An Account of the Life of James Bradley, Black Abolitionist

A Young African Child Torn From His Mother's Arms Came to Live in Pendleton County, Kentucky

Story from the Kentucky Explorer Magazine and posted here with permission.

James Bradley was a well-known black abolitionist from the northern Kentucky area. A statue of him sits along the Ohio River walkway in Convington Kentucky. In 1834 he was the only black student at Cincinnati's Lane Seminary, and he spoke at the famous Lane Seminary debates. The following story, entitled "Confronting the Soul Destroyers" was written by him in 1834 for a pamphlet called "The Oasis" at the request of the editor, Mrs. Child.

Both this story and the accompanying photo were submitted by Dan Knecht to the KY Explorer Magazine.

By James Bradley - 1834

I will try to write a short account of my life, as nearly as I can remember, though it makes me sorrowful to think of my past days, for they have been very dark and full of tears. I always longed and prayed for liberty and had, at times, hopes that I would obtain it. I would pray and try to study out some way to earn money enough to buy myself by working in the nighttime. But then something would happen to disappoint my hopes, and it seemed as though I must live and die a slave, with none to pity me.

"I will begin as far back as I can remember. I think I was between two or three years old when the soul destroyers tore me from my mother's arma, somewhere in Africa, far back from the sea. They carried me a long distance to a ship. All the way I looked back and cried. The ship was full of men and women loaded with chains, but I was so small, they let me run about on deck."

"After many long days they brought us into Charleston, South Carolina. A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Kentucky. I suppose that I stayed with him about six months. He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called. This man was conisdered a wonderfully kind master, and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew. I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip, but, oh, my soul! I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell. My master often knocked me down, when I was young. Once when I was a boy, about nine years old, he struck me so hard that I fell down and lost my senses. I remained unconscious for some time, and when I came to my senses, he told me he thought he had killed me. At another time he struck me with a currycomb, sinking the knob into my head. I have said I had food enough. I wish I could say as much concerning my clothing. I will leave that subject alone, because I cannot think of any suitable words to use in telling you."

"I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored till dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner. When I was about 15 years old I took what was called the cold plague, in consequence of being overworked, and I was sick a long time. My master came to see me one day and hearing me groan with pain, he said, 'This fellow will never be of any more use to me. I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum.' His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head. I have said enough of this. The Lord at length raised me up from the bed of sickness, but I entirely lost the use of one of my ankles."

"Not long after this my master moved to Arkansas Territory and died. Then the family let me out, but after a while my mistress sent for me to carry on the plantation, saying she could not do without me. My master had kept me ignorant of everything he could. I was never told anything about God or my soul. Yet, from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. Freedom was my heart's desire. I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears, because I was a slave. I looked back on all I had suffered, and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage. My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty."

"After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself. After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks. I could weave one in about eight hours, and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week. I sold them for 50 cents each. One summer I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak, and was obiiged to sleep more. With my first money I bought a pig. The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next about $30. There was a good deal of wild land in the neighborhood, which belonged to Congress. I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches, which I planted with corn, and I got up during the night to tend it. My hogs were fattened with this corn, and I used to sell a number of them every year. Besides this I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs. In this way I worked five years at the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160. With this money I hired my own time for two years. During this period I worked almost all the time, night and day. The hope of liberty strung my nerves and braced up my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest, I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before."

"At the end of the two years I had earned $300, besides feeding and clothing myself. I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money. Here I earned enough to buy myslef, including what I gave for my time, about $700."

"As soon as I was free, I started for Ohio, a free state. When I arrived in Cincinnati I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city. I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge. I asked for admission into the Seminary. They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the sutdies, which were required for admission. I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution. But in all respects, I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own."

"Thanks to the Lord, prejudice against color does not exist in Lane Seminary! If my life is spared, I shall probably spend several years here and prepare to preach the Gospel."

"I will now mention a few things that I could not conveniently bring in as I was going along with my story."

"In the year 1828 I saw some Christians who talked with me concerning my soul and the sinfullness of my nature. They told me I must repent and live to do good. This led me to the cross of Christ, and then, oh, how I longed to be able to read the Bible! I made out to get an old spelling-book, which I carried in my hat for many months, until I could spell pretty well and read easy words. When I got up in the night to work, I used to read a few minutes, if I could manage to get a light. Indeed, every chance I could find, I worked away at my spelling book. After I had learned to read a little I wanted very much to write, and I persuaded one of my young masters to teach me. But the second night my mistress came in, bustled about, scolded her son, and called him out. I overheard her say to him, 'You fool! What are you doing? If you teach him to write, he will write himself a pass and run away.' That was the end of my instruction in writing, but I persevered and made marks of all sorts and shapes that I could think of. By turning the marks every way I was, after a long time, able to write tolerably plain."

"I have said a good deal about my desire for freedom. How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave, and yet be contented. I do not believe there was ever a slave who did not long for liberty. I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make the people in the free states believe that the slaves are happy, but I know that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free. There is one thing that the people in the free states do not understand. When they ask slaves whether they wish for their liberty, then answer, no, and very likely they will go as far as to say they would not leave their masters for the world. But at the same time they desire liberty more than anything else, and have, perhaps all along, been laying plans to get free. The truth is if a slave shows any discontent, he is sure to be treated worse and worked harder for it, and every slave knows this. This is why they are careful not to show any uneasiness when white men ask them about freedom. When they are alone by themselves, all their talk is about liberty~ It is the great thought and feeling that fills the mind full, all the time."


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