Most Americans never learned that there was slavery in the northern United States. Half of all slave voyages docked in tiny Rhode Island, and slave owner James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island was said to be the second richest person in the U. S. at the time he died in1837. He was a merchant, founded a bank and an insurance company, and owned a rum distillery; all of these profited from his status as a slave trader. Several branches of the DeWolf family were also heavily involved in the slave trade. The DeWolfs were said to have transported twelve thousand slaves from the middle of the seventeenth century through the early 1800s. This alone made them the most successful slave trading family in the country. However, in spite of a small number of wealthy and influential slave owners, and for various other reasons, slavery never became as entrenched in the north as it did in the south. This made it easier for northerners to divorce themselves from the peculiar institute.
Spurred on by the Declaration of Independence, Vermont abolished slavery in 1777. Seven years later all the northern states had voted to abolish slavery, primarily via gradual emancipation. (As late as 1850, though, small numbers of slaves remained in the north.) This meant that northern blacks were increasingly able to fashion their lives as freedmen. The abolition of slavery, however, did not mean black equality. Indeed, a system of racial prejudice and discrimination sprang up right alongside free black communities. It ensured that blacks had neither equal opportunities nor rights. Slowly local and state governments began codifying these practices. The vast majority of blacks in the northern states could not vote, their children could not use the publicly supported school systems, and they were restricted in terms of where they could live and what kind of employment they sought. These are the conditions under which Austin Reed was born and reared.
Though never enslaved, Reed’s family surely bumped up against already entrenched anti-black feeling in Rochester, New York, from which he hailed. His father, Burrell Reed, owned a barbershop, and his mother, Maria, who was considerably younger than her husband, took care of Reed, his brothers Charles and Edward, and a sister whose name is lost to history. His family was consigned to a virtually all black existence among other middle class free blacks in the city. They attended the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rochester, and Reed’s father bought a multi-room house in which Reed had his own bed, a luxury many whites couldn’t claim. There is also some indication that the children attended the all black Steward’s Sabbath school.
Reed’s troubles began with the death of his father in February 1828. There was no will and the Reed family was left deeply in debt. With help Mrs. Reed managed to hold onto the house, and supported her family by doing laundry and piece work. But with no husband or father, the family barely eked out a living. Austin Reed was apprenticed to Herbert Ladd, a wealthy farmer in a nearby city, thereby becoming an indentured servant. There is no clear reason why; perhaps his mother merely felt that four children were one child too many to rear by herself, or perhaps she divined his stubborn and defiant nature and the trouble it was sure to cause him. Depressed and dejected, Reed refused to work and couldn’t eat. Whipped for his intransigence, he managed to run away and go back to Rochester, but not before he set a fire to avenge his whipping. It was the first of many times he would run away. Indeed, the next two decades of his life are largely spent on the run or confined. His first imprisonment was at the New York House of Refuge, essentially a prison for juveniles, where he was sentenced to remain until he was twenty-one.
Reed caught the eye of the authorities where he was imprisoned, and they saw to it that he received an education; he was especially fond of reading, writing and declaiming. He made friends among the Irish boys with whom he was imprisoned, and sometimes they escaped together, although they were invariably caught and reimprisoned. Like enslaved blacks, his experience with whites was a mixed bag; some of the white men with whom he came in contact were kind and decent, and he considered them mentors; others were as cruel as any white southern slave master.
Reed’s stints of confinement paralleled a time of moral reform in America. New theories regarding crime and punishment, especially as they related to juveniles, ran the gamut from an emphasis on reform to brutal forced labor, and Reed experienced them all. By the time he was imprisoned at New York’s Auburn State Prison, Reed was a hardened convict. Yet it is at Auburn where he finished his memoir, the first tale of prison from a black prisoner’s point of view. Reed laid bare the inhumane treatment he and his fellow inmates received. He described how America’s first prison system developed, always seesawing between punishment and reform. Reed recalled with vivid detail the severe punishments for the slightest infractions, including solitary confinement, whippings with a cat o’ nine tails and an early version of waterboarding. It’s in Reed’s memoir we get our first look at beginnings of the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison-industrial complex. As early as the 1820s African American men were sucked into a racist criminal justice system that disrupted families, too often punished the innocent, and consigned thousands of them to lives of despair, even after their release.
One of the most valuable parts of the book is a Chronology of Austin Reed’s Life, as it places his life in the larger context of American history. His stint at the New York House of Refuge was a precursor for today’s draconian sentences that currently have children as young as thirteen consigned to life in prison. From that time until 1866 when he was released from Auburn State Prison, never to return, he was repeatedly convicted and confined to prison, mostly for acts of larceny. In the summer of 1876, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden granted Reed a pardon for his larceny conviction of 1858, and his citizenship rights were restored.
Reed was a talented and gifted writer. His book is lyrical and graceful in one sentence, burning with fury and hellfire in the next. Moreover, the similarities and parallels in the lives of Reed and Frederick Douglass are astonishing, and the discovery and authentication of the book involved detective work worthy of an episode of CSI. The timing of its publication is quite propitious.
The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict clearly illustrates how even in the free north, freedom has always been tenuous for African Americans. And after you read it, you will surely understand the roots of America’s current criminal justice system.