Historical Society lecture

Historian Coon to explore life
of slave abolitionist Henry Bibb

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

WESTPORT, Ky. (August 2004) – Henry Walton Bibb entered the world a slave and left it as an abolitionist. The chronicle of his flight to freedom via the Underground Railroad has made his story one of the most famous slave escapes ever documented.

Diane Perrine Coon


Diane Perrine Coon

Bibb is to be the topic of a presentation by Diane Perrine Coon at 6 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Westport General Store. The Kentucky Humanities Council, the Oldham County Public Library and the Oldham County History Center are sponsoring this event.
Bibb was born on May 10, 1815, to a slave mother, Mildred Jackson, in Shelby County, Ky., on a plantation owned by Willard Gatewood. Bibb was the eldest of seven slave sons, whom were all sold to different owners. He was reared in Shelby, Henry, Oldham and Trimble counties.
Although his father was State Sen. James Bibb, he was claimed as the property of David White, Esq. While still young, he was taken from his mother and hired out to labor for various people. His wages afforded an education for Harriet White, David White’s daughter and Bibb’s playmate.
But Bibb was able to garner an education for himself by sitting in on Harriet’s lessons, said Oldham County History Center executive director Nancy Theiss. The History Center currently features an exhibit on the counties’ African American Heritage that includes information on Bibb. The exhibit will run through Labor Day Weekend and portrays various aspects of the African American culture, including the Under ground Railroad, artwork from children in Nigeria and the slave trade.
Coon has provided two of the displays for this exhibit, which depict Bibb’s trail to freedom through Oldham and surrounding counties. The History Center staff hopes to team with historical societies in Henry and Trimble counties to apply for a national grant to document the Henry Bibb Trail, said Coon. This would be a “neat way to tell the Underground Rail-road story in this area,” she said.
Bibb was no stranger to the cruel side of slavery, having received stripes to degrade and keep him in subordination.

Henry Bibb


Henry Bibb book cover.

“I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe,” wrote Bibb in his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave.” In Coon’s opinion, Bibb’s book was “second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Bibb was “extremely accurate in his book,” said Coon. His precise documentation “lends a strong element of credence to the story.” Coon said that many slave stories are so general that the slave may not know what river they crossed or what road they traveled. Bibb was “good at reading the environment,” she said.
In 1833, Bibb married a mulatto slave named Malinda. They had one daughter, Mary Frances. Yearning to provide a better existence for his family, Bibb successfully fled to Detroit in 1842. He never found his wife and daughter, and he eventually married free black Mary Miles of Boston.
Bibb published his slave narrative in 1850, and it instantly be-came a best seller. Bibb had begun to lecture on slavery several years earlier, accompanying Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. He was articulate and popular among abolitionist circles, said Coon.
While on a lecture tour for the Liberty Party in Michigan, Bibb met his second wife. They fled to Canada, where Bibb became a fixture in the Ontario community until his death in 1854 at age 39. He is credited with creating Voice of the Fugitive, the first black newspaper in Canada.
Theiss said she found it important to highlight the African American community of Oldham County because during Bibb’s lifetime, one-third of the population was comprised of the African American culture. Theiss said that, historically, the African American community was one of the first predominant cultures in the area and contributed greatly to the economic success of the county.
Coon hopes to stimulate interest in the establishment of the Henry Bibb Trail through her program. The history of the Underground Railroad is the “greatest American adventure story yet untold,” she said.

• Reservations are recommended for this program. The cost for the lecture and the following dinner are $15 for members, and $18 for non-members. To make reservations or for more information contact Theiss at (502) 222-0826.

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