Narrative of James Williams

Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama, was a slave narrative published in 1838 by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Much of it takes place on a plantation in Greene County, Alabama. The work is among the first slave narratives published by abolitionists, and its controversial nature influenced the way that subsequent slave narratives were presented and published. John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker poet and abolitionist, acted as a ghostwriter for Williams and also wrote the preface for the final publication. The original publication included a portrait of Williams by Patrick Reason, an African American engraver in New York.

According to the narrative, Williams was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, in 1805. His early memories are of being treated decently by his owner, George Larrimore. Williams tells of his wife, Harriet, a slave belonging to John Gatewood, and briefly mentions his two living children. Two other children died in infancy. Williams does not reveal the children’s names, genders, or dates of birth in the narrative.

Williams goes on to describe his eventual loss of innocence, beginning when his master, George Larrimore, marries and moves 214 slaves to Greene County, where Larrimore’s wife has inherited property. Williams relates how his owner promises to return him to Virginia, where Williams’s wife and children are still living on another plantation, his youngest child being only two months old. Instead, Larrimore returns to Virginia without Williams, leaving him in the hands of the plantation’s overseer, a man named Huckstep. There, Williams is thrust into a world of control and violence. Huckstep informs him that his job on the new plantation will be as a driver, managing and punishing the other slaves.

Williams tells of the inhumane treatment he observes and in which he is forced to participate: pregnant women whipped until their babies are stillborn, cat claws dragged along men’s backs, runaway slaves mauled by search dogs, slaves shot for refusing punishment. Williams recounts having to perform many whippings himself. The threat of punishment with 250 lashes—for treating women lightly and disobeying orders—finally convinces Williams to escape.

The narrative recounts Williams’s months on foot, hiding in woods and creeks and relying on the kindness of friends in his former home of Virginia. He finally makes it to freedom in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in December of 1837 before he moves on to New York City on January 1, 1838, and meets abolitionists.

After meeting with abolitionists, Williams and Whittier worked quickly on the narrative, and a manuscript was completed on January 24, 1838. By February 15, 1838, the work was printed and distributed. At the time of the printing, Williams still had not been reunited with his wife and children. Within the first six months after its publication, the Narrative of James Williams had already gone through three printings. Shortly before November of 1838, Williams used the money he earned from the book’s publication and moved to Liverpool, England, because there he would not risk being captured and returned to slavery.

Although the reader is presented with an appendix of statements by white witnesses who corroborate the story, the accuracy of Williams’s narrative was heavily challenged, particularly by J. B. Rittenhouse, editor of the Beacon, a newspaper published in Greensborough (now spelled Greensboro), Alabama. Rittenhouse disputed Williams on the existence of the whites who populated his narrative, claiming that no one named Huckstep lived in Greene County, and challenged the dates of events as well as the distances Williams claimed to have travelled in his escape.

On November 3, 1838, The Liberator, the leading abolitionist newspaper of the day, renounced the narrative as false and advocated withdrawing the book from circulation. Williams had, by this time, already moved to England and could not be found to address concerns. An American Anti-Slavery Society committee determined that Williams made false statements and ended the sale of the book but never said that the book itself was a scam, which was Rittenhouse’s claim. The abolitionists trusted the general storyline of Williams’ book because of its specificity, powerful episodes, and convincing characterizations. The society described him in Christ-like terms, emphasizing that he had not been resentful or angry in talks about his former experiences and describing his expressions of sorrow and intelligence instead. Whether or not Williams intentionally, knowingly, or maliciously deceived his readers is unknown.

The publication and subsequent discrediting of Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave had a substantial effect on future slave narratives. Abolitionists took more precautions in choosing writers for publication and confined former slaves to the bare facts of their lives. The prefaces, appendices, and testimonies by white editors and abolitionists verifying the stories contained in the slave narratives became more elaborate. Although Williams named 17 southern slaveholders, future narratives changed the names of those involved, making it more difficult to verify (or discredit) the details within the narratives.

In the last 10 years, other troubling details have been pointed out, including the fact that Williams’s brother, a slave, was allowed to preach at a white Baptist church and that Williams and his wife were married by a clergyman. Some have theorized that John Greenleaf Whittier may have added some details, and others claim that Williams may have exaggerated his tale to give his white audience what they wanted. There is no indication that Williams altered any part of the story for money; the Anti-Slavery Society reported that he seemed to have no concept of the possibility of making any money off of his narrative. He did, however, make enough to pay for his passage to England. It was at this point that knowledge of his life story seems to stop, and there are no records of what happened to him after his move.

Additional Resources

Browder, Laura. “Slave Narratives and the Problem of Authenticity.” In Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, pp. 13-46. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Slave’s Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Fabian, Ann. “Hannah Crafts, Novelist; or, How a Silent Observer Became a ‘Dabster at Invention.'” In In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins, pp. 43-52. New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2004.

Trent, Hank. Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2016

Williams, James. Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama. [See Related Links]

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