Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Moses Roper (c.1815-1891)

Moses Roper (c.1815 - 1891) was born in Caswell County, North Carolina, the son of a mulatto house servant (African-Indian) and her master, Henry Roper, a planter who exchanged mother and son for slaves from a neighboring plantation when Roper was six years old. As an adolescent, Roper led a peripatetic existence, repeatedly being sold or traded throughout the South before he was returned to Caswell County in 1832. During the next two years, Roper made many attempts to escape, each time being punished, then sold or exchanged to some other plantation owner in the county. At the end of 1833, Roper was purchased by a north Florida trader, whose bankruptcy led to the eighteen-year-old slave's employment as a steward on a New York-bound packet. Once anchored in New York, Roper jumped ship and ran for freedom-first stewarding a canalboat on the Hudson River, then working as a farmhand in Vermont, until he saw newspaper advertisements for his capture as a fugitive slave. Roper left Vermont and briefly settled in New Hampshire before moving to Boston. There he began his affiliation with the abolitionist movement by signing the constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society. But by late 1835, Roper, fearful of arrest and return to slavery, signed up as a steward on the vessel Napoleon and sailed for England

Several prominent British abolitionists assisted Roper once he arrived, especially Dr. John Morrison, John Scoble, and George Thompson, who were impressed with Roper's desire to secure an education and to serve the African missions. With the help of these British patrons and the assistance of Dr. Francis Cox, who bore a significant part of the expense, Roper successfully attended boarding schools in Hackney and Wallingford and later spent some time at University College in London during 1836. Throughout this period, Roper also attended many antislavery meetings and gave speeches on his slave experiences to people who were as impressed by his stature (Roper was 6'5") as they were by his account - an account that was one of the first given by a former slave to British reform audiences.

In the summer of 1837, Roper published a narrative of his life and used a lecture tour to promote it. The book was also printed in Philadelphia and sold in America. In 1839 Roper married an Englishwoman from Bristol; and five years later, claiming to have given "upwards of two thousand" antislavery lectures during his British stay, he moved his family (the Ropers had one child at the time) to Canada West-although he had originally hoped to use proceeds from his Narrative to finance the purchase of a farm on the Cape of Good Hope. He returned to England at least two more times, arriving in 1846 "to settle some private matters" (probably to negotiate a new printing of his Narrative) and, again in 1854, to lecture.

Source: C. Peter Ripley, et al., eds., The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. I: The British Isles, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992

Roper married Ann Stephen Price in Bristol, England on December 21, 1839. He had four daughters, one born on the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Canada c1844 and with two born in Quebec and the youngest born in Nova Scotia between 1850 and 1857. He thrice returned to the British Isles, first in 1846 to "settle private matters" (possibly to arrange a new edition of his Narrative); then in 1854 and sometime before 1861, to lecture. The final time, he brought his wife and daughters back, and the 1861 British Census finds them living with his father-in-law (William Price) in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales while Moses is in Cambridge, England, staying in a boarding house.

Sometime after 1861, Moses Roper returned to the United States, where he lived the life of an itinerant lecturer, travelling from place to place discoursing on various subjects, including "Africa and the African People", "Causes of the Colors of the Races," and on the "Holy Land." It appears that after his return to the States, his family never heard from him again; by 1871, his wife has remarried and when his youngest daughter Alice Mary Maud Roper married in 1883, Roper's name was listed with the comment "(deceased)."

It also appears that he met only middling success as a lecturer and that for several years before his death, Moses Roper wandered through New England working at whatever he could find; he was working as a field hand on the farm of James T. Skillings in Franklin County, Maine near the town of Strong when "his strength gave out" in April of 1891. Roper, in very poor physical condition with a little more than a hundred dollars in his pocket and accompanied only by a dog named Pete (described as "his faithful companion") was placed on a train to Boston, Massachusetts.

Roper and his dog made it to Boston, but he was found unconscious in a railroad station and taken to the Boston City Hospital. When he was found, it was noted that he was "well protected from the cold, wearing four shirts, two overcoats and three pair of pantaloons." It was also found that he was suffering from "a complication of diseases of the heart and kidneys and also from eczema" which caused his death on April 15, 1891. His dog had to be dragged away from his bedside.

Source: Moses Roper Wikipedia Article

The police of Boston found a man in a helpless condition at the Eastern railroad depot Saturday and took him to the city hospital. Several physicians who saw him expressed the opinion that he was suffering from leprosy. His name is Moses Roper, aged from sixty-five to seventy years. He had just come from Strong, where he had worked on a farm. He had been suffering from the grip which left him in a terrible condition, his limbs being swollen and mortified. He said the party for whom he worked tired of caring for him, placed him on a train and sent him with his dog to Boston. Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine) 1891 April 15 (Page 1).

"North Carolinian Escapes from Slavery"

"In 1838 a little book brought the name of Moses Roper to the attention of the people of England. If the book had reached the American South, it would have been suppressed as inflammatory, for it contained a gruesome if exaggerated story of a young man, three-quarters white but doomed to slavery because his mother was half Negro.

"Moses Roper was born near Semora in Caswell County, North Carolina, about 1812. His mother, Nancy, was a servant in the household of prominent planter, Henry Roper. The father was none other than Henry Roper himself.

"The boy had very light skin, though his hair was Negroid. Even so, the plantation owner's wife was so jealous of the illegitimate child that she forced Henry Roper to sell his own son so that the child could be taken out of her sight.

