yourself, and although I live far north, I am enjoying a comfortable living by my own industry. If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave. Think not that I have any malice against you, for the cruel treatment which you inflicted on me while I was in your power. As it was the custom of your country, to treat your fellow men as you did me and my little family, I can freely forgive you.
I wish to be remembered in love to my aged mother, and friends; please tell her that if we should never meet again in this life, my prayer shall be to God that we may meet in Heaven, where parting shall be no more.
You wish to be remembered to King and Jack. I am pleased, sir, to inform you that they are both here, well, and doing well. They are both living in Canada West. They are now the owners of better farms than the men are who once owned them.
You may perhaps chink hard of us for running away from slavery, but as to myself, I have but one apology to make for it, which is this; I have only to regret that I did not scare at an earlier period. I might have been free long before I was. I think it is very probable that I should have been a toiling slave on your property today, if you had created me differently.
To be compelled to stand by and see you whip and slash my wife without mercy, when I could afford her no protection, not even by offering myself to suffer the lash in her place, was more than I felt it to be the duty of a slave husband to endure, while the way was open to Canada My infant child was also frequently flogged by Mrs. [William] Gatewood, for crying, until its skin was bruised literally purple. This kind of treatment was what drove me from home and family, to seek a better home for them. But I am willing to forget the past. I should be pleased to hear from you again, on the reception of this and should also be very happy to correspond with you often, if it should be agreeable to yourself. I subscribe myself a friend to the oppressed, and Liberty forever.
1 Henry Bibb, Letter to William Gatewood (March 23,1844). In Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself(New York: Published by the Author, 1850; New York: Greenwood Publishing Company/Negro Universities Press, 1969). pp. 176-76.