ALBERY ALLSON WHITMAN was born in slavery on May 30, 1851, on the estate of an unknown farmer near Munfordsville, Kentucky.His mother died when he was eleven and his father died the next year. After the Civil War Whitman, now free, lived variously in Kentucky and Ohio as a laborer and also attended school for seven months. With this learning he was able to become a schoolteacher in Ohio and later in Kentucky.Around 1870 he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, but attended only for six months. During his brief stay there, however, he came under the influence of the university's president, Daniel Alexander Payne, whom Whitman considered one of the most important influences upon his life and work.
Payne, who was also a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, probably encouraged Whitman to enter the ministry, and Whitman became a pastor of A.M.E. churches in Ohio, Kansas, and elsewhere. He remained associated with Wilberforce University, becoming its general financial agent by 1877. At some point Whitman married a woman named Caddie, with whom he had three daughters. These daughters became a successful vaudeville team during the early decades of the twentieth century.
Whitman began writing in the 1870s. His first book, Essay on the Ten Plagues and Miscellaneous Poems, was probably published in 1871, but no copies appear to survive. Two years later Whitman issued Leelah Misled, a melodramatic poem that does not address racial issues. In 1877 Not a Man, and Yet a Man was issued. At 5000 lines it is one of the longest poems ever written by a black American. Although betraying the influence of many of the standard poets of the day, Not a Man, and Yet a Man deals vigorously with the evils of slavery and boldly suggests the possibility of interracial love between Rodney, the slave hero of the poem, and Dora, the daughter of Rodney's owner.
Whitman's next major work, The Rape of Florida ( 1884; reissued in a slightly revised edition the following year as Twasinta's Seminoles; or, Rape of Florida