WILLIAM GRIMES (b. 1784- d. August 21, 1865)
Entrepreneur, Autobiographer & Ex-slave
William Grimes, known among scholars as one of the most rebellious voices of the slave narrative genre, authored the first American fugitive slave memoir published in New York in 1825. Written about eight years before the American Anti-Slavery Society and their involvement in the production of Slave Narratives, the Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave is a work of literary independence.
William Grimes was born on the heels of the American Revolution to an unknown enslaved woman and a white planter, Benjamin Grymes, of Eagles Nest, in King George County, VA.
His mother was owned by a Dr. Stuart whose plantation was about a mile from Eagles Nest. In the slave states, the children followed the condition of their mother. This meant that although William was the son of the white planter Benjamin Grymes, he, like his mother, was the property of Dr. Stuart.
At the age of ten, he was sold from the arms of his grieving mother to Col. William Thornton of Montpelier in Sperryville, VA. He grew up like a wild weed, friendless and motherless, without an enslaved family to embrace him. He initially worked as a servant boy in the big house but after several run-ins with a crafty house servant who was looking out for her own boy's fate, he begged to be sent to the field where he suffered unbearable physical abuse from cruel overseers.
As he grew on the Thornton plantation, he served in a variety of positions from Field Worker to Stable Boy to Personal Assistant, and eventually Coachman. William had been owned by at least three of Col. Thornton's sons at various stages in their lives before he was sold outside of the family unit to a man from Georgia. In all, he was sold a total of ten times before making his escape from Savannah in 1815 with the help of friendly seaman who hid him amid bales of cotton on the brig Casket bound for New York City. While in New York, he was directed on foot to New Haven, Connecticut.
On August 18, 1817, he married Clarissa Caesar an educated free woman of color. William Grimes lived as a fugitive for approximately eight years in New England under the constant duress of being apprehended by his final master. His fear came to pass in 1823 when an emissary was sent on behalf of Master Welman to reclaim his long-lost property. By this time, William is a husband, a father, a property owner, and a businessman facing a life-altering dilemma.
"Let anyone suppose himself a husband and father, possessed
of a house, home , and livelihood: a stranger enters that house before his children, and in fair daylight, puts the chain on his leg, where it remains till the last cent of his property buys from avarice and cruelty, the remnant of a life, whose best years had been spent in misery! Let anyone imagine this, and think what I have felt."
Litchfield, October 1st, 1824
The Grimes Narrative in Historical & Literary Context
The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave first appeared in 1825 at a time when African American autobiography was rare.
It is the first fugitive slave narrative in American history.
William Grimes was the first person to go through slavery in the south and write about it. This was the first time Southern slavery was exposed from the perspective of one who had lived it.
This was the first fugitive slave narrative to bear the title, Written by Himself--a subversive statement that challenged the forces opposed to black literacy.
The Grimes narrative came out eight years before the American Anti-Slavery Society and before the famous Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, publically proclaimed himself an Abolitionist.
It appeared before Freedom's Journal the first African-American newspaper in America and before the infamous Nat Turner's Rebellion in Southampton, VA.
William Grimes was the first author in this genre to write about the harsh realities of the North despite the popular narrative of it being a "freedom" land.
Frederick Douglass, the most famous author of the fugitive slave narrative, was only seven years old when the Grimes narrative appeared.
William Grimes published twice in his life. First and most famously in 1825 and again in 1855 with Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave Brought Down to the Present. The latter edition encompasses everything from the first narrative concluding with an added chapter chronicling his life in old age.
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