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‘Bunyan’s Pilgrim’
The Triumph of William H. Robinson
William Robinson was born the property of super-rich Thomas Cowens in Wilmington North Carolina in about 1848. I have used William’s extensive recollections to reconstruct the fragmentary lives of otherwise anonymous slaves in The Defiant One, Lick of the Black Snake, The Rail Splitter, and James Anderson’s Son. What follows are a handful of quotes from his memoir.
“My book reveals in every chapter either the pathetic moan of slaves in almost utter despair…praying God for deliverance from cruel bonds, the auction block, and years of unrequited toil for those who had no right to their labor.”
“'William, never pull off your shirt to be whipped. I want you to die in defense of your mother; for once I lay in the woods eleven months for trying to prevent your mother from being whipped.'”
“…but just outside the door they wet their fingers with saliva and made ‘crocodile tears’ and passed on pretending to be crying, and saying, ‘Poor Massa Tom is gone.’ Of course they didn’t say where he had gone.”
“Mother and three of the children had fallen to Scott Cowens—the Meanest of all the Cowens family. He was a drunkard and a gambler, for he had taken three different women’s sons, between the ages of twelve and fourteen years, and gambled them off and came back home without them, leaving the parents in anguish…he threatened mother very strongly...before she could answer him he knocked her from the porch to the ground. This was more than I could endure [William was about 11 years old]. An axe handle was on the opposite side from which mother fell. He stood over her, cursing and kicking her, and I knocked him down with the axe handle.”
This event precipitated William’s running away. He escaped from his masters twice, was sold numerous times and witnessed many cruelties. He dealt with a dizzying variety of masters, was herded around with great gangs of slaves, and was marched north into Virginia, where he eventually became a slave to a slave trader in Richmond, Master Lee, where we pickup his story again.
“Master Lee told me that a man named Jake Hadley, who lived in Greenville, Tennessee, had my mother, two brothers and a sister…I assisted Peter around the pen. Peter looked after the slaves and did all the whipping. I cleaned the office and was errand boy. Most of my work was about the office. During the time I was there [working for Master Lee in Richmond] I saw thousands of slaves bought and sold. I saw one woman who had five children; she and two children, one a nursing baby, and a girl about eleven years old [likely bound for the sex trade], were sold to negro traders, while the husband and other three children were bought by a farmer who lived somewhere in east Virginia. The farmer went with the father and three children to see the mother and other children leave for Mississippi. As the boat pulled out from shore and the husband and wife bade each other good bye, the woman, with one loud scream, made a sudden leap and landed in deep water, with her baby clasped in her arms and the little girl handcuffed to her…They were not picked up until the next day.”
“This is now the year 1860. I was twelve years of age and had been a runaway twice in that time. I saw a man coming with a black horse and buggy… Mr. Lee could refrain no longer, so he said ‘William, this is Mr. Hadley, the man who has your mother, brothers and sisters.’ And for once I saw that seemingly heartless man, who separated thousands of husbands from wives, mothers and children, sisters and brothers, touched to the very core, for he drew his handkerchief and wiped his eyes, instead of his nose, as he pretended to be doing. Mr. Hadley was a very kind fatherly acting man. As a general thing all Jew slave owners were more lenient to their slaves than any other nationality…”
Mister Hadley took William west into Tennessee. A few years later he was liberated by General Thomas, who personally accepted William’s transfer from the Confederate Army to the Union Army. When he returned to Mister Hadley’s house in his new Union uniform to rescue his mother, his Jewish master threatened him with a shotgun, but backed down from the squad of leveled muskets. William hacked down the bedroom door behind which ‘Massa Jake’ had locked his mother, and freed her from the rope which the ‘fatherly’ man had used to tie her to a bureau. William served thereafter in numerous battles as a Union Soldier including Antietam, Chancellersville, Missionary Ridge and the Wilderness. After the war he went to college and became a minister. Eventually, in 1904, he published From Log Cabin to Pulpit, or Fifteen Years in Slavery.
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