"At the age of six Moses was taken by a slave trader to South Carolina, where he was difficult to sell because of his light skin. Slaveholders recognized the case with which the boy could pass for white and thus be more difficult to apprehend in case he escaped. His first purchaser, a Dr. Jones, promptly sent the youngster to his plantation to 'be burnt darker by the sun.' Thus began a life of horror for Moses Roper. For the next two decades he would be sold many times.

"When he was about twelve, Moses was bought by a Mr. Gooch, who owned a plantation near Liberty Hill, South Carolina. Despite the fact that he ran away several times and in each case was pursued, caught, returned, flogged and placed in chains, Moses was determined to escape slavery.

"At the age of sixteen, the youth again slipped away. This time he made his way through Charlotte, Salisbury, Huntsville, and Salem to Caswell Courthouse (now Yanceyville). Then, carefully, he approached the community in which he had been born.

"Near Hyco Creek in the Red House Church community, not far from Milton, Moses recognized several houses. He would have to be especially careful, for his father still owned a plantation there.

"By coincidence Moses came across a small slave girl, and he struck up a conversation. When the girl told him that her name was Maria and that her mother's name was Nancy, the traveler showed particular interest.

"How many brothers and sisters did she have, Moses asked the girl. Five, she said, but an older brother had been sold long before her birth. What was the brother's name? Her mother always called him Moses, said Maria. Moses Roper was talking to his own half-sister whom he had never seen before. Following the girl home, Moses was reunited with his mother who, after ten years, did not recognize him.

"For about a week the young man visited with his family at night and hid out in the woods during the day. Then one night he was awakened. There, around him, stood several armed white men. Community gossip about a white boy in the slave cabin had reached the plantation owners.

"Moses was imprisoned in the Caswell County Jail and, as was the custom of the day, the sheriff placed an advertisement in the papers, offering to yield the slave boy to the rightful owner upon payment of costs. The news reached Gooch, and soon Moses Roper was manacled and taken back to South Carolina.

"Moses remained incorrigible, so Gooch finally grew tired of the whole affair and sold him to Marcus Rowland, a slave trader who assigned the young man as a groom to dress and oil the faces of the slaves prior to each auction or sale. Moses later remembered that at White House Baptist Church, Rowland carried on a good business while a tent meeting was in progress.

"Sold several more times, Roper was for a while a steward on the steamboat 'Versailles' in Florida. Later he escaped to Savannah, where his light skin enabled him to get a job as a steward aboard the schooner 'Fox,' which took him to New York.

"Even in the North he was not really free, for he was suspected of being a runaway slave and on several occasions was threatened with return to the South. He even obtained a wig to hid his short curly hair.

"After traveling to Vermont and Massachusetts, Moses came to the attention of an abolitionist society that arranged for him to flee the country. He was put aboard the ship 'Napoleon' in New York and was taken to Liverpool [England].

"Armed with letters from American abolitionists, Moses made his way to Manchester and then to London, where, at last, he began the life of a free man. His book, in which his life's story was considerably distorted and badly written, nevertheless became an effective verbal weapon against the institution of slavery in America."

Jones, Dr. H. G. Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the old North State. Charleston: The History Press, 2007, pp. 225-228.

Additonal References

CCHA Weblog

Chronology of the Life of Moses Roper

Wikipedia Article

Speeches in England

Online Version of Narrative of My Escape from Slavery

Roper Family Research


From a descendant of Henry Roper and Nancy, Rachel Farley's half-sister:"Henry had an illegitimate son, Moses Roper, by Rachel Farley's half sister Nancy. Nancy was a daughter of one of Hezekiah Farley's slaves, and Nancy may have been Hezekiah's daughter. Henry and Rachel inherited Nancy from Hezekiah's estate. Moses's story is on the Internet and recorded by the University of NC. Henry Roper married (1st) Rachel Farley, daughter of Hezekiah Farley. They had 10 children together before Rachel died. Then, Henry Roper married (2nd) Mary Ann Elmore and they had at least 3 children together. I have one line which descends from Rachel Farley, and another from Mary Ann Elmore, so Henry Roper is my grandfather twice. Uncle Moses Roper was one fourth black, but he was sold as a slave. Uncle Moses eventually escaped after many agonizing years as a slave, and made it to England where he married an English woman.

North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar, Laurel Sneed, will present "Beyond 12 Years a Slave" at Milton Renaissance Museum & Visitors Center, Saturday, March 21, at 10:30 a.m. The event is free to the public. For information contact: miltonrenaissance@gmail.com

The presentation will feature three courageous Tar Heel slaves who escaped to freedom and authored slave narratives: Harriet Jacobs of Edenton; William Singleton of New Bern; and Moses Roper of Semora, Caswell County. Sneed will discuss how these three authors left their mark on the North American slave narrative literary tradition and how they compare to Solomon Northup's memoir "12 Years a Slave."

The goal of a slave narrative was to encourage readers to support the abolitionist movement. Often dismissed as "anti-slavery propaganda," Sneed will share what research has learned about their veracity.

Moses Roper was born near Red House, present-day Semora. His 1837 autobiography, written in England, repeatedly sold out, requiring ten printings in the two decades after initial publication.

Laurel Sneed is an educator, researcher, and media producer/film maker based in Durham, NC. In 1995, she led the research effort that discovered Thomas Day's origins and parentage in southern Virginia. She has produced a broad array of materials and media on Thomas Day and other African American historical subjects. Sneed also is director of the Crafting Freedom teacher workshops, which have brought over 400 teachers to North Carolina to study black artisans, entrepreneurs, and abolitionists who contributed to the history of North Carolina.

The project is made possible by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council. Milton Renaissance Foundation & Visitors Center is located at 169 Broad Street, Milton, NC.

Source: The Caswell Messenger (Yanceyville, NC) 19 February 2020.


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