Thomas H. Jones: ‘I was born a slave’

‘I was born a slave.’ This simple but brutal statement opens the biography of the little-known black Methodist preacher Thomas H Jones. His parents and five siblings were among the fifty slaves on the plantation of John Hawes, in North Carolina. Living in a hut with a clay floor, his mother and father he remembers as very loving who ‘tried to make it a happy place for their dear children’. Master Hawes was severe, cruel, and kept his slaves on a bare minimum of poor food. The typical workday in the harvesttime was from 3am until darkness fell. The shorter winter days were worse: dressed in thin clothes clearing land in bitter weather. While he details some of the brutality, perhaps worse was the constant fear of the family being torn apart through being sold off to new slave owners—a dread that was soon realised: at the age of nine he was sold, forcibly torn from his mother’s arms and made to walk forty-five miles, tearful and exhausted, to his new master in Wilmington.

His next work, with slave-master Jones (from whom he was named), was varied but always under the threat of the bull-hide whip. Jones put him to work in his store where

he got a white boy to come and enter as clerk… James Dixon was a poor boy about my own age, and when he came into the store, could hardly read or write. He was accordingly engaged a part of each day with his books and writing… he let me take [his book] and look at it, and he answered very kindly many questions which I asked him about books and schools and learning… He told me that a man who had learning would always find friends, and get along very well in the world… This was all new to me, and furnished me topics for wondering thought for days afterwards. The result of my meditations was that an intense burning desire to learn to read and write took  possession of my mind, occupying me wholly in waking hours, and stirring up earnest thoughts in my soul even when I slept.

Through self-taught study in snatched moments and illicit help from one or two sympathetic men, he achieved his goal.

Approaching the age of eighteen, in a reading exercise, he came across the words, ‘God, who sees and knows all our thoughts, loves the good and makes them happy; while he is angry with the bad, and will punish them for all their sins.’ He felt an immediate spiritual need: ‘I was sure I was not good in the sight of God. I thought about this, and could’nt [sic] get it out of my mind a single hour.’ Time spent with an enslaved preacher and in a Methodist class led by a ‘free coloured man’ failed to remove this weight. His master, a professed atheist, found out and after whipping him, forbade him further contact and demanded he pray no more. ‘I told him I could not promise him not to pray any more, for I felt that I must and should pray as long as I lived. “Well, then, Tom,” he said, “I swear that I will whip you to death.” I told him I could not help myself, if he was determined to kill me, but that I must pray while I lived. He then began to whip me the second time, but soon stopped, threw down the bloody cowhide, and told me to go wash myself in the river, just back of the store, and then dress myself, and if I was determined to be a fool, why, I must be one.’ The following week at the Methodist prayer meeting, Thomas found the spiritual comfort he sought as the words of a hymn were read: ‘Come ye sinners, poor and needy, Weak and wounded, sick and sore.’[1] The change in his life was evident to Jones who grudgingly admitted that he could find no fault in him. The whippings stopped and he was even given permission to become a member of the church, for which he needed a letter of permission from his master. During this time Thomas had married Lucilla Smith, a slave owned by a Mrs. Moore. As slaves were legally considered chattel and therefore unable to enter into any form of contract, the union was quasi-marital and had no standing in law.  Thomas makes the comment [emphasis his] ‘We called it and we considered it a true marriage, although we knew well that marriage was not permitted to the slaves as a sacred right of the loving heart.

Soon after, Jones died and Thomas was sold to new master, Owen Homes, who put him to work as a stevedore at Wilmington Docks. It was around this time he was able

to revisit my early home. I found it all desolate; the family all broken up; father was sold and gone; Richard, Alexander, Charles, Sarah and John, were sold and gone. Mother prematurely old, heart-broken, utterly desolate, weak and dying, alone remained. I saw her, and wept once more on her bosom. I went back to my chains with a deeper woe in my heart than I had ever felt before.

Thomas and Lucilla had three children: Annie, Lizzie and Charlie; but hanging over them was a dread of being sold off and the family split up. This came while Charlie was still a baby: Mrs. Moore moved 75 miles away and took Thomas’s family from him. He was to see them only once more, eighteen months later, when they moved again to Alabama, spending one night on their way in their old home. ‘The next morning Mrs. Moore embarked on board the packet. I followed my wife and children to the boat, and parted from them without a word of farewell. Our sobs and tears were our only adieu… I have never seen that dear family since, nor have I heard from them since I parted from them there. God only knows the bitterness of my agony.’

Life at the docks gave Thomas the opportunity to earn around $1.25 a day from extra work but, bereft of his family, he was in a dark place. After four years ‘I had ceased to hope for another meeting with her in this world of oppression and suffering; so I sat down and wrote to Lucilla, that I could live alone no longer, and saying to her the sad farewell, which we could not say when we were sundered. I asked Mary R. Moore to come and cheer me in my desolate home. She became my wife’. Mary was a slave but Thomas struck a deal with her master, using his income to hire Mary from him at $48 per year for three years. At the end of this rental period, with money saved and the aid of a white friend, he was able to buy Mary and the three children born to them[2], for $350. They were now free, but not he. Even the freedom they had was in jeopardy. In the winter of 1848-9 they were warned by a friend that slavers were coming to abduct his family back into slavery, illegally. A lawyer warned that their only recourse was to flee to one of the free northern states. Thomas found and paid $25 to a ship’s captain to take them away to New York. For a third time he had lost his family.

