Walter Hawkins was born a slave in Georgetown, Maryland. After being sold to a slave-dealer, Hawkins escaped to Philadelphia.
With help from Celestine Edwards, Hawkins wrote his autobiography, From Slavery to Bishopric (1891).
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
In the happiest moment of their life, there arose in some an irrepressible desire for freedom which no danger or power could restrain, no hardship deterred, and no bloodhound could alarm. This desire haunted them night and day; they talked about it to each other in confidence; they knew that the system which bound them was as unjust as it was cruel, and that they ought to strive, as a duty to themselves and their children, to escape from it, as the slaves in Jamaica tried to do in 1732, unknown to them, and later as their neighbours in St. Domingo succeeded in doing: and such was the state of mind beneath all their singing and dancing that, had they means as they had desire, there would have been no slave-holder to talk about the happiness of his slaves.
To enslave men successfully and safely it was necessary to keep their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they were deprived. Thus masters gave the slaves some holidays, which served the purpose of keeping their minds occupied with prospective pleasures within the limits of slavery. It was during these holidays that the young man could go wooing; the married man went to see his wife; the father and mother to see their children; the industrious and money-making could earn a few dollars: it was then that the strong tried their strength at wrestling or boxing; then the drinker drank plenty of whisky, and the religious spent their time in praying, preaching, singing and exhorting. Before these holidays their pleasures were in prospect, after they were pleasures of reflection; but for these holidays, which acted as safety-valves, the rigours of bondage would have been carried off by the explosive elements produced in the minds of the slaves by the injustice and fraud of slavery.
In his savage state the Negro was at liberty to eat what he liked and could get by his own activity, but as a slave he was forced to have "Johnny cakes" and black treacle, with rare variation. This cake was made out of corn-meal, salt, and water, and baked on a piece of barrel-head. At dinner-time old Jane Robinson would call her slaves and give each of them a piece and a little molasses, which she would pour into a large plate so as to make it look much more than it really was; of course there was no blessing asked on this meal. The necessary preliminary having been gone through, Walter would receive his allowance with all the humility of one who had received a knighthood from his Queen. It is needless to say that he soon polished off the "Johnny cake," licked the treacle and bowed ready for more, to which Mrs. Robinson would gravely reply: "You young rascal, do you mean to breed a famine? Go to your work!" Can anyone wonder at slaves singing.
The system under which he laboured forbade consideration and gave little practical sympathy to a weary slave, and when it was time to rest, what had the slave to sleep upon? The sleeping apartments, if they could have been called such, had little regard for decency. Old and young, male and female, married and single, were glad to drop down like so many brute beasts upon the common clay floor, each covered with his or her own blanket, their only protection from cold and exposure. How much of rest had a slave? The night, however short, was cut off at both ends: slaves worked late and rose early. Then part of the night was spent in mending their scanty clothing for decency's sake, and in cooking their food for the morrow--in fact, they were whipped for over-sleep more than for drunkenness, a sin which the masters rarely reproved; while neither age nor sex found favour for sleeping too much. If they slept too long the overseer stood at the quarter door, armed like a hedgehog, with stick and whip, ready to deal merciless blows upon those who were a little behind time. Thus, when the horn blew, there was a general rush for the door, each trying to be first, as the last one was sure to get a blow from the brute. He was accounted a good master who allowed his slaves to leave the field to eat their hoe-cake and salt pork or herrings; those who had their meals in the field had it thrown in a row in the corner of the fences or hedge, so as not to lose time to and from the field.
While smarting under this sense of the injustice of the institution of slavery, the son of Mr. Robinson, who had followed his father's footsteps in drinking and gambling, came home one day hard up for cash, and, not knowing any better way to raise money to satisfy his passions, resolved on selling Walter, whom he called, saying: "Do you want a master?" Of course, he had no other choice but to answer: "Yes, sir". So he took the young man to a slave-dealer who bought and sold slaves to owners in the South. The dealer and southern plantations brought to his mind all the terrible things he had heard about those parts, and well he might, for the law by which slaves were governed in the Carolinas was a provincial law as old as 1740, but was made perpetual in 1783. By this law every Negro was presumed a slave unless the contrary appeared. Any person who murdered a slave was to pay £100, or £14 if he cut out the tongue of a slave. Any white man meeting seven slaves together on a high road could give them twenty lashes each, and no man could teach a slave to write under a penalty of £100 currency.
