Skip to Main Content

African American Manuscripts - Colonial and Antebellum Eras

Rubenstein Library collections related to African American History from the Colonial and Antebellum eras

Tutorial: Reading 19th Century Handwriting

Director, John Hope Franklin Research Center

Profile Photo
John Gartrell
Director, John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture

Box 90185

Durham, NC 27708



This guide is designed to help researchers identify resources at the Rubenstein Library related to African American lives during the Colonial and Antebellum periods (1600-1865) of American History. This particular period is highlighted by the period of enslavement of Africans brought to the western world by European traders, were sold, traded, labored, and lived in the United States. Finding resources for enslaved people of African descent can be difficult during this period, formal education was deemed illegal for many African Americans so records authored by enslaved African Americans are rare. Nevertheless, the Rubenstein Library holds a notable amount of slave letters. Outside of these scant examples, the enslaved African American experience is frequently embedded in the records of white slave holders, slave traders, government records, newspapers, and broadsides.

It is important to note that not every African American was enslaved, many lived as free or emancipated people. After the Revolutionary period (1790s), when northern states adopted immediate and gradual emancipation, free African Americans began writing their own stories, many of them describing their lives while in slavery. These "slave narratives" became important tools to educate norther whites of the perils of slavery. Free African Americans also created their own organizations and publications, like newspapers to assist and inform their own communities. Lastly, many free African Americans weighed the benefits of migration outside of the country, particularly to Sierra Leone and Liberia, colonies on the west coast of Africa established to repatriate emancipated African Americans. The Rubenstein Library contains materials documented all of these experiences.

Consult Duke Libraries' on-line catalog for more recent publications and any additional materials the library may have. Feel free to ask a librarian if you need help finding information on this topic.

American Slavery Documents Collection, 1757-1867