Through the spring and summer of 1849, he corresponded with Mary while planning his self-liberation. Suspecting the possibility that her letters to him would be intercepted, he insisted that Mary’s replies carried a negative portrayal of New York and news that she would be returning to him shortly. Finally, he escaped while his master was ill, finding a ship’s steward who was willing to stow him away in the hold for $8—all he had left. His plans almost came to nothing when he was discovered at sea by the captain, who ordered his return. He was able to escape from the ship when it anchored at New York, paddling towards shore on a makeshift raft of planks, and rescued from it by a passing boat, thankfully crewed by abolitionists. Reunited with his family, as a fugitive slave, he commenced on a round of preaching and speaking engagements, mainly at Wesleyan churches around New England, telling his story. In 1851 ‘He officiated, for one year, with entire acceptance, to the Wesleyan Church in Salem’.[3]

The family’s life in the northern ‘free’ states was not uncomplicated. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave, even in the free states. Slave-hunters operated widely and even those, like Mary and the children, carrying papers proving their freedom, were not safe from abduction. The northern free states generally sought to frustrate the capture and return of slaves until, in September,1850, a harsh second act was passed, only 12 months after Thomas’s arrival in New York. State officials were subject to fines if they did not arrest anyone allegedly escaped from slavery. Habeas corpus was suspended; hunters only needed to present an affidavit to a commissioner (no jury), who was paid $10 for finding in favour of the hunter or $5 against; and the alleged slave was not allowed any rights or defence in court. Any member of the public aiding or harbouring a fugitive was also subject to a fine of up to $1000 or six months imprisonment.

Thomas, like many escapees, headed to Canada. ‘The Fugitive Slave Law drove me from my kind friends in New England, and I found that my wanderings were not yet ended. I took refuge in the British Provinces, where God had provided a house of refuge for the houseless, homeless slave.’ We know that he had made plans to visit England. One reference suggests that he departed from St John, on this journey,[4] but no further evidence has yet been found of his setting foot on British soil. The acts of 1793 and 1850 were eventually repealed towards the close of the Civil War, in June 1864.

We close Thomas’s story with the testimonial letter given to him for this proposed journey, provided by the prominent journalist, abolitionist and social reformer W M Lloyd Garrison:

Boston, March 29, 1851.

In consequence of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, at the last session of Congress, a general flight from the country of all fugitive slaves in the Northern States has become necessary as a matter of personal safety. Among the number thus compelled to leave is the bearer of this, Thomas H. Jones, a Wesleyan preacher, and pastor of a colored church in the neighboring city of Salem, who carries with him a narrative of his life for sale. My personal acquaintance with him is limited; but those among my friends who know him intimately speak of him as a most worthy man, and one peculiarly entitled to the sympathy and aid of those who love God and regard man. Though he is man, “created a little lower than the angels” — exemplary in life — a servant and minister of Jesus Christ — in all the United States there is not a spot on which he can stand in safety from pursuing bloodhounds, and must flee to England to prevent being again reduced to the condition of a beast! May the God of the oppressed raise him up many friends abroad!

WM. LLOYD GARRISON.

[1] Written by Joseph Hart in 1759. Hart was converted on Whitsunday 1757 under the ministry of George Whitefield

[2] Mary had an un-named son by a previous marriage, who remained in slavery in the swamps of North Carolina. (Testimonial letter in Jones, T., 1880. The experience of Rev. Thomas H Jones… Boston: Bliss. p.lxxxix). Thomas saved and petitions for many years for his release but no record of his liberation has been found. His owner, a female, set his purchase price at a high $800. [ibid., p.lxxix] and the 1880 testimonial above suggests he was still in captivity at this time.

[3]Garrison, W., 1852. The Liberator. Boston: Garrison & Knapp. Edition 13th August, 1852, cited in Bird

[4] Weekly Chronicle, New Brunswick, June 13 1851, cited by Bird

Above - Portrait of Thomas H. Jones - The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, printed by Bazin & Chandler in 1862

Convicts embarking for Botany Bay. Rowlandson, Thomas, 1756-1827. 1809. Pen and wash; 17.3 x 15.7 cm. Courtesy of Trove. Public Domain.

Above - Thomas H. Jones escaping on raft - The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, printed by Bazin & Chandler in 1862

Convicts embarking for Botany Bay. Rowlandson, Thomas, 1756-1827. 1809. Pen and wash; 17.3 x 15.7 cm. Courtesy of Trove. Public Domain.

Above - Poster cautioning against kidnappers

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