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The life and adventures of Henry Bibb

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By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

Henry Walton Bibb was born in, or near, New Castle in 1815. Bibb was the son of Kentucky State Senator, James Bibb. He grew up to be a respected writer, editor and newspaper publisher.

It should have been a typical success story. Not so for Henry Bibb.

He was the illegitimate mulatto son of a slave and a white man born in the early 19th century. He, of course, was not acknowledged as Bibb’s son and grew up a slave.

“All that I know about it (male parentage),” he wrote in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American slave, “is that my mother informed me that my father’s name was James Bibb.”

Bibb’s road to literacy and eventual freedom was one of persistence and peril, and though he was just 15 when sold to a master in Bedford, he spent formative years working for a New Castle family.  

Bibb’s first run at freedom came in 1825 when his owner, David White sent him to live and work in New Castle for a Mr. Vires. He tried to run away, but was caught and returned several times. He said he always was flogged afterward, yet ran again. Eventually Vires returned Bibb to White. “I learned the art of running away to perfection,” he wrote. “I made a regular business of it and never gave it up until I had broken the bounds of slavery.”

Freedom would not be won for many years.

At age 18, Bibb met Malinda, an Oldham County girl who he would marry. Bibb said originally he had no intention of marrying Malinda as he still was planning his freedom, but he fell in love.

Marriage between slaves was not recognized by law, but the couple swore their fidelity to one another and their friends and families acknowledged the union. The Bibbs had a child, Mary Frances, who Bibb said was beaten, even as a baby by the slaveholder’s wife. Agonized by this, Bibb swore he would never father another child as a slave.

Despite the abuse of his wife, daughter and himself, Bibb said he had difficulty leaving, but finally did on Christmas night in 1837. He crossed the Ohio River at Madison after telling his master he was going to look for extra work at a slaughterhouse.

Bibb arrived in Cincinnati via steamboat and located a group of abolitionists who would help him get to Canada. They sent him on his way with directions on the underground railroad to Canada. He was told to stop at the home of a friend for shelter and food, but was too afraid and kept walking through snow and cold until his feet were frozen. After many hardships, Bibb located a village named Perrysburgh, Ohio, where there were a number of fugitive slaves. He stayed through the winter and worked chopping wood.

The following May, Bibb decided to go back for his family.

Friends in both Perrysburgh and Cincinnati advised him not to go, but he was determined. After locating his wife and child, Bibb went back to Cincinnati to wait for them to join him. He was betrayed, captured and sent back to Kentucky.

“These ruffians dragged me through the streets of Cincinnati, to what was called a justice office,” Bibb wrote. “But is was more like an office of injustice.”

He was taken to Louisville to be sold, but again he escaped. After speaking once more with his wife, Bibb returned to the relative safety of Perrysburgh. He waited three months for Malinda to make it there. She never showed so he set of once again to retrieve his family from Kentucky in July, 1839.

The attempt failed, and Bibb, his wife and daughter were taken to Louisville to be sold.

Bibb and his family were then sold to a slaveholder in New Orleans. After spending even more time in a New Orleans prison, the Bibb family finally was sold to Deacon Francis Whitfield.

Bibb said he had run into difficulties obtaining a position because he was “too white” and he could read and write. Potential masters perceived him as a flight risk, and rightly so.

Bibb wrote that the pious Deacon was far more like a devil, overworking and underfeeding the slaves, and torturing them, punishing disobedience with 200 lashes of a whip.

Bibb ran away, but returned when he feared the donkey he had taken to ride would get him caught by braying. Malinda told him things were even worse than he feared.

“The Deacon had declared that I should not only suffer for the crime of attending a prayer meeting without his permission, and for running away, but for the awful crime of stealing a jackass which was death by law when committed by a negro,” he wrote.

That night Bibb took his wife and toddler and ran into the Louisiana bayou. They became lost and were apprehended ten days later.

For that infraction, Deacon had Bibb’s arms broken and he was flogged within an inch of his life. He was forced to wear an iron collar with prongs that extended above his head where a bell was attached. Bibb had to sleep with his feet in stocks or chained to a log.

He was sold again in 1840, and never saw his wife again. He eventually found freedom after a Cherokee owner died, when Bibb took to the prairie.

In 1841, Bibb hooked up with a Perrysburgh acquaintance, a white man named J.W. Smith, who hired him as a cattle driver. Bibb gained his confidence and respect, working for him several months before once again taking his journey north.

Smith wrote a letter corroborating Bibb’s account of his freedom fight and said that he was unwilling to part with his friend, Henry Bibb.  

In 1848, Bibb married Mary E. Miles of Boston, Mass.  “I presume there are no class of people in the United States who so appreciate the legality of marriage as those persons who have been held and treated as property,” he wrote.

In 1851 he established Canada’s first African-Canadian newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive.

Bibb also held office as president of the North American Convention of Colored People and formed the American Continental and West India League. He and wife, Mary, also helped found schools and churches.

History reports Bibb died Aug. 1, 1854, the 21st anniversary of the day slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom, at age 39 following a brief illness.

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