Leonard Black couldn’t read or write when he escaped slavery in Maryland, but he found a way to pay for his education. He then told the story of his cruel masters in a booklet printed by a New Bedford printer.
Leonard Black developed into an inspirational minister who preached that all men are equal before God. He also taught that slavery required ignorance.
The slaves are taught ignorance as we teach our children knowledge. They are kept in darkness, and are borne down under a cruel, cruel oppression! All human rights are denied them as citizens! They are not recognized as men! My old master frequently said, “he did not believe a d–d nigger had any soul!” They are made to undergo everything as a beast. Having a full, perfect, undeniable right to stand out before God as MEN, the cruel, God-defying white man, without semblance of right, with no pretence [sic] but might, has prostituted them to the base purpose of his cupidity, and his baser beastly passions, reducing them to mere things, mere chattels, to be bought and sold like hogs and sheep!
Leonard Black, Slave Boy
Leonard Black was born into slavery in 1820 in Maryland, 60 miles south of Baltimore. As a young child, the slaveowner sold his mother and sister in New Orleans. At six years old, he had to work for a Mr. Bradford, which separated him from the rest of his family.
“No one, who has always enjoyed the right of liberty, can realize the horrors of slavery,” he wrote.
To be at the will of another, to be owned like a cow or horse, and liable at any moment to the highest bidder, to be transported to a distant part of the country, leaving the dearest relatives behind; to be, in fine, ground down mentally and physically by the untold curses of slavery, may be a very pretty thing to the masters of the “peculiar institution,” but it is death to the slaves.
Mrs. Bradford beat him and made her 10-year-old son beat him and spit in his face. One day she ordered him to take a bushel of corn upstairs, but he couldn’t do it. She hit him with the johnny-cake board, cutting his head so badly it bled more than a quart.
After two years Mr. Bradford placed Leonard Black with his father, fearing Mrs. Bradford would kill him. Mr. Bradford’s father was worse than Mrs. Bradford. The old man had been a professor of religion. Black called him a ‘backslider’ and a ‘wanderer from God.’
Leonard Black lived with the senior Bradford for 7-1/2 years, during which he had no hat and no pants, but only a pair of shoes and a lindsey slip. He had to eat his meals, mere scraps from the table, while standing. He slept on a piece of carpet on the hearth. His job was to fetch wood, and one winter day he came inside to get warm.
Old Mr. Bradford followed me in, and said: “If you want to be warmed, I’ll warm you.” He took the tongs, heated them in the fire, and branded my legs; and the scars are there to this day. I could not sit down in consequence of the wound.
When the old man died, he was sent to work for a Mr. Gardner, who was just as cruel.
After 13 years he returned to Mr. Bradford and his four older brothers. Three of them escaped and went North. A preacher who came to visit Mr. Bradford’s daughter alleviated Leonard’s sufferings from time to time. He gave him money with which he bought books. In 1836, Leonard Black converted to Christianity, inspired by the 8th verse of the 23d chapter of Matthew,
*I experienced a hope under a slave man,” and “Give us of your oil, for our lamps have gone out.”
Finally, in 1837, Leonard Black escaped. He walked to Boston, working odd jobs along the way and evading his captors. In Boston he asked for his brothers, and he learned of a George Black, a minister living in Portland, Maine. While boarding with an African-American woman he tracked down Black, who offered to pay his fare to Portland.
He learned Black wasn’t his brother, a disappointment. However, Black and his family kindly took him in. They made clothes for him and taught him to read. He got jobs as a farm laborer and as an engineer in a steam factory.
In 1838, he moved to Boston with George Black, who became the minister of the African Meeting House on Belknap Street.
Try, Try Again
Leonard Black married one of George Black’s daughters, and they lived with David Walker, the African-American whose anti-slavery pamphlet resulted in a price on his head in the South. He worked on the wharves and as a servant, but decided he wanted to be a preacher.
Leaving his family in Boston, he moved to Providence, where he lived with Francis Wayland, president of Brown University. He studied the Bible at the Meetinghouse Street Church. He moved his family from Boston, got a job working for a stone mason and told the pastor he wanted to be a minister. The church brethren gave him a hearing and decided he wasn’t ready.
Discouraged, Leonard Black sold his books and went to work on a canal boat until an accident nearly cost him his life. After working on the canal for three weeks a horse fell on him and kicked him in the head.
He despaired while he recovered slowly. His wife was pregnant, he had no money and he couldn’t work. Wayland and others helped him and his family through those hard times, and he decided to try the ministry again.
Life and Sufferings
In 1847 he went to New Bedford to dictate his story, published s The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery. Written by Himself. In the run-up to the Civil War, at least 80 such slave narratives went into print to inspire enthusiasm for the abolitionist movement.
It worked for Leonard Black. He preached in Nantucket, then in 1850 he became a Baptist minister at the Third Stonington Church in Stonington, Conn., where he doubled the membership to 60 adults.
He found a sanctuary and a ministry at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., but only for a short time. Congress enacted The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Free states to return runaway slaves to their owners. Leonard Black feared for his life and his freedom, so he resigned the ministry and lived quietly in New York for the next 12 years.
In 1873 he and his wife moved to Petersburg, Va., where he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church and again doubled the size of the congregation.
He died on April 28, 1883, and more than 5,000 people attended his memorial service. Every store that employed an African-American closed that day.
This story was updated in 2021.