Why you should finally read their stories

Quick Notes

  • Several slaves once shared their personal stories on their tragic experiences.

  • Find out more about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Olaudah Equiano

  • It’s time to read their stories, including these most famous slave stories.

For most of history, slaves have kept their stories hidden from the general public. They didn’t share their firsthand testimonies about their lives as slaves—mostly due to fear. However, a variety of slaves have shared their stories. The narratives offer accurate depictions of slave life, and they’re an important form of expression. Read these three famous slave stories to understand the reality of slavery.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass wrote one of the best-known and most influential books of slavery, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Published in 1845, the book offers a vivid firsthand testimony of his life as a slave. Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, but he successfully escaped in 1838.

Douglass escaped slavery by disguising himself as a sailor. He carried a free sailor’s protection pass, but he was worried because he bore hardly any resemblance to the man listed in the documents. When the conductor checked his papers, Douglass feared what would happen next. He later recounted, “My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor.” He had to flee, and this was his only option.

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Luckily, the conductor only gave Douglass a cursory glance before moving on to the next passenger. Douglass would endure more close calls as he traveled north by train and ferry—encountering old acquaintances who knew he was a runaway slave. After several tense hours, he finally arrived in New York.

Afterward, Douglass married his wife, Anna Murray, and the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he established himself as one of the nation’s leading abolitionists. He wrote his famous book, but he remained a fugitive slave under the law until 1846, when his supporters helped him purchase his freedom from his former slave master.

Harriet Jacobs

Many slaves who escape are forced to live in hiding for several years. That’s what happened to Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. She was taught to read and write by the woman who owned her. However, when her owner died, Jacobs (then a teenager) was left to a relative who made sexual advances towards her. Finally, one night in 1835, Jacobs managed to escape.

Jacobs suffered from many health problems due to her confinement

Jacobs didn’t get very far and wound up hiding for seven years in a small attic space above the house of her grandmother, who had been set free years prior. Jacobs suffered from many health problems due to her confinement. Her family finally led her to a sea captain, who smuggled her north in 1842.

Jacobs found a job working as a domestic servant in New York, but she was always scared of being captured by her former slave master. She eventually moved to Massachusetts. In 1862, under the pen name Linda Brent, she published her famous memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.

Olaudah Equiano

The first noteworthy slave narrative was Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African. Equiano was born in Nigeria in the 1740s, and he was taken into slavery as part of the infamous transatlantic slave trade when he was just 11 years old.

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Equiano was transported to Virginia, where he was purchased by an English naval officer and given the name Gustavus Vassa. He was later sold to a Quaker merchant, who offered him the chance to buy his freedom. Of course, Equiano took the offer and traveled to London, where he settled and wrote about his experience in the slave trade.

Equiano’s book is notable because he remembered his childhood pre-slavery in West Africa. He effectively described the horrors of the slave trade from his firsthand testimony as a victim. The arguments made in his book were later used by British reformers, who eventually succeeded in ending the slave trade in 1807.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

A look at the history of the transatlantic slave trade and how slavery started in the United States.

Recent discoveries document the long, horrific nightmares for slaves as they traveled to America as part of the transatlantic slave trade.