The Storied Life of an Escaped Slave

Reported by Somya Mawrie ’14

1st edition, 1852 (illustrated by Hammatt Billings).

1st edition, 1852 (illustrated by Hammatt Billings). Currently featured in the exhibition “Visualizing Uncle Tom” in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

During a recent visit to Bowdoin, Clemson University English Professor Susannah Ashton explored the life of an escaped slave whom Harriet Beecher Stowe sheltered in her Brunswick home in 1850, two years before writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The identity of this fugitive was unknown until 2013 when Ashton’s research traced it to a man named John Andrew Jackson, who went on to become a vocal abolitionist after making his escape.

Ashton was invited to campus by Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal, who currently teaches a course called “The Afterlives of Uncle Tom. The Feb. 10 lecture showed students “what it means to perform archival research in order to present a new perspective through literature and literary history that will shed light on the past,” Chakkalakal said. It was sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and presented as part of Bowdoin’s Civil War Era course cluster, an initiative that groups courses together thematically and encourages students to examine a topic through a variety of academic lenses.

Jackson, born in 1825 on a mid-size plantation in South Carolina, fled toward Canada after the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 – his wife and daughter having previously been sold and sent to Georgia. On his way through Maine he encountered Stowe, who sheltered him for the night by hiding him in her “waste room.” Jackson escaped to Canada and later became a popular lecturer in the United Kingdom and a rallying figure for abolitionists around the globe, from Boston to India. He published his story in The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina.

Visualizing Uncle Tom
For more on the context of Stowe’s novel, visit Bowdoin’s Hawthorne-Longfellow Library to see the current exhibition “Visualizing Uncle Tom,” featuring a collection of 19th- and 20th-century images and objects related to the book (including archival material from Bowdoin’s Stowe Collection). The exhibition is on display until May 31.

“(Stowe) took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars,” Jackson wrote. “She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story.”

Ashton has used a variety of archival sources, including letters and hotel registers, to piece apart the ways that Jackson may have influenced Stowe’s novel and become an outspoken abolitionist himself. “How does someone get empowered from brutality to believe that his story is worth telling and showing the world?” she asked the audience. “This is not a story of inspiration but of empowerment.”

Students of Chakkalakal’s class appreciated the lecture’s unique link to the place they currently call home. “It was really interesting to hear about Stowe in the Brunswick context,” said Caroline Bartlett ’14, also commenting that she found it valuable to hear a literary perspective on historical figures.

The next lecture associated with the Civil War Cluster will be offered by Laura Korobkin, Associate Professor of English at Boston University. Titled “Who Was Mary Webb: How a Black Female Elocutionist Toured Britain in 1856 as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Reader,” Korobkin’s lecture will take place on Mar. 3 at 5:30 p.m. in Massachusetts Hall.

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