Thursday, May 14, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Henry Bibb

Since moving to the Bluegrass state I have been thrilled to learn about so many interesting Kentuckians. Many of their stories have been told before, but to to most Americans their names don't ring any bells. One such Kentuckian was Henry Bibb. Bibb was born a slave in Shelby County, Kentucky in May of 1815, and owned by David White. His mother was a mixed-race slave and his father was a white man. When he was a boy Bibb's mother told him his father was James Bibb. James Bibb was a Kentucky state senator who lived in Franklin County, Kentucky; the county just east of Shelby County.

As a boy, Henry was hired out to many different many different plantation owners in Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble counties. During one of Bibb's hiring out periods White sold Bibb's six brothers and sisters to another master.

Bibb first tried to run away while working for a Mr. Vires in New Castle (Henry County), Kentucky in 1825, after being severly mistreated by Mrs. Vires. He was captured after being a fugitive of just a few days. In 1837, after numerous other unsuccessful escape attempts, Bibb finally made good and fled from a Mr. Gatewood in Bedford (Trimble County), Kentucky, and made his way to Canada. Bibb had married a mixed-race slave woman named Malinda in 1833 and they had had a daughter named Mary Frances. Bibb attempted to return to Kentucky for his wife and child, and was quickly recaptured. Bibb was eventually sold to a Cherokee owner in Indian Territory and when this Indian owner died, Bibb made his escape yet again, this time making it to Detroit. Malinda and Mary Frances had previously been sold and Henry had no way of finding them.

In Detroit Bibb became an active abolitionist and lecturer. Bibb married Mary Miles in 1848 and the couple moved to Ontario, Canada in 1850 after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1849-50 Bibb published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. This slave narrative was one of the most popular of the antebellum era.

In Canada, Bibb worked tirelessly to help his black community. He founded a church, a school, and several anti-slavery societies. He also started the Voice of the Fugitive, Canada's first black-owned newspaper. Bibb's notoriety helped reunite him with three of his brothers in Canada, all of whom had run away separately.

At the height of his career and fame Henry Bibb died after a brief illness in 1854; he was only 39 years old. I highly recommend reading his autobiography. It gives a good picture of what slave life was like for many African Americans in Kentucky, and how one man with a resolve to be be free finally gained his liberty.

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