Two freed slaves and the (early) American dream

A Dartmouth professor and spouse track the surprising story of Lucy and Abijah Prince

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"'I fell in love with Lucy and Bijah from the moment I first heard of them," writes Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.

There's nothing surprising about that. Readers will fall every bit as hard upon learning about the lives of Lucy and Abijah Prince. But readers have it easier. They won't need to embark on a seven-year odyssey to uncover the Princes' story. Gerzina has already done that for them.

The Princes were New England slaves who won their freedom, became land and property owners, raised a large family, and argued successfully for their own rights in court. Lucy is also known as the first female black poet in Colonial America. Bijah (as he was known) fought for his country in the Revolutionary War.

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Almost everything about them and the way that they lived unsettles notions about the lives of black people in early America.

Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend tells the tale of the Princes as a story-within-a-story. Shortly after moving to Guilford, Vt., Gerzina and her husband, Anthony, were surprised to learn that in the early 1800s a pair of freed black slaves had owned a farm near their own home.

It turned out that legends of the couple abounded. Lucy (who was born in Africa and kidnapped into slavery) was lauded in various sources as a "prodigy in conversation," a confident, charismatic, educated woman who wrote verse, excelled as a storyteller, and who "captivated all around her" with "the fluency of her speech."

But that wasn't all. Local lore further indicated that she had learned to argue for her rights in a court of law, ultimately taking a case all the way to the US Supreme Court. She was also credited with once making an impassioned, albeit unsuccessful, plea to see her son admitted as the first black person to study at Williams College.

The truth behind the legend

Gerzina, an academic and biographer, found the story irresistible and plunged into research. Ironically, however, it is Anthony – a downsized marketing manager – who surpassed his wife as star researcher.

What the Gerzinas discovered was both more and less remarkable than legend. Lucy does not appear to ever have argued before the US Supreme Court. And the Williams College story – although not implausible – cannot be substantiated.

But what is true is that Lucy and Bijah lived in a world in which New England slaves traveled easily from town to town, shopped in local stores, married, learned to read, attended the same churches as their masters, and carried arms both for hunting and protection. Freed blacks owned land, had access to the courts, and sometimes even sent their children to local schools.

That is not, however, to gloss over the harsh reality of slavery. "The law recognized the rights of free blacks but also upheld the institution of slavery," writes Gerzina, calling the 18th-century mind-set "a kind of moral schizophrenia."

Nor is it to suggest that the Princes did not suffer from racism. While settled on their Vermont property, their hayricks were burned, their crops destroyed, and their animals scattered by hostile neighbors. Yet the Princes went to court against the marauders – and ultimately won their case.

Curious fit between author and story

The story of the Princes is full of twists and turns – as is the tale of the Gerzinas' chase. Gretchen, who is a professor of biography at Dartmouth College (and the first African-American woman to chair an English department in the Ivy League) seems to have been born to write the Princes' story. In addition to her skills as a biographer ("Frances Hodgson Burnett," "Carrington") and a historian of black life ("Black London: Life Before Emancipation"), she turns out – in the most surprising twist of all – to be related through marriage to one of Bijah's owners.

In the end, many gaps remain and in some ways Lucy and Bijah Prince never become more than ghostly presences. But that doesn't render their story any less compelling. History and mystery mix in this tale to make "Mr. and Mrs. Prince" as absorbing as it is surprising and informative.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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