Scholar Makes ‘Nefarious Publications’ of American Abolitionism His Life’s Work
The grandson of enslaved people helped steer Bill Andrews to an unexpected path.
In the spring of 1970, Andrews listened, captivated, as Professor Blyden Jackson patiently guided him and other graduate students in a Black autobiography seminar through the writings of giants from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X.
Jackson, that grandson of slavery, was the first African American to hold the rank of full professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lit the spark for Andrews.
“That was a huge awakening for me,” Andrews says.
A 1968 Davidson graduate now known as a preeminent scholar of African American literature and slave narratives, Andrews had stumbled into his lifelong vocation.
“I didn’t choose Black literature,” he admits. “For some reason, I feel like it chose me.”
Andrews’s professional pursuit had personal origins. As a white Southerner, he grew up in the segregated suburbs, only vaguely aware of being immersed in a system designed to keep him ignorant of Black America.
“Black people, their history and culture, were sort of like the dark side of the moon to me,” he says. “I knew they existed, but segregation kept them out of my line of sight.”
By the time he got to graduate school, he began looking for a more complete picture. Taught at Davidson and UNC to go to the sources for the headwaters of history, he searched but soon realized that many of the earliest texts were out of print, hard to find or almost forgotten.
Academe, dominated by white scholars, was starting to open up to Black autobiography, but mainly the writing of 20th century figures. Who were their literary ancestors?
Andrews found a purpose, a sense of calling: He looked for the distinctive Black voices preserved in forgotten texts. Through publication and in his classes, he found avenues for sharing the eloquence of those remarkable voices.
In 1996, UNC Chapel Hill brought him on board with an offer of an endowed professorship and the opportunity to digitize North American slave narratives. That project, part of the UNC Library’s “Documenting the American South,” is the first and only digital library of African American slave narratives written in English. It includes nearly 300 autobiographies, biographies and fictionalized accounts and annually attracts more than 600,000 visitors worldwide.
Recently retired as the E. Maynard Adams Professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill, Andrews has authored, edited or co-edited more than 45 books and is the recipient of several National Endowment for the Humanities grants. Media outlets, including NPR, The Root and The New York Times, have sought his expertise.
The subject of Andrews’s most recent book has “bemused and bedeviled” him for a quarter of a century. Delving into slave narratives both well-known and previously ignored, Slavery and Class in the American South reveals the complicated and sometimes unsettling story of how status and class structured life among enslaved persons.
Once again, Andrews’s work fills a void.
“Well-meaning scholars, mostly for political reasons, have far too often chosen to remain silent about distinctions of class drawn by Black people among themselves, starting in slavery, choosing to discuss African Americans as if they were always a social monolith, and thereby reducing their complexity,” writes well-known professor and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Andrews reveals, in riveting detail, that this has never been the case, even well before the Civil War.”
Gates lauds the book as “a seminal work of scholarship.”
“The majority of the 19th-century narratives have received little or no scholarly attention,” Andrews says. “So, a part of my book’s purpose is just to get the voices of these people into the public ear so that readers know that, yeah, there were these famous people like Frederick Douglass, but there were a lot more folk whose stories shed light on how class affected everything from social relationships to personal identity among the enslaved.”
The narratives, Andrews says, offer a layered description of slavery as it was lived and experienced by people who came from all the different working and social strata—from the lady’s maid to the field hand.
“To understand class among the enslaved is really to understand the motives and goals of people within slavery,” Andrews says. “It wasn’t just about survival. The narratives speak also about people who looked at the intolerable predicament they were in and asked, ‘How can I make a way out of no way? How can I get a leg up? How can I take care of my family better?’”
The book also examines the toll of ambiguous loss, or loss without closure, felt acutely by the enslaved people who successfully fled their masters for a new life but paid a devastating price—permanent separation from loved ones they left behind.
The pages of these narratives are replete with scenes of parting, Andrews’s book points out. Mothers beg children to stay, those who considered flight agonized over the moral implications of the choice to leave their families. What will happen to my family? Will they be punished or sold?
Once an enslaved person made it to freedom, Andrews says, their status was not assured. When famed social reformer Frederick Douglass first reached the north, his only option was to become day laborer.
“The story goes, the person escapes, makes it to freedom, and we’re done,” Andrews says. The narratives tell a different story.
Andrews volunteered to serve as a member of the Davidson College Commission on Race and Slavery in 2018. The commission sought to build a comprehensive understanding of the college’s own history, which is intertwined with the institution and legacies of slavery.
He brought to the commission, along with considerable expertise, personal experience probing the deeply buried histories of the people who benefitted from slavery. Some of them, Andrews discovered, were his ancestors.
Several years ago, he started looking for information about his family with the aim of creating a family history for his children, first by visiting Ancestry.com and then by traveling to county courthouses to look at documents filed away in dusty boxes.
“Frankly, I thought that my forbears didn't have enough money to own another human being,” Andrews says. “But I found out that there were people in the family, back before anyone I ever heard of, who did own slaves.”
The slave schedules, which were a part of the census, list no names of the enslaved—just the names of slaveholders and, underneath their names, people they enslaved categorized by age and color (B for black and M for mulatto).
Andrews learned that wills can sometimes provide a breadcrumb leading to more information about a particular enslaved person.
“I did see a couple of wills, and this kind of chilling attitude toward human beings really comes out when someone writes, ‘To my daughter, Jenny, I leave four pillows and a quilt and my negro girl Millie.’”
In the preface to his latest book, Andrews muses that two of his slaveholding great-great-grandfathers “would have never imagined that a descendant of theirs would one day devote almost 40 years of his life to studying and reprinting the ‘nefarious publications’ of American abolitionism” known as slave narratives.
Andrews began publishing his research a half-century ago in 1970. In 2021 he’ll publish two more essays about early African American autobiography. Driven by an abiding, deep respect for the subjects of his research, Andrews is hard at work on another book.
“Many of the African Americans I’ve studied endured slavery and emancipated themselves through a commitment to liberty that was more dangerous and more principled than what motivated the signers of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776,” Andrews says.
Andrews, a recipient of UNC’s Thomas Jefferson Award, finds inspiration in the outspoken dedication to justice in the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, Jarena Lee, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Charles Chesnutt.
“The stories of African American lives that for so long weren’t considered worthy of being recorded, heard, or read are starting to claim our attention today,” he says. “Those Black lives mattered then, and they matter even more now.”
This article is an online exclusive companion to the Fall/Winter 2020 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.