Charles Hall was born a slave in 1811. Over the course of his life, he was owned by three different men. On March 24th, 1856, Hall emancipated himself via the Underground Railroad.
In the 1860s, Hall was interviewed while living in Canada. Here, he tells of his life in bondage, as well as the reasons for his escape. Through his testimony, we can see how literacy led him to question slavery and to ultimately escape into freedom.
While the bulk of interviews with former slaves took place in the late 1930s, there were more than a handful that were conducted during the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves as the United States army retook land in the seceding states. Those recently-freed black Americans were more than willing to tell their stories. Fortunately for us, many have been recorded.
Additionally, some Federal writers ventured into Canada for the same purpose. There, they interviewed black Canadians who emancipated themselves from bondage in America, escaping across the border to the north.
Such was the case of a former slave named Charles Hall. At the age of 52, an interviewer caught up with Mr. Hall and took down his story. What follows are his own words:
“I was born in Maryland. My mother was the mother of fifteen children, I being the seventh child. I was born a slave and came up a slave until I was about 12 years old, and at that time my oldest brother was sold to Georgia.
“That first opened my eyes against slavery. I took into consideration how it was that my mother’s children were sold, and other children were not sold. I got uneasy, and began to think over these things. It was a rule in that country, that a slave must not be seen with a book of any kind; but old madam Bean, my mistress, belonged to the Baptist Church, and she said we might all learn to spell and read the Bible. The old man fought against it for some time, but found it prevailed nothing.”
Too Much Learning
“After she got to work pretty well, she used to teach me with the children. I learned how to spell considerable, and afterwards I got so I could read a little. I got to be a good stout boy, and got to know too much for the old boss himself, and he said it wouldn’t do.
“He said I was going [to be sold] just like my brother, Bige, who had learned to read and was a preacher, and was raising the devil on the place. So after a little scorning, I stopped it, and gave up reading until I got to be 19 years old.
“But the more I read, the more I fought against slavery. Finally, I thought I would make an attempt to get friend, and have liberty or death.
“I went to a camp-meeting about 15 miles off, and when I got home, my old boss wanted to know where I was. I wouldn’t tell him, and he proceeded to try to whip me. I wouldn’t let him, and he called his three boys out of bed to help him.
“I wouldn’t be taken by them, until they backed me into a room, where I couldn’t get out, and then the old gentleman gave me enough to let me know that I wouldn’t be a slave.
“I told one of my brothers that I was going to be free. He was the only one of my mother’s fifteen children that I had any confidence in, for all the rest believed everything the white people told them. He had learned to read, as I had, and knew better. He said I had better stay there, and prevailed on me to stay.
“After a while he was sold, and when he was sold, he bought himself, and he traveled North considerable, and came back again, and was telling me about coming away.”
A Considerable Battle
“In this time, I moved about forty miles, and was not allowed to see my mother only once or twice a year. I had my sister and younger brother with m, but I was afraid to let my sister know what my right hand done, for she thought everything the white people said was right.
“I was ready to go away about four years, and waiting for a man who was going with me, but never got ready. Finally , he told it round the neighborhood, and it got round to the boss, and he attacked me on the 23rd day of March, 1836, and he and I had considerable of a battle.
“After a long time, I gave up, and that night I as handcuffed, for the first time in my life. I was put in a room upstairs and locked up, and stayed there until Monday. His father-in-law and his wife came up and wanted me to beg pardon for what I had done, but I wouldn’t give up.”
Come Out If You Can
“I went to sleep about eleven o’clock in the day, and dreamed that I was dreaming, and when I woke up, something whispered in my ear, “Come out, if you can; it will be the best for you.”
“I set there to see whether this was true, and it was repeated. I goes to the fireplace, and found I could take up the bricks and the boards underneath, and go down into the room below.
“At night, I went down in that way, and came down upon the mantelpiece. I went and roused a friend, to get him to pay me some money and cut those handcuffs off. Finally, he got my handcuffs loose, and I started for the city of Baltimore, which was about 14 miles off.
