Trail would trace slave's path to liberty





A Middletown Kentucky historian is leading a team that is uncovering an escaped slave's past, along with the rest of Kentucky's slave history. The group includes scholars in Oldham, Henry, Trimble and Jefferson counties, as well as other states. What they find could lead to the first national trail following the course of an escaped slave, starting in New Castle, Kentucky and twisting up into Canada.

Bibb, who was born between September 1813 and August 1814 just south of New Castle, Ky., eventually would escape north and become a popular antislavery speaker and Canada's first black newspaper editor.

He also helped escaped slaves buy land, and he wrote an autobiography in 1849, hoping to help "in lighting up the path of freedom."

In Windsor, Ontario, officials unveiled a plaque in October honoring his accomplishments, but few in Kentucky recognize his name.

Bibb was about 11 when he made the first of many escapes, fleeing his master's wicked wife for several days before he was caught. His writings don't say where he went or how he was found.

"Among other trades, I learned the art of running away to perfection," Bibb later wrote. "I made a regular business of it, and never gave it up."

When he was in his 20s, Bibb was moved to a 320-acre farm outside Bedford, where he could be with his wife, Malinda, a slave from Virginia with smooth skin, red cheeks and penetrating eyes.

There, his thirst for freedom grew. He saw his daughter Mary Frances abused by "an unmerciful old mistress" who slapped the girl "until her little face was left black and blue," Bibb wrote.

Wanting more for his family, Bibb ran away to Cincinnati on Christmas Day in 1837 with no more than $2.50 in his pocket. He hid in the shadows on a steamboat, where passengers took his light-brown skin for that of a white man. (His slave mother was part white, and his father was white.)

This time, his escape plan worked. He traveled to Perrysburg, Ohio, where he spent the winter chopping wood and raising money for his return home.

He returned to Bedford the next spring to get his wife and daughter. His first two attempts to free them failed, and in a third try, in 1839, the family was caught and tossed into the workhouse in Louisville.

Bibb's next chance for freedom came in 1841, two years after leaving the workhouse. He had been sent to Louisiana, where a church deacon bought him, and he was transferred to a group of traveling gamblers.

He ended up in the hands of an American Indian. When that man died, Bibb escaped to Detroit.

Bibb spent three weeks with a teacher learning to read. Bibb then began sharing his story at conventions and in newspaper columns.

Unlike many ex-slaves, Bibb was frank about his past -- he didn't have to worry about a master hunting him down, Canada-based historian Afua Cooper wrote in her thesis.

After learning that Malinda was a mistress of a slave owner, Bibb married a Cincinnati schoolteacher named Mary Miles in 1848. He and Malinda didn't need a divorce because the law did not recognize marriages between slaves.

They settled in Canada, near Detroit. There, they established a school for blacks. Bibb gathered money from U.S. abolitionists and used it to buy land that escaped slaves could purchase over time. He believed education and agricultural jobs would help them thrive.

The plaque erected in Canada honors the accomplishments of Bibb and his wife. It designates the Bibbs as "one of the country's most influential couples of African descent."

In 1851, Bibb found another vehicle for his cause. He started a newspaper named Voice of the Fugitive, making him Canada's first black newspaper editor.

The newspaper became a force for black freedom. But in 1853, the printing plant was destroyed in a fire, which Bibb thought was arson.

He died almost a year later, at 3 a.m. on Aug. 1, after suffering a high fever, according to Cooper's thesis. He was about 40.


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