Mary Bibb and Henry Biography
Henry Bibb: Raised as a Slave, Mary Miles: Educated in New England
Mary and Henry Bibb were partners in marriage who worked together at the height of the abolitionist movement, moving to Canada after the passage of the American Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and setting up a crucial endpoint of the Underground Railroad near Windsor, just across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan. They are often remembered for their work together, but actually they had separate careers that flowed together during their marriage, and they had very different experiences of racial oppression in the United States. Henry Bibb, after he escaped from slavery, became a gifted orator and writer like his contemporary Frederick Douglass. He stirred black audiences to dream of a better life and often to abandon their American homeland and come to Canada in search of their natural rights. It was Mary Bibb, however, who did the most to help them start new lives once they got there.
Henry Bibb: Raised as a Slave
Born into slavery on a plantation in Shelby County, Kentucky, in 1815, Henry Bibb was the illegitimate son of a Kentucky state senator and slaveholder, James Bibb. His family was dissolved as he and his six brothers were sold one by one and taken away from his mother, Mildred Jackson. He was put to hard labor at a very young age; as he wrote in his widely publicized Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, "where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination." Sold repeatedly, he was forced to move from place to place and developed keen survival skills.
Bibb made the first of numerous escape attempts at the age of ten, while under the ownership of a family named Vires. His mistress, he wrote, "was too lazy to scratch her own head, and would often make me scratch and comb it for her." He was recaptured but often responded to mistreatment with other escape attempts. The only dampening of this restless spirit was caused, he wrote, "by being introduced into the society of young women."
Bibb's Narrative is a rich source of information on slave folkways. Attracted to one woman, he was told by a slave conjurer to remove a certain bone from a frog, dry it, and scratch her on her bare skin with the bone. This was supposed to make him irresistibly attractive to the woman, but when he encountered his beloved (he wrote), "I fetched her a tremendous rasp across the neck with this bone, which made her jump. But in place of making her love me, it only made her angry with me. She felt more like running after me to retaliate on me for thus abusing her, than she felt like loving me." His marriage to a slave named Malinda in 1833 put an end to these experiments but only intensified his desire for freedom.
Mary Miles: Educated in New England
The early life of Mary Elizabeth Miles, who would become Henry Bibb's second wife, is not as well documented but was certainly very different from that of her husband. Born in 1820, she was the child of free blacks in Rhode Island who adhered to the Quaker faith. She apparently was able to acquire a good education as a child, for in 1842 she won admission to the Massachusetts State Normal School, a teacher-training institution in the town of Lexington. The school's principal was the Rev. Samuel J. May, an antislavery campaigner who also favored women's rights. When Mary Miles graduated in 1843, she was both equipped to make a living on her own and inclined to change the oppressive country she lived in. Miles taught at schools in Boston, Albany, and Cincinnati, moving from place to place in search of better pay or working conditions. On the side, she became known among antislavery campaigners, attending meetings where she heard escaped slaves tell of the terrible conditions to which slaves in the South were still subjected.
Meanwhile, Henry Bibb had endured an odyssey of suffering. He tried to slip away from a Kentucky plantation in 1837 and on his second attempt he succeeded, with the help of what would soon be known as the Underground Railroad, in reaching Perrysburg, Ohio. He was recaptured only after returning to Kentucky for his wife and their young daughter. Consigned to a Louisville slave auction, the family was bought by a brutal Louisiana farmer whose slaves were, in Bibb's words, "so much fatigued from labor that they could scarcely get to their lodging places from the field at night." The family fled into the Louisiana swamps, encountering snakes and a pack of wolves.
They were recaptured, and Bibb was whipped nearly to the point of death and subsequently tortured. The family was broken up as he was sold to a pair of gamblers, taken to Arkansas, and sold again to a Cherokee or part-Cherokee slave owner who treated him humanely. Bibb waited to make his final escape attempt until his owner's death and then fled north-ward, reaching Ohio and freedom in 1841. He made his way to Detroit the following year, got a basic education from an abolitionist minister there, and, beginning with a speech he made in Adrian, Michigan. in 1844, found audiences ready to hear his amazing story. Bibb's fame grew and became national in scope. At one point he tried to reunite with his family but found that his wife, in order to survive, had made herself the concubine of a white Kentuckian.
