“It is unprecedented, as far as I know, to have had a gathering of such illustrious descendants of authors of slave narratives in one place,” says Kari Winter, a UB professor of transnational studies.
At a historic three-day workshop held at UB and Buffalo’s Michigan Street Baptist Church this fall, titled “Workshop for Descendants of Authors of Slave Narratives,” Winter brought together nearly a dozen descendants of such notable figures as Dred Scott and Solomon Northup. Among the attendees were authors, educators and two foundation presidents.
Participants shared documents, photographs, family bibles and questions about their backgrounds, describing their experiences and learning from one another to explore new ways of telling multigenerational histories of slavery and the ongoing struggle for liberation.
“One of the processes of enslaving people was to make them genealogical isolates and to sever them from their descendants,” Winter says. “Part of the work of history is to restore that severed connection between generations.”
In 2005, Winter published a new edition of the nearly lost narrative of Jeffrey Brace, who was captured by English slave traders in West Africa, fought in the American Revolution and later settled in Vermont as a free man, eventually reciting his memoirs to an antislavery lawyer in the early 1800s. Winter feels that Brace’s narrative may represent his belief in the importance of understanding family history—the same goal of the workshop she organized.
“My argument is that Jeffrey Brace is making a call to his descendants, asking them to respond as a way of overcoming that severance from their ancestry,” says Winter. “When people perform that ritualistically, it’s for an entire people and not just their particular biological descendants.”
Every time a particular intergenerational history is discovered and retold, all of us gain access to a richer, more accurate version of the human story, adds Winter, who is hoping the workshop will be the first in a two-year series and lead to the publication of an anthology of essays.
Workshop participants descended from a who’s who of slave narrative authors and activists
William Grimes, author of “Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave,” the first fugitive-slave narrative published in America in 1825
Jeffrey Brace, whose oral narrative became “The Blind African Slave: Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace”
Lewis G. Clarke, an escaped slave, leading abolitionist and likely inspiration for the character George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Solomon Northup, author of the 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave,” on which the critically acclaimed 2013 motion picture was based
Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom when slaveholders took him to a free state, resulting in the devastating 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision
Moses Grandy, author of the memoir “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America,” published in 1843