Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery

By Schermerhorn, Calvin | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery


Schermerhorn, Calvin, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Freedom Narrative of Henry Goings

The formerly enslaved Virginian who took the name Henry Goings when he emancipated himself in Alabama in 1839 witnessed key moments in the creation of the cotton kingdom of the nineteenthcentury South. His rambles illuminate the experience of non-autonomous migration to the southern frontier and the restless mobility of the architects of that society. He peered over their shoulders and listened to their conversations, encountering some even after he fled to the North. Goings left a rare first-person account of how enslaved people were implicated in a process usually understood in terms of planter migration and the geopolitics of slavery, which further contextualizes the experience of African Americans from the Upper South who sojourned or sought refuge outside the United States. Goings wrote and published Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery while a resident of Ontario, composing it over a span of years, from the early 185Os to the late 186Os.1

Joining a distinguished company of African American critics abroad, Goings unfolded an appraisal of his homeland as well as a narrative of his life. He urged emancipation on a nation so that his children might realize their full potential despite their African descent. During the Civil War, he commented on the progress of African American freedom, and during Reconstruction he urged other blacks to seize theirs through steeliness and self-sufficiency. His Rambles was an independent project, created without the sponsorship of white abolitionists or interpretion through an amanuensis.2 Consisting of three chapters covering his life before the Civil War, two chapters during and immediately after it, and including a lengthy appendix containing reports of antiblack violence, speeches from Freedmen's Bureau officials, and memories of Goings's travels with his erstwhile owner, Rambles unfolds a life and the views of an expatriate African American during a critical time in United States history. The resulting manuscript was published as a pamphlet by a Stratford, Ontario, printer likely as a job ordered by its author. To date, one copy is extant. In later chapters, the author addressed his audience as "My colored Brethren," indicating that he wrote for an African American audience. From that perspective, Goings positioned himself within a set of African-descended transnational commentators whose ideas and criticisms resounded across oceans, not merely sectional or national borders.3

Early life was tumultuous for Henry Goings. He was born Elijah Turner, a slave of James Norvell Walker of James City County in about 1810.4 Walker's Window Shades plantation on the shores of the Chickahominy River was also home to Goings's parents, Catharine and Abraham Turner.5 Walker died in the early 1 8 1 Os, and his slave property was divided among heirs or sold to pay creditors. The Turner family was split. About one third of Upper South slaves' first marriages were dissolved through sale, which was how half of enslaved children lost parents, usually fathers.6 Walker s son-inlaw, Pearson Piggott, inherited Goings and his sister, Maria Turner. Other relatives now owned Catharine, Abraham, and other siblings. A gunsmith and tavern keeper, Piggott moved to Burnt Ordinary, now Toano, a dozen miles from Williamsburg, where he kept "a liquor establishment," and where Goings recalled his love of sport, his "excessive profanity," and his "severity." Goings saw his mother only a few times in the nearly three years he remained but did not comment extensively on how that affected him.7

Goings had an exceptional drive to learn, and when he spied a chance to become literate, he took it. James City County was a fertile place for learning; there were nine primary schools open in the county by 1823.8 A young William Bush, perhaps a playmate, gave him a spelling book, and Goings attempted to attend school. The schoolmaster, however, refused to seat him. …

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