“There I stayed form Monday night until Friday night. I walked the streets every day, and read my own advertisement – $100 in the States.
“Sunday night I was in Columbia, Pennsylvania 1Like many, one of Hall’s stops was Columbia, Pennsylvania – likely the same station used by Frank Wanzer and his family the year prior. where I fell in with a friend, and remained there a week, and then came to Philadelphia. I left Philadelphia on Monday, and Friday evening I was across Suspension Bridge.
“Out of the fifteen children I left, I cannot give an account of but four besides myself. The others have been sold and dragged about the country. I have had three owners. My first owner’s name was Harry Dorsey, my second, Samuel Blunt, and my third, Atwood Blunt.” 2As printed in John W. Blassingame, ed Slave Testimony (Louisiana State University Press, 1977) 416-418.
Arrival in Philadelphia
After Hall arrived in Philadelphia, he told his story to William Still, the de facto head of that city’s Underground Railroad. Mr. Still made it a point to keep notes on each of the fugitives slaves that came through his doors.
What follows are Still’s notes:
“April 9th – Chs. Hall, belonged to Atwood Blunt of Baltimore Co. Md., about 14 miles above Baltimore. His master undertook to whip him for some alledged [sic] fault, which Chs. resisted. He was then handcuffed, & confined to an upper room in the house, to be taken, next day to Baltimore to be sold.
“He contrived to tear up the hearth, and break into the room below, from which, being unlocked, he escaped, walked to Baltimore that night, still hand-cuffed, & went to the house of a friend who received & concealed him for three days. Then he walked to Pa [Pennsylvania].” 3As printed in Don Papson Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City (McFarland & Company, 2015)176.
Later, in 1872, William Still published a revised edition of his notes, adding a bit to Mr. Hall’s entry:
“Charles Hall. This individual was from Maryland, Baltimore Col., where “black men had no rights which white men were bound to respect,” according to the decision of the late Chief Justice Taney of the Supreme Court of the United States.
“Charles was owned by Atwood A. Blunt, a farmer, much of whose time was devoted to card playing, rum-drinking and fox-hunting, so Charles stated. Charles gave him the credit of being as mild a specimen of a slaveholder as that region of the country could claim when in a sober mood, but when drunk, every thing went wrong with him, nothing could satisfy him.
“Charles testified, however, that the despotism of his mistress was much worse than that o his master, for she was all the time hard on the slaves. Latterly he had heard much talk about selling, and, believing that matters would soon have to come to that, he concluded to seek a place where colored men had rights, in Canada.” 4William Still The Underground Rail Road; A Record (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872) 383. Here.
Shortly after Hall’s escape, his enslaver, Atwood Blunt, ran this ad in the Baltimore Sun:
One Hundred Dollars Reward: Ran away from the subscriber, living in Baltimore county, Md., during the night of the 24th instant, his Servant Man Charles Hall, aged about 25 or 30 years; of dark color, nearly back; about 5 feet 6 inches in height, and well set, – He had a fresh wound over the left eye – other marks or clothing not known. I will give the above reward if arrested and delivered to me, or secured in jail so that I get him.
A. Blunt 5The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore, Maryland; Fri, Mar 28, 1856 – Page 4. Here.
Despite Atwood Blunt’s attempts to reclaim his “property,” he was unsuccessful. After his 1863 interview, the trail of Charles Hall disintegrates. There seems to be no indication of what happened to him after the Civil War.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Like many, one of Hall’s stops was Columbia, Pennsylvania – likely the same station used by Frank Wanzer and his family the year prior.|
|2.||⇡||As printed in John W. Blassingame, ed Slave Testimony (Louisiana State University Press, 1977) 416-418.|
|3.||⇡||As printed in Don Papson Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City (McFarland & Company, 2015)176.|
|4.||⇡||William Still The Underground Rail Road; A Record (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872) 383. Here.|
|5.||⇡||The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore, Maryland; Fri, Mar 28, 1856 – Page 4. Here.|