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VT Special Collections and University Archives Online


For over two hundred years we suffered the horrors slavery. in this and other countries. and. why?” (Jun 22 con)

Wilson was born on May 10th, 1843 “in ‘slave quarters,’… on the north side of South street, just east of Court Street” in Portsmouth, Virginia.1 Under ‘the peculiar system’ of the 19th century, Wilson’s mother belonged to Eliza T. Edwards, who was the wife of “one of Portsmouth’s wealthiest citizens.”2 After the death of her first husband Edwards married Charles A. Grice. Wilson thus became the chattel property of the Grice family, whom Wilson served throughout the war.

          Wilson was little more than ten years old when Grice took him from his mother. “This day 60 years ago [1853], the writer was a little slave boy living on Bermuda [S]treet in Norfolk with my dear mother and wicked stepfather, he was a hackman, and my mother was a laundress. —It was from there a year or two later, that old man C[harles].A. Grice, and his wife [Eliza T. Grice] came and arbitrarily carried me back to Portsmouth and put me to work and put me at work in the garden, planting Irish Potatoes… I learned then that I was a slave [sic].” (Aug. 14)

       The very nature of the slave system was coercive, and its abuses were socially pervasive. Escaping slavery through legal and illegal means required persistence and daring on the part of the enslaved. Under the law slaves were not allowed to testify against whites in court. As a result proving crimes committed against/upon them by whites was next to imposable, even with the assistance of sympathetic whites. Outthinking predatory whites was thus an integral part of survival within and resistance to the slavery system. In slave narratives such stories take on special significance because they represent small victories over the system displaying daring and mental faculties, which were consistently denied by slavers. On July 26th, Wilson recounts such a story about his mother:

“Fifty seven years ago [1856] my dear old Mother outwitted J.M. Rellen and Frank Pierce. h[e] old Rellen had done sneaked in. and had my stepfather put in jail. Came back and did the same to  mother. they then searched the house for the old folks money. Which they had. but Rellen and Pierce never found it. mother had secured it so. that they couldn’t. and that same money $700.00 I think. in gold and silver. was used to buy my stepfathers freedom” (Jul. 26)

Buying one’s freedom was just one way of escaping slavery.

        Just a year later the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1855 swept through Portsmouth and Norfolk. Wilson’s older brother John seized the opportunity:

“Fifty eight years ago [1855] my brother John and me walked down to the ferry landing in Norfolk, and he got into a boat, and boarded a vessel lying in the stream, loaded for Boston, and made good his escape…That was what termed U.G.R.R. [Underground Rail Road]” (Aug. 14)

Wilson wouldn’t see his brother again until after the war.

        John’s escape during the 1855 epidemic was anything but coincidental. In another entry Wilson writes: “Fifty eight years ago this month [August] the great epidemic. Yellow Fever. Was raging in Portsmouth and Norfolk. White people were dying by scores, and a very few colored.” (Aug. 12).

Yellow Fever is believed to have originated in Africa. Thus Africa Americans processed greater immunity to the disease compared to Europeans American. John Wilson was no doubt not the only person to take advantage of his genetic inherence to escape bondage during this period. “The Yellow fever was so serious, White people had no time to look after runaway Negroes but after the dying whites.” (Aug. 14)

      As might be expected the indignities of slavery became progressively worse as Wilson got older. Three years after the epidemic, Wilson recounts: “I was hired out for the first time in my life, and F[rancis].W. Lemosy was my new master, he was mean, his wife was meaner, the children were the same. The mulatto nurse and the [I]rish cook was no better… They gave me stale victuals worked me hard in the garden… [I] had to rise before day and got cuffs and kicks if I didn’t.” (Jan 1).Wilson’s poor treatment at the Lemosy house, in his own words, “caused me to do what I would not have done had I realized the enormity of it, to get clear of them [i.e. ran away].” 

“Every white person I lived with or served, as a slave 60 years ago and less have long since gone the way of all the earth ie “They have slumbered for years in their graves.” (Sept. 16)

“The [S]outh lost out in their fight 50 years ago on the battle field for a separate government. Whose cornerstone would be Negro slavery, but have regained more than they lost in the half of the Congress i.e. absolute control of the [E]xecutive, also and us. We are the persecuted. Worse than the Israel[ites] in Egypt in the a sense and Why are We? …Why?” (Aug. 2) 

  1. Portsmouth Star Obituary of Wilson
  2. Wilson’s mother’s name has not been recorded by Wilson or other sources.