Charlotte Brooks: A poignant & powerful firsthand history of slavery

I had the pleasure of a long chat last week with one of my newly found cousins, Donya. She and I share a myriad of ancestors and relations in Edgefield County, South Carolina.

And no conversation with Donya is complete without touching base about one of our shared ancestors, Martha Ann Brooks, who was born in Virginia and lived out the rest of her life in Edgefield. Martha Ann’s is quite the story, one that I’m leaving to Donya to tell when she’s ready.

So, while Martha Ann Brooks isn’t the subject of this post, a conversation about her lead to a book that is the subject of this post. As difficult a read as this book has been, I am eternally grateful to Donya for putting this book on my radar.

So…what book is this?

Cover image for The House of Bondage by Octavia Albert

The House of Bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, Original and Life Like, As They Appeared in Their Old Plantation and City Slave Life; Together with Pen-Pictures of the Peculiar Institution, with Sights and Insights into Their New Relations as Freedmen, Freemen, and Citizens written by Octavia V. Rogers Albert (Octavia Victoria Rogers, 1853-1889). Aye, that is quite some title! I’m shortening it to The House of Bondage.  The Book was published in 1890 by Hunt & Eaton (New York).

This book is powerful and poignant in equal measures. It is filled with equally beautiful and brutal life experiences.

What I love about this book is its simplicity. At its heart is a conversation between two women, the author, Octavia Albert, and former slave, Charlotte Brooks. This isn’t fiction. It’s non-fiction relayed in the form of conversations had during various interview sessions. The language is simple enough for a 12 year old to understand – and grasp the significance of the world being discussed.

Charlotte’s fortitude is formidable. The word ‘unbreakable’ springs to mind. Charlotte’s collective life experience during her enslavement – and the experiences of those she knew – is unflinchingly relayed. It is honest. It is stark. And at times, the experiences she relays are brutal. Charlotte doesn’t use overblown language. It’s the homespun delivery of the world she knew that is the real power behind the story of Charlotte’s life and the world she reveals.

One completely unexpected historical nugget came to light. It touches on the religious tensions that existed between slaves who were raised as Christians in Virginia, sold and sent down to Louisiana – and their Catholic Louisiana slave owners. I’ll let Charlotte’s words speak for themselves.

She never asks for sympathy. I have the feeling that even if she had, she wouldn’t have expected to receive any. Nothing in her life, or the lives of those she knew, would have authored that expectation. Two short paragraphs about the fate of all her children is evidence enough of that. I’ll be honest, this is one of two points in the book when I had to stop reading and set it aside for a while.

Yes, there are plenty of short first hand slave narratives that were gathered as part of the WPA effort. Where Octavia Albert’s book differs is Albert’s decision to focus on one former slave’s story. In doing so, the author struck a rich seam of every day slave life. Charlotte pulls no punches in talking about her life and the lives of those she knew. And Albert pays her the ultimate respect any author can give his or her subject – she pulls no punches in relaying Charlotte’s story.

This book is even more special to Donya and I. We’re in the midst of trying to determine if Charlotte Brooks was related to our ancestor Martha Ann Brooks. We’re trying to determine if Charlotte was owned by the same Virginia Brooks family that owned (and were relations of) our ancestor Martha Ann. Was Martha Ann one of the siblings Charlotte left behind in Virginia when she was sold and taken to Louisiana? Or could she and Martha Ann be cousins? We’re sifting through the available records to determine one way or another if there was a blood connection between the two women.

I’ve said it before and I will repeat it once more: American’s aren’t taught the true, unbiased, unvarnished history of the United States. We’re only taught the ‘best’ parts. The bits and selective pieces that are the easiest to be proud of. We never get taught the other side of the coin, those dark chapters, the ones that any nation ought to have seared into its collective memory in order to never make such mistakes again. And to learn from them. I know this because my genealogical research has unearthed all manner of historical truths that I was never taught in school – and I was blessed to attend one of the best schools in my state. From the history of the Quakers and their contribution to Colonial America, to the importation of Southeast Asians and Chinese in the early colonial era (and use as indentured servants), to the fact that Maryland was established as the only Catholic colony, to the practice of slavery being entrenched in all 13 colonies… I have learned more about American history through genealogy than I have through any other means.

I highly recommend this book.

The House of Bondage is available from all major online book sellers.

It is also available to read online for free via:

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