African-American History

“White Enough to Pass”: Uncovering the story of John Wesley Gibson

Excerpt from William Still's 1872 book, The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & c., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors, of the Road.

Excerpt from William Still’s 1872 book, The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & c., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors, of the Road, E450 .S85, MdHS. (reference photo)

“John Wesley Gibson represented himself to be not only the slave, but also the son of William Y. Day, of Taylor’s Mount, Maryland…” This is the opening statement of a slave narrative that tells the story of a man who chose freedom in a place and time that allowed slavery — Maryland in the 1850s. The short narrative offers details of his appearance (looks like his father); job description (farm foreman); his age (28); how he escaped (passed as a white man) and how he detested bondage (severe restrictions). Little else is known of John Wesley Gibson other than one paragraph of information in a 780-page history of the Underground Railroad published in 1872. After Gibson escaped, where did he go? What was his life like at Taylor’s Mount? Is there a way to verify the information in the narrative? His mother Harriet and sister Frances were mentioned in the story.  What happened to them? How do we find out more info? Or are they lost to history?

Uncovering the stories of individual slaves is a difficult task. Sources, in general, are limited. Most are written or created from the perspective of the slaveholder, for example, manumission papers, inventories, and runaway slave ads. Sources written from the perspective of the slave are rare. For the most part, men and women who were enslaved had limited opportunities to become educated. While not impossible, African-Americans living in the 1800s faced many restrictions, including some states prohibiting education for slaves. Slave narratives allowed former slaves to tell their stories in their own words.

Many people are familiar with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) written by himself or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs. The award-winning movie Twelve Years a Slave (2013) was based on a slave narrative of the same title written in by Solomon Northrup in 1853. Ante-bellum slave narratives became extremely popular in the mid-nineteenth century as people throughout the country became more interested in the discussion and debate over slavery, both pro-slavery propaganda and abolitionist rhetoric.

William Still From "The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts...," published in 1872.

William Still
From “The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts…,” published in 1872, E450 .S85, MdHS. (reference photo)

William Still, chairman of the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia, also wrote a book about fugitive slaves, but his work differs from the classic slave narrative. He was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society “. . . to compile and publish his personal reminiscences and experiences relating to the ‘Underground Railroad.’”(1) Still included the stories of hundreds of fugitive slaves, as well transcripts of letters, newspaper articles, runaway ads, laws and legal cases regarding fugitive slaves, engravings, and biographies of abolitionists. This compilation is as impressive as the title: The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & c., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors, of the Road.

Still had access to fugitives as they either ended their journey in Philadelphia or passed through the city of brotherly love.(2) Prior to 1852, both freedom seekers and members of the Underground Railroad system kept all information secret; members, routes, stories – all details were closely guarded. Still was inspired to keep a journal in 1852 after he met a previously unknown brother, Peter Still — they were separated forty years earlier and did not know each other existed. After this chance encounter, Still interviewed and kept notes for the next five years and then waited almost twenty years before publishing the 780-page book in 1872. Still’s hand-written notes and newspaper clippings, known as “Journal C,” are part of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers which are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). HSP has recently digitized the journal which is part of a large research project regarding the Underground Railroad.*

John Wesley Gibson’s brief story, is recounted on page 301 of Still’s 1872 book. It is also featured on page 79 in “Journal C” – the digitized journal. The pages are legible and relatively easy to read. The journal entry provides a few more details that are not included in the published version: John Wesley Gibson arrived in Philadelphia on November 27, 1854 after travelling for six weeks. Still described him as “intelligent and good-looking.”

Journal C, p.79. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Journal C, p.79.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania

William Y. Day, the master and father of John Wesley Gibson, owned Taylor’s Mount in Baltimore County, Maryland. The Maryland Historical Society Library holds the Day Family Papers (MS 1255) which contain wills, land records, slave inventories, manumissions papers, as well as some business and personal papers. Some of these documents reveal what life was like at Taylor’s Mount. Slavery was an integral part of life at the estate for multiple generations. Some of the documents that confirm this include a bill of sale for Nelly Duckett, a receipt for Spencer and Harry for partial payment, and a slave inventory. Multiple wills illustrate how slaves passed to the younger generations – just like land, furnishings, and other property. Names, ages, and descriptions of them are provided in many of the documents, but there is no clear picture of who they were as people – - their likes, dislikes, etc. – no intimate knowledge of them as people.

MS 1255, verso (reference photo)

Deed of Manumission and Release of Service, MS 1255, MdHS.(reference photo)

List of Slaves

Deed of Manumission and Release of Service, verso, MS 1255, MdHS.(reference photo)

The most intriguing document was an undated list of slaves, entitled “Deed of Manumission and Release of Service,” The document is a form letter that was not filled out for the year 186_. The words “list of slaves” is handwritten at the bottom of the page, upside down.  On the verso, in cursive, it states “List of Slaves belonging to William Y. Day all of them for life but John Bacon”. It lists the names and ages of the slaves, plus a few interesting details. The first two names on the list are Harriott Pearce age 50 and Fanny Pearce age 16. There is also a John Gibson age 33 on the list. Could the women be John Wesley Gibson’s mother and sister? Is John Gibson somehow related? I am hopeful that they are the same people, but there is no absolute certainty – yet.  These documents give more details to the incredible work of William Still, members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, as well as our friends and colleagues at HSP and other institutions who continue the mission of giving voices to those who did not have it so long ago.** (Debbie Harner)

Debbie Harner works in the Special Collections Department of the Maryland Historical Society and is Associate Editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Footnotes:

(1) William Still referred to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society as the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in the Preface of his book.

(2) After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, many fugitives did not end their journey in Philadelphia, a free state, but continued their journey to safety in Canada.

*To learn more about the digitization project of “Journal  C” kept by William Still, click on this link: https://hsp.org/history-online/digital-history-projects/uncovering-william-stills-underground-railroad)

**Another great resource is the Legacy of Slavery project at the Maryland State Archives.

Sources and further reading:

The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & c., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors, of the Road.  Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Day Family of Harford County, Papers, MS 1255, Maryland Historical Society

“An Introduction to the Slave Narrative” by William Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, Series Editor. 

Uncovering William Stills Underground Railroad, Digital History Project, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Discussion

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  1. [...] John Wesley Gibson était un esclave travaillant dans la plantation de son père Blanc dans le Maryland, à une époque, les années 1850, où l’esclavage y était encore en vigueur. L’existence de John Wesley Gibson n’est connue qu’à travers le portrait qui est fait de lui par l’abolitionniste William Still dans un livre qu’il a consacré en 1872 aux esclaves fugitifs (image). John Wesley y rapporte que John Wesley Gibson était parvenu à s’enfuir à 28 ans de la plantation de son père en se servant du teint clair que lui a donné le fait d’être né d’un père Blanc et d’une mère esclave noire. L’histoire est racontée ICI. [...]

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