An Abolitionist Marriage
At an abolitionist gathering in New York in 1847, Bibb was introduced to Mary Miles, writing that he had heard her "very highly spoken of, for her activity and devotion to the anti-slavery cause." The two were married in June of the following year in Dayton, Ohio, and remained active in the Underground Railroad movement. In 1850 they moved to the town of Sandwich, near Windsor, Ontario, in what was then known as Canada West. They were outraged by Congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which permitted the return to captivity of slaves who had escaped to the non-slaveholding North, and they were joined by many other American blacks who found themselves suddenly at risk of being returned to slavery. Bibb himself was at risk of recapture, but his last master had died, and he often crossed into the United States to address abolitionist gatherings.
Canada, still under British rule, had seen the abolition of slavery in 1833, but blacks in Canada were nowhere near a state of equality with whites. The flood of refugees crossing the river from Detroit often came with little more than the clothes on their backs. Their escort across the river was often Henry Bibb himself, and their first stop was often the Bibb house, where Mary Bibb served as a de facto travelers' aid and placement officer. Henry Bibb received a measure of compensation for the many violent family separations he had experienced when he welcomed three of his brothers, all escaped from slavery, to Canada and reunited them with their mother, who was already there.
In January of 1851 Henry Bibb founded the Voice of the Fugitive, Canada's first black-owned newspaper. Because Bibb published numerous interviews with newly arrived escapees, the newspaper became an invaluable resource for historians seeking to understand the workings of the Underground Railroad. Thought to have been written largely by Mary Bibb, who had more education than her husband, it was also a central organ for the growing black communities of Windsor and Detroit. Together, the Bibbs operated the Refugee Home Society, which acquired farmland and resold it to new arrivals. They also explored further black opportunities in the Caribbean through their membership in the National Emigration Convention.
Mary Bibb also resumed her former occupation of teaching, establishing a small school in her home in the autumn of 1850. The school immediately attracted students, and she soon moved into a larger structure. Financial support, however, was another matter. Bibb's impoverished students often could not afford even her nominal tuition of six cents a week, and they often disappeared for weeks on end when farm chores beckoned. Desks and schoolbooks were in short supply. Missionary societies helped out, but Bibb clashed with another early Canadian black female educator, Mary Shadd Cary, and fundraising disputes between the two escalated into ad hominem attacks. The disagreement was related to a larger split in the growing Canadian black community between integrationists and those who favored the ideal of black self-sufficiency. The Bibbs tended toward the latter side, but recent research has suggested that Mary Bibb was not a strict separatist and, indeed, taught white students on occasion. Mary Bibb's first school failed, but a second institution she founded in Windsor flourished later in the 1850s.
The drama of the Bibbs' eventful lives in southwestern Ontario ended suddenly. At the height of his fame and influence, Henry Bibb died after a brief illness on August 1, 1854, the 21st anniversary of the day slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Mary Bibb later married Isaac N. Cary, the brother-in-law of her rival Mary Shadd Cary, and conflicts between the two factions simmered down. After teaching for several more years, she operated a store in Windsor devoted to what were described as fancy goods. Little is known of her later life; she apparently ran the Windsor store until 1871 and then returned to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, New York. She died there in 1877, distributing her small estate among charitable organizations. Henry Bibb's remarkable narrative remained little known until the discipline of African-American Studies unearthed a range of slave testimonies in the later twentieth century, and the substantial contributions Mary Bibb made to the advancement of African Americans and African Canadians were buried deeper still.
Bibb, Henry, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, reprinted as The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, with a new introduction by Charles J. Heglar, University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
Cooper, Afua P., "Black Women and Work in Nineteenth-Century Canada West: Black Woman Teacher Mary Bibb," in "We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up": Essays in African Canadian Women's History, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 3, Thomson Gale, 2002.
Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2000.
"Henry Bibb Eventually Found His Family," The African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com (August 10, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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