Thanks to support from the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute, the IU New Currents program, and several campus offices and departments as well as Indiana Humanities (the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities), the Frederick Douglass Papers will sponsor a gathering of scholars, teachers, students, and the general public to examine the historical and literary significance of Douglass’s novella, “The Heroic Slave” (1853), on our campus in October.
In preparation for this symposium, several members of the Douglass Papers staff have been engaged in a small piece of literary detective work. Douglass’s “Heroic Slave” was originally published as a contribution to the short “gift book” entitled Autographs for Freedom, published in Boston by the firm of John P. Jewitt. Besides Douglass, this collection of essays, poems, and short fiction features many well-known mid-nineteenth century writers and political and reform leaders including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, Horace Greeley, John G. Whittier, and Caroline Dall.
Among the diverse collection of black and white, male and female, American and British contributors to Autographs is the writer Annie Parker who published a poem “Story Telling” and the separate story, “Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman.” In the latter, the narrator, a slave woman, recounts the tragic outcome of a master/slave sexual relationship. In the past few decades this piece has been anthologized several times as one of the earliest works of fiction by an African American author. But who was Annie Parker? None of the anthologies or scholars writing about the story have ever been able to supply any biographical details about her.
Project assistant editor Jeffrey Duvall, graduate research assistant Rebecca Pattillo, and I have been at work trying to answer that question this summer. Frederick Douglass’s own Rochester-published newspaper contains a piece under Parker’s byline in the early 1850s and two other short journalistic pieces by her appear in a Geneva, New York-based temperance newspaper in that same era. Then the trail gets cold, very cold.
Genealogical sources turn up a few possible “Annie Parkers” in the upstate New York region but none of them has any known connection to the antislavery movement and all were white. Perhaps Annie Parker was not a runaway slave as others have speculated. This raises the possibility that “Annie Parker” was a pen name–but whose?
The most intriguing possibility is that Parker is none other than Harriet Jacobs, the author of the famous 1859 autobiography of her horrifyingly abusive career as a South Carolina slave. Jacobs had escaped slavery in the early 1840s and worked as a maid for the Massachusetts journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis, who is referred to twice obtusely in Parker’s own writings. In 1849-50, two years before the publication of the Autographs, Jacobs lived in Rochester and actually worked in the same building where Douglass edited his newspaper. While Jacobs had returned to working for Willis in Massachusetts by the time Autographs was compiled, those earlier connections might have led the gift book’s editor, Julia Griffiths, to have solicited a piece by Jacobs, although no evidence of such a solicitation has yet been found. The same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe also asked Jacobs to write a summary of her slave experiences to include in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a response to critics of her condemnation of slave mistreatment in her earlier novel. The Douglass staff is exploring whether Jacobs might have wanted to tell her personal story herself in a safer fictional form in the pages of Autographs.
The product of this research will just be a small part of the upcoming symposium, where Douglass papers staff will be joined by seven widely-published scholars from several disciplines to explore various contexts of “the Heroic Slave.” The event is free and open to the public and we hope will be well-attended by many persons from the central Indiana community interested in Frederick Douglass and his campaign against slavery.
by Jack Kaufman-McKivigan