By Lewis George Clarke
A Facsimile Edition with Introduction by Carver Clark Gayton
Paperback, 112 pages
Illustrations, Suggested Reading
University of Washington Press
This narrative was originally published in 1845 and was the first to be copyrighted by a slave. Lewis Clarke dictated his story to the abolitionist J. C. Lovejoy and the results of its publication were monumental in the history of our country, not least directly inspiring Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The subject is fascinating, not only because of its content but also because the author has ties to a Seattle pioneer African American family. Carver Clark Gayton, who is the great grandson of the slave and grandson of Seattle pioneer John T. Gayton, provides an introduction based on his extensive research.
Lewis Clarke was born in 1815 in Madison County, Kentucky, on the plantation of his grandfather Samuel Campbell. His mother was the mulatto daughter of the owner and his father was Daniel Clarke, a Scotsman, who fought in the Revolutionary War and who married his mother. Although the plantation owner had promised freedom to the family at his death, the will was destroyed and Lewis at age 6 or 7 became the property of the owner’s white daughter.
Her wicked and harsh treatment exposed in the narrative stimulated the abhorrence of slavery in readers. Her instruments of torture included raw hide, tongs, a shovel, shears, a knife-handle and the heavy heel of her slipper. Clarke’s hands and feet were beat with a heavy oak club and vinegar and salt thrown in his eyes to keep him awake. Because she resented the fact that he was white and that they shared the same blood, she forced him to spend hours in the sun to burn him black and then beat his blistered back. When he was 26 years old and following ownership by several new masters, he managed to escape slavery by stealing away on a pony and eventually crossing the Ohio River to freedom. Clarke describes his subsequent perilous trip back to Kentucky to help his brother flee, a brief stay in Canada, and of his association with abolitionists in Ohio and Massachusetts.
The narrative’s appendix includes poetry he had heard and enjoyed and brief essays on slavery by the era’s writers. Clarke’s description of each member of his immediate family is also appended as are several pages of questions and answers on the life of slaves which are illuminating. The author reveals that only one in 10 slaves attended church on Sundays; that two or three families huddled together in one cabin and in cold weather they slept together promiscuously, young and old; slaves were washed in salt and water after whippings to make them suffer more; the worst thing he ever saw was a naked woman hung up by her hands and whipped until blood ran down her back. These were a few of the answers to the many questions he was asked after his speeches.
Carver Clark Gayton, who has served in many important positions in Seattle including executive director of the Northwest African American Museum, has written an introduction. He is passionate in his explanation of why he pursued the re-publication of the narrative. He tells of his mother’s pride in her family and the cherished little red book Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Harriet Beecher Stowe reveals that Lewis Clarke is the model for a character in the book and a primary source. As a child he thought stories about his great grandfather were interesting family folklore but in 2009 there was a call from a historian requesting information about Clarke’s children. Gayton became engrossed in research about him and discovered that he was a powerful force in the abolition of slavery and in our country’s history although he was not widely known. This became his impetus for having the narrative republished.
He learned that much of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on interviews Harriet Beecher Stowe had with Lewis Clarke. The first chapters of the story appeared in the National Era and Stowe was paid $100 for it. It created such a sensation that she was paid $300 to finish the book. There is no question that the book was crucial in the North’s backing of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said to Stowe, “So you are the little woman who started this great war.”
Gayton also discovers the many abolitionists his great grandfather was associated with and how he became a famous anti-slavery speaker. Frederick Douglass, later publishing his own book, became a friend and associate. They often shared the same stage and Douglass thought so well of him that he named his son Lewis. In addition to Harriet Beecher Stowe and J. C. Lovejoy, there were Lewis Tappan, John Brown, Congressman Cassius Marcellus Clay, Lydia Maria Child, and other stars in the anti-slavery movement.
The narrative is remarkable because of its early publication and Carver Gayton’s introduction is filled with the results of his research which add considerably to the richness of the book. Glaringly missing however is the name of the mother of Clarke’s children and Gayton’s great grandmother. The notes following the introduction are well referenced. There is also a suggested reading list assembled by Gayton.
It would have been helpful to the reader to have had a family tree included in the book to illustrate the connection between Lewis Clarke and the prominent Seattle Gayton family. An explanation or definition of Algerines in the title would have been informative as well.
History buffs will relish this primary source on slavery and Seattleites will learn more about the roots of a local pioneer African American family.
By Mary T. Henry, September 1, 2012