Moses Grandy’s Mobility in the Antebellum U.S. South #BHM #Mobility #Freedom #Unfreedom

Born in 1786 on a farm owned by enslaver William Grandy in Camden County, North Carolina Moses Grandy learned as a child how difficult life was for an enslaved person. Of his early life Grandy writes,

“I was the youngest. I remember well my mother often hid us all in the woods, to prevent master selling us. When we wanted water, she sought for it in any hole or puddle formed by falling trees or otherwise: it was often full of tadpoles and insects: she strained it, and gave it round to each of us in the hollow of her hand. For food, she gathered berries in the woods, got potatoes, raw corn. After a time the master would send word to her to come in, promising, he would not sell us. But at length persons came who agreed to give the prices he set on us. His wife, with much to be done, prevailed on him not to sell me; but he sold my brother, who was a little boy. My mother, frantic with grief, resisted their taking her child away: she was beaten and held down.”

Here Grandy discloses his mother’s determination to keep her children with her, opposing the profit-driven designs of slaveholder William Grandy who, as this quote shows, could not be safely relied upon for keeping his word. This reminiscence also exemplifies how enslaved people, particularly enslaved women, found ways to adapt to the swamp’s ruggedness by nourishing themselves with nature’s bounty found within.

Grandy’s narrative is part of the vast array of antislavery discourse that proliferated throughout the antebellum period, and the proceeds from the narrative were meant to secure funds to purchase the freedom of his family members who were still enslaved.

Moses Grandy’s narrative of enslavement is immensely important to me and to my research. For Moses Grandy, his end in telling his story of enslavement was to reveal the horrors of slavery as he experienced it as well as use the proceeds of the sale of his book to purchase his enslaved children’s freedom who had been sold further south into Louisiana from Virginia/North Carolina border.

The perilous journey Moses Grandy embarked on as he asserted his free status included wilderness spaces and the built environment where many locales were rife with trauma and the threat of re-enslavement. In spite of the peril that came with moving in antebellum southern spaces as a freed slave, Grandy was a great traveler, entering regions within the Great Dismal swamp inaccessible to most journeying then on to the urban cobblestone streets of Boston and beyond.

As a newly freed black sailor returning to Virginia after self-purchase, Grandy risked re-enslavement; yet this was no routine stop along commercial route that Grandy was on; he came back to Virginia to purchase the freedom of his enslaved child. Grandy moved in a world where blackness itself was used as an economic and political object in arguments used to justify slavery and further exploitative interests involving black bodies. Moses Grandy’s political imagination as demonstrated in his assertion as a free person to liberate his family mark the sites of struggle in his pursuit of freedom and belonging in antebellum southern spaces.

Screen Shot 2020-02-06 at 12.57.56 PM

I use the map above as a cartographic motif to represent the gradual range of mobility for a self-liberated person in antebellum society; the enslavement apparatus Grandy was forced to endure and eventually triumph over represented all the places that gave memory to his struggles. North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts have the largest symbols as those places come up the most in his narrative. Unevenness of residential permanence looms large in this map revealing how enslavement and oppression made no place safe even for the slave who freed themselves through self-purchase.


Map Type: Graduated Symbols

Data: Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy

This map reveals the range of places referred to in Grandy’s narrative. Grandy’s testimony is biographical– a true testimony of his life and considered part of the literary genre of the American Slave Narrative. In this way, representation of place is rooted in biographical voice.


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