Hughes, Louis 1832-?
HUGHES, Louis 1832-?
Born 1832, in VA; deceased; married, November 30, 1858; wife's name Matilda; children: several children.
Born a slave, escaped to freedom in 1865. Self-taught practitioner of medicine; Sherman House, Chicago, IL, porter; began laundry business; worked as a nurse.
Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Autobiography of Louis Hughes: The Institution of Slavery As Seen on the Plantation and in the Homeof the Planter, South Side Printing (Milwaukee, WI), 1897, reprinted with new foreword by William Andrews, NewSouth Books (Montgomery, AL), 2002.
Louis Hughes was born a slave, the son of a white man and a black slave mother, and remained a slave for three decades. His memoir Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Autobiography of Louis Hughes: The Institution of Slavery As Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter, is a recollection of that period. The book was first printed in 1897, and again in 1969 by Negro Universities Press. The 2002 edition includes a new foreword.
Hughes was sold many times and lived in several Southern states during his bondage. He suffered the great loss of his mother when as a child, he was sold away from her. He writes, "Young and lonely as I was, I could not help crying, oftentimes for hours together. It was hard to get used to being away from my mother. I remember well 'Aunt Sylvia,' who was the cook in the Reid household. She was very kind to me and always spoke consolingly to me, especially if I had been blue, and had had one of my fits of crying. At these times she would always bake me an ash cake for supper, saying to me: 'My child, don't cry; Aunt Sylvia will look after you.' This ash cake was made of corn meal and water, a little salt to make it palatable, and was baked by putting it between cabbage leaves and covering it with hot ashes."
He worked as a house boy and personal servant and was sold again in 1844. Hughes writes, "When I was placed upon the block, a Mr. McGee came up and felt of me and asked me what I could do. 'You look like a right smart nigger,' said he, 'Virginia always produces good darkies.'" Since it was the home of slavery, it was thought that slaves from Virginia were the best. "So when Mr. McGee found I was born and bred in that state he seemed satisfied," said Hughes. "The bidding commenced, and I remember well when the auctioneer said: 'Three hundred eighty dollars—once, twice, and sold to Mr. Edward McGee.' He was a rich cotton planter of Pontotoc, Mississippi. As near as I can recollect, I was not more than twelve years of age, so did not sell for very much." Hughes worked at the whim of his many masters, most of whom were cruel and thoughtless.
Hughes married, and his first children, twins, died in infancy because his wife was allowed to nurse them only three times a day and was so fatigued that she couldn't properly care for them. That he and his wife were kept together was a small miracle.
The memoir is also an excellent history of the pre-Civil War and Civil War period as seen from the point of view of Hughes and other slaves who were seeking freedom. Hughes writes of how slaves were chosen and sums paid for particular skills. He notes the regular brutal whippings received for even minor infractions, and sometimes merely as a means of exerting authority. He has provided an account of how Southerners, including his master, were taken prisoner by the Union army, and how the Northerners treated the Southern slaves.
Hughes documents the dreadful details of the fate of slaves who attempted to escape to the Union side. "Two slaves belonging to one Wallace, one of our nearest neighbors, had tried to escape to the Union soldiers, but were caught, brought back and hung. All of our servants were called up, told every detail of the runaway and capture of the poor creatures and their shocking murder, and then compelled to go and see them where they hung.…The bodies hung at the roadside, where the execution took place, until the blue flies literally swarmed around them, and the stench was fearful. This barbarous spectacle was for the purpose of showing the passing slaves what would be the fate of those caught in the attempt to escape, and to secure the circulation of the details of the awful affair among them, throughout all the neighborhood."
When Hughes finally escaped, it was to Canada, but he returned to the United States to work in Chicago. He eventually began a laundry business that prospered for some time, then became a nurse, traveling with a Dr. Marks to New Orleans. One of Hughes's masters had taught the bright young man basic medicinal practice, and the doctor provided him with recommendations that enabled Hughes to find work across the country.
The entire text of Thirty Years a Slave is available on a Web site of the University of North Carolina that tracks the history of the American South. Included are photographs and other documentary material. It is indeed fortunate that Hughes learned to read and write and was able to provide such a concise account of his slavery during this long period. His story ends during his years as a nurse, and there is no record of his actual date of death.
Hughes ends his memoir by saying, "I have endeavored, in the foregoing sketch, to give a clear and correct idea of the institution of human slavery, as I witnessed and experienced it—its brutality, its degrading influence upon both master and slave, and its utter incompatibility with industrial improvement and general educational progress. Nothing has been exaggerated or set down in malice, although in the scars which I still bear upon my person, and in the wounds of spirit which will never wholly heal, there might be found a seeming excuse for such a course." Hughes writes that he is thankful for kindnesses he received during his years of bondage, "whether it came from white master or fellow slave; and for the recognition which has been so generously accorded me since the badge of servitude was removed, I am profoundly and devoutly thankful."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hughes, Louis, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Autobiography of Louis Hughes: The Institution of Slavery As Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter, South Side Printing (Milwaukee, WI), 1897, reprinted with new foreword by William Andrews, NewSouth Books (Montgomery, AL), 2002.
Publishers Weekly, October 14, 2002, review of Thirty Years a Slave, p. 80.
Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), http://docsouth.unc.edu/hughes/menu.html/ (December 29, 2003), complete text of Thirty Years a Slave.*