Walter stood by while the bargain was being made, and heard the dealer offer nine hundred dollars for his body. Speaking to Walter, he said: "Can you plough and grub? Can you do general work on the farm?" The poor fellow could do no more than please his master by answering "yes" to all his questions, which pleased both the dealer and young Robinson, for whose benefit all the lies were told. The bargain being struck, an arrangement was made for Walter to re-appear the next morning at seven o'clock; at the same time, he was to bid good-bye to his friends; but be sure, said he, that you are on the spot at seven.
Resolved to flee, he went straight to his old father and told him that he was sold. "Sold!" exclaimed the old man; "to whom?" "Why, to old Cidley, the Negro-dealer." After a pause the old man said: "They will sell my last child," and burst into tears, weeping like a child. He talked and wept with his son until he bathed the floor at his feet. At last he said: "Boy, run away". "I will," responded Walter. But now his troubles began, for he did not know, and the old man could not tell him, where to go any distance beyond ten miles in either direction from where they stood, as it was a part of the policy of slavery to keep them in ignorance as to distance.
At the time when Walter Hawkins arrived in Philadelphia it was called a free city and county; yet the young ladies, who gave him the information that he was free, dared not be seen with him after they had left the train, so that he had to do the best he could. He was told that there were always kidnappers hanging about on the look-out for runaway slaves, through whom he might be taken back to the dark South. About the time when the runaway slave Hawkins arrived in Philadelphia there were 18,708 Negroes living in the city, 250 of whom had paid for their freedom. Some were free-born, while others were - like young Hawkins - escaped slaves.
One can well imagine the feelings of this young man, who had never seen such a large number of his race congregated into one town or city as freed men. However, the old preacher Proctor, in whose house he found a refuge, and who introduced him to his elder brother, kept him for a few weeks, feeding both his mind and body. Such was the old man's intense love to Christ and devotion to charitable works that, whoever came in his company, was made to feel a like affection for One whom the ages have been slow to comprehend. Before the end of the second week Hawkins felt that old Proctor's influence was irresistible; at last, while listening to one of his sermons, the young man became penitent, and threw in his lot with the Christians, and resolved that "this people shall be my people, and their God shall be my God".
As a slave, his religion was mere emotionalism, which served to break the monotony of the cruel scourge of slavery. But as a freed man he had an opportunity of reflecting upon the character of Christ, which had been clouded by the moral degradation which pervaded all rank of the society from whence he had made his escape. In that society vice reigned, yet it was believed to be under the special protection of Christianity - we mean the vice of breeding slaves and encouraging drunkenness and the like.
Soon after the family arrived, a revival broke out in the town, and many new members were added to the church; by which means the minister got a little more generous support, which was very much needed, as sickness laid many of the family low and created fresh difficulties and additional expenses. The Fugitive Slave Law drove more black people into Canada, which gave Mr. Hawkins more anxiety for their bodily and spiritual well-being. Besides preaching at the head of the circuit, he had to travel day and night under very trying circumstances. Often he had to go out in the morning after a light breakfast, and walk, talk, pray, and sing a whole day before having any dinner. In some villages he had all that to do on an empty stomach, as the people had barely enough for themselves, far less to give anything away. Indeed, the man could not find it in his heart to take from people who ran away from slavery as penniless as he himself was when be made good his escape to Philadelphia. The poor wretches, on entering Canada, had to dive straight away into the wild woods to make a home for themselves as best they could. Not only had they to clear the land that had been given to them, but they were bound to work for the farmers around to get bread for their families to subsist upon, until such time as their own crops grew, and were reaped to turn into ready money.
What could a poor Methodist minister do in the midst of such poverty which stared him in the face? How little can we, who live in a country much more favourable than theirs, imagine what must have been the sufferings of a minister and his flock in a new country at such a time! What aching hearts, hungry stomachs, and destitution must have reigned in their midst! Hawkins often looks back on those dreary days, saying: "I would get a quarter of a dollar, sometimes a half, and maybe a little meat, flour, or potatoes, just as it might happen"; and yet he felt happier than when he was a slave. He would travel around his circuit once in four weeks, proclaiming the message of salvation to his race. His income was then about one dollar, or four shillings and twopence, for four weeks' hard labour. Though hard, the work was pleasant.