5 Classic and Heartbreaking Narratives by Enslaved People

Time-Honored Autobiographical Works

Photograph of American slaves on a farm.

YwHWnJ5ghNW3eQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Narratives by enslaved people became an important form of literary expression before the Civil War when about 65 such memoirs were published as books or pamphlets. The stories helped to stir public opinion against the institution.

Poignant Narratives by Enslaved People

The prominent North American 19th-century Black activist Frederick Douglass first gained widespread public attention with the publication of his own classic narrative in the 1840s. His book and others provided vivid firsthand testimony about life in bondage.

A narrative published in the early 1850s by Solomon Northup, a free Black New York resident who was kidnapped into enslavement, aroused outrage. Northup's story has become widely known from the Oscar-winning film, "12 Years a Slave," based on his searing account of life under the cruel system of Louisiana plantations.

In the years following the Civil War, about 55 full-length such narratives were published. Remarkably, two more recently-discovered narratives were published in November 2007.

The authors listed wrote some of the most important and widely-read narratives.

Olaudah Equiano

The first noteworthy narrative was "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African," which was published in London in the late 1780s. The book’s author, Olaudah Equiano, was born in present-day Nigeria in the 1740s. He was captured when he was about 11 years old.

After being transported to Virginia, he was purchased by an English naval officer, given the name Gustavus Vassa, and offered the opportunity to educate himself while serving as a servant aboard a ship. He was later sold to a Quaker merchant and given a chance to trade and earn his own freedom. After buying his freedom, he traveled to London, where he settled and became involved with groups seeking to halt the trade of enslaved people.

Equiano’s book was notable because he could write about his childhood in West Africa before he was captured, and he described the horrors of the trade of enslaved people from the perspective of one of its victims. The arguments Equiano made in his book against the trade were used by British reformers who eventually succeeded in ending it.

Frederick Douglass

The best-known and most influential book by a freedom seeker was "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," which was first published in 1845. Douglass had been born into enslavement in 1818 on the eastern shore of Maryland, and after achieving freedom in 1838, settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

By the early 1840s, Douglass had come into contact with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and became a lecturer, educating audiences about the practice. It’s believed that Douglass wrote his autobiography partly to counter skeptics who believed he must be exaggerating details of his life.

The book, featuring introductions by North American 19th-century Black activists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, became a sensation. It made Douglass famous, and he went on to be one of the greatest leaders of the movement. Indeed, the sudden fame was seen as a danger. Douglass traveled to the British Isles on a speaking tour in the late 1840s, partly to escape the threat of being apprehended as a freedom seeker.

A decade later, the book would be enlarged as "My Bondage And My Freedom." In the early 1880s, Douglass would publish an even larger autobiography, "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself."

Harriet Jacobs

Enslaved from her birth in 1813 in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs was taught to read and write by her enslaver. But when her enslaver died, young Jacobs was left to a relative who treated her far worse. When she was a teenager, her enslaver made sexual advances toward her. Finally, one night in 1835, she sought freedom.

She did not get far and wound up hiding in a small attic space above the house of her grandmother, who had been set free by her enslaver some years earlier. Incredibly, Jacobs spent seven years in hiding, and health problems caused by her constant confinement led her family to find a sea captain who would smuggle her north.

Jacobs found a job as a domestic servant in New York, but life as a free person was not without dangers. There was a fear that those seeking to capture freedom seekers, empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law, might track her down. She eventually moved to Massachusetts. In 1862, under the pen name Linda Brent, she published her memoir "Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself."

William Wells Brown

Enslaved from his 1815 birth in Kentucky, William Wells Brown had several enslavers before reaching adulthood. When he was 19, his enslaver took him to Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio. Brown ran off and made his way to Dayton. Here, a Quaker who did not believe in enslavement helped him and gave him a place to stay. By the late 1830s, he was active in the North American 19th-century Black activist movement and was living in Buffalo, New York. Here, his house became a station on the Underground Railroad.

Brown eventually moved to Massachusetts. When he wrote a memoir, "Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself," it was published by the Boston Anti-Slavery Office in 1847. The book was very popular and went through four editions in the United States. It was also published in several British editions.

He traveled to England to lecture. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the U.S., he chose to remain in Europe for several years, rather than risk being recaptured. While in London, Brown wrote a novel, "Clotel; or the President’s Daughter." The book played upon the idea, then current in the U.S., that Thomas Jefferson fathered a daughter who had been sold at an auction of enslaved people.

After returning to America, Brown continued his activist activities, and along with Frederick Douglass, helped recruit Black soldiers into the Union Army during the Civil War. His desire for education continued, and he became a practicing physician in his later years.

Narratives From the Federal Writers Project

In the late 1930s, as part of the Works Project Administration, field workers from the Federal Writers Project endeavored to interview elderly Americans who had lived as enslaved people. More than 2,300 provided recollections, which were transcribed and preserved as typescripts.

The Library of Congress hosts "Born in Slavery," an online exhibit of the interviews. They are generally fairly short, and the accuracy of some of the material can be questioned, as the interviewees were recalling events from more than 70 years earlier. But some of the interviews are quite remarkable. The introduction to the collection is a good place to start exploring.


"Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project." Library of Congress, 1936 to 1938.

Brown, William Wells. "Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States." Electronic Edition, University Library, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004.

Brown, William Wells. "Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself." Electronic Edition, Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass." Wilder Publications, January 22, 2008.

Douglass, Frederick. "My Bondage and My Freedom." Kindle Edition. Digireads.com, April 3, 2004.

Douglass, Frederick. "The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region." The Library of Congress, 1849.

Jacobs, Harriet. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Paperback, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, November 1, 2018.

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McNamara, Robert. "5 Classic and Heartbreaking Narratives by Enslaved People." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/classic-slave-narratives-1773984. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). 5 Classic and Heartbreaking Narratives by Enslaved People. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-slave-narratives-1773984 McNamara, Robert. "5 Classic and Heartbreaking Narratives by Enslaved People." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-slave-narratives-1773984 (accessed June 10, 2023).