Black History Month: Henry W. Bibb, Newspaper Publisher
The first black-owned and operated newspaper in Canada, ‘Voice of the Fugitive’ provided vital information to slaves seeking freedom north of the border
A prosperous plantation in Shelby County, Kentucky was the birthplace of Henry Walton Bibb on May 10, 1815. The baby was not born into the wealth and comfort of the south. There was no bright future with unlimited horizons; illegitimate baby Bibb was born into slavery. Mildred Jackson, Bibb’s mother, was a slave of the plantation owner, Kentucky senator James Bibb.
Bibb Boys Sold, One at a Time
Henry Bibb’s “family was dissolved as he and his six brothers were sold one by one and taken away from his mother,” said the “Mary Bibb and Henry Biography – Henry Bibb: Raised as a Slave, Mary Miles: Educated in New England,” on Jrank. Instead of receiving a solid education and learning skills for the future, Bibb “received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination.” The young man was sold and resold again to new masters, and transferred to different regions. Instead of learning a trade, he learned the desperate skills of self-preservation. He dangerously risked escape often, without success.
Able to marry, Bibb wed Malinda in 1833. The Bibbs had two children, one child unable to survive infancy. Bibb made good on an escape to Canada in 1838, thinking he would return for Malinda and their daughter, Mary Frances. Taking on the abolition cause, Bibb later returned to Kentucky to search for his family. They could not be located, and Bibb, still an escaped slave, was captured and sold. He learned “that Malinda had been sold as the mistress of a while slave owner,” according to The Ottawa Citizen in “Henry Walton Bibb (1815-1854) on June 4, 2006.
Underground Railroad Aid
Escaping again in late 1840 with help from the Underground Railroad, Bibb fled to Detroit, Michigan. “There he joined the anti-slavery movement,” said John K.A. O’Farrell in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, “travelling across Michigan, Ohio, and the northeastern states lecturing upon the evils of slavery.”
In June 1848, Bibb remarried. His new wife was Mary Elizabeth Miles, born in Rhode Island in 1820 to free black parents. Mary was of the Quaker religion, well-educated and trained as a teacher. (Her school principal, Reverend Samuel May, was an advanced thinker, promoting women’s rights and anti-slavery.) Schools in Massachusetts, Ohio and New York hired Mary to teach. The pair met at a New York abolitionist meeting the year before their wedding in Dayton, Ohio.
Although Canada abolished slavery in 1833, blacks were still not treated well or equally, but the country’s policy was decades ahead of the United States. “Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which greatly expanded federal powers to protect the interests of slaveholders and obligated Northerners to help slave owners recapture their escaped slaves,” said The Ottawa Citizen. The Bibbs hastened to Canada in 1850, settling near Windsor in southern Ontario, Canada West, in the town of Sandwich. Countless others seeking freedom followed across the border to freedom and better conditions.
“Voice of the Fugitive” Newspaper
In the same year, Henry Bibb wrote and published his dramatic autobiography, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave.” In January 1851, Bibb founded an abolitionist newspaper, the Voice of the Fugitive. Printed in Sandwich, Canada West, the publication was a milestone – the first black-owned and operated newspaper in Canada.
Interviews of escapees published in its pages, the newspaper helped others find family members and included poetry, news and hope. The Voice of the Fugitive was printed every other week, according to the African American Registry, and was sold at a subscription rate of $1 per year. Bibb used space in his newspaper to appeal for funds to help the new refugees. Believing strongly that the freed black slaves should integrate into Canadian society, Bibb encouraged the refugees to become a part of Canadian culture, not segregated by separate schools or institutions.
Bibb an Active Abolitionist
Elected to Toronto’s North American Convention of Coloured Freemen in 1851, Bibb was also elected president of the Windsor Anti-Slavery Society. The Bibbs were founding members of Detroit’s Refugee Home Society, an organization to help the tens of thousands of escaped slaves trying to make new lives in Canada. The Society purchased land to help the refugees who came north with absolutely nothing but themselves. “Each settler received 25 acres, five of which would be free if the land was cultivated within three years and the remainder of which was to be paid for in nine installments,” said John K.A. O’Farrell. The Society used profits to construct schools, pay teachers and obtain more land for more refugees.
Hiring editorial assistant James T. Holly in June 1852, Bibb was able to increase his abolitionist speaking engagements and the marketing his newspaper. Three of Bibb’s brothers made escapes to Canada, and Bibb was reunited with them. The chronicles of their flights to freedom were published in the Voice of the Fugitive. A fire on October 9, 1853 devastated the printing production of the vital newspaper. The paper was reduced to a newsletter of one page, then ended within a year’s time on the demise of Bibb.
On August 1, 1854, the man who established the first black newspaper in Canada died after a brief illness in Windsor, Ontario. Henry Walton Bibb was only 39 years old.
- “Mary Bibb and Henry Biography – Henry Bibb: Raised as a Slave, Mary Miles: Educated in New England,” JRank Accessed Sept 29, 2011
- “Henry Walton Bibb (1815-1854),” June 4, 2006, The Ottawa Citizen Accessed Sept 29, 2011
- O’Farrell, John K.A., “Bibb, Henry Walton,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online Accessed Sept 29, 2011