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On the Move: Stories of African American Migration and Mobility: Fugitive Slave Act

Fugitive Slave Act

black and white photo of African American woman with black dress and white hair seated in ornate carved wooden chairFollowing the first Fugitive Slave Act, passed by the U.S Congress in 1793, until the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1864, African Americans found ways to liberate themselves. The laws and practices designed to capture self-emancipated individuals and return them to slavery were severe enough to make running away a deadly proposition for enslaved communities. The individuals who escaped were willing to risk being maimed, raped, or the torture of their loved ones to be free of bondage.

"I drew aside the window curtain, to take a last look of my child. The moonlight shone on her face, and I bent over her, as I had done years before, that wretched night when I ran away. I hugged her close to my throbbing heart; and tears, too sad for such young eyes to shed, flowed down her cheeks, as she gave her last kiss, and whispered in my ear, "Mother, I will never tell." And she never did."  — Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave GirlPhoto courtesy State Archives of North Carolina

Exhibition materials

Diary entry of Sidney D. Bumpas about Lunsford Lane, 1842

This firsthand account of the lynching of Lunsford Lane, a free Black man in 1842, is a gruesome example of the danger Black people were up against in America. He was attacked because he had the audacity to advocate for the abolition of slavery and attempt to purchase his wife and children out of slavery. The narrator of this account is Sidney D. Bumpas, a Methodist minister living in Raleigh, NC at the time. 

Bumpas Family Papers, 1838-1972 (01031)

page from ledger with partial photograph including the face and head of an African American woman Gowrie Plantation ledger, April 1863

In 1861, Dolly is enigmatically listed as an eight-year old.  The entry is amended to record her escape on April 7, 1863. Other escapes from the plantation include Jack, the chief carpenter, who ran away February 20, 1862, came back under unknown circumstances and was sold in September 1863 for $180; John Izard, another carpenter, who ran away in December 1863; and a man named Charles who ran away in 1862. The four runaways listed on these two pages indicate that the desire to leave the enslaved life was strong. Alongside these shocking, but surely not atypical, matter-of-fact entries of human property is the praise for the Confederate States of America - an entity designed to keep enslaved people in bondage. Against this Civil War backdrop, the individuals depicted so flatly on these pages paid active attention to their surroundings and seized opportunities to escape when they arose.

The runaway ad for Dolly is one of the more striking items in the Southern Historical Collection. On the surface of this item, we see a slaveowner who “knows” Dolly well (describing her mannerisms and physical attributes) doesn’t blame her for leaving (enticed by a white man) and his willingness to pay top dollar ($50.00) to have her back. On a second read we must wonder what risk is posed to Dolly by being described as “rather good looking”? And how does her photograph on file make her escape more dangerous.  

Manigault Family Papers 1824-1897 (00484)


Additional resources