Special Collections and University Archives

by Carolyn Shankle

Rare Books documents the complex history of race and race relations through published accounts. Our holdings contextualize and expand the primary source materials collected in Manuscripts. The reader will discover how the writers persevered and actively advocated for their freedom as well as their hopes for a more equitable future.


Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.. London: Printed for A. Bell, bookseller, Aldgate and sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry, King-Street, Boston, 1773. A first edition of the first work of poetry written by an African American woman: While scholarship has not confirmed this, the engraving of Phillis Wheatley is considered to be a based on an original portrait created by Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved man from Boston.

Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black : In a Two-Story White House, North, Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. Boston: Printed by Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1859. A first edition of the first novel written and published by a free African American woman. Wilson’s work fell into obscurity for a multitude of reasons – this work depicts the life and hardships of a free person of color in the abolitionist North where she was treated poorly and lived as an indentured servant as there was no path to economic self-support. Henry Louis Gates, Jr discovered this work in 1982, brining it and the author to the forefront of research.


All three autobiographies by Frederick Douglass:

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Published by Anti-Slavery Office, No. 25 Cornhill, 1845. [Shown above]

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom : Part I – Life As a Slave. Part II – Life As a Freeman. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, New York: 25 Park Row — Auburn: 107 Genesee St, 1855.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass : His Early Life As a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time, Including His Connection with the Anti-Slavery Movement. Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing, 1882.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Published for the author, 1861. The first narrative written and published by an African American woman who escaped from slavery.


  • Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave : Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. Edited by D Wilson. Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853. [Shown above on left]
  • Jones, Thomas H. The Experience of Thomas H. Jones : Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Worcester Mass.: Printed by Henry J. Howland, 1857.
  • Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes : Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carleton & Co, 1868.
  • Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth : A Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century : With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence, Drawn from Her “Book of Life..” Edited by Olive Gilbert and Frances W Titus. Boston: Published for the author, 1875.
  • Randolph, Peter. From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit : The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: The Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life. Boston: James H. Earle, publisher, 178 Washington Street, 1893. [Shown above on right]
  • Johnson, Isaac. Slavery Days in Old Kentucky : A True Story of a Father Who Sold His Wife and Four Children by One of the Children. Ogdensburg, N.Y.: Republican & Journal Print, 1901.

In addition to the works mentioned above, Rare Books collects works by African American authors such as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Pauline Hopkins, Alice Walker, Edward A. Johnson, and Paul Dunbar. Recognizing that the route to publishing their work was often blocked, Rare Books also focuses on collecting African American authors who published only five or fewer works during their lifetime. 

Affiliated archival collections include Loren Schweninger Papers, MSS 0195; and the Digital Library on American Slavery which includes:  North Carolina Runaway Slave Notices, 1750 – 1855; People Not Property, and Race & Slavery Petitions

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