Samuel Ringgold Ward


The Life of Samuel Ringgold Ward (1817-c.1866)

Samuel Ringgold Ward was born into slavery in Maryland in 1817. Three years later, his parents fled with him to freedom, and he grew up in New Jersey and New York. In 1839, he became a licensed minister and an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society in upstate New York. He also became an active labor leader and member of the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party.

In the late 1840s, Ward edited abolitionist newspapers, and his involvement in rescuing a fugitive in 1851 forced him to flee to Canada. There, he worked as an agent for the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, which helped African Americans set up new lives in Canada. He also co-edited Mary-Ann Shadd Cady’s African Canadian newspaper The Provincial Freeman.

In 1853, Ward went on a two-year fundraising mission to Britain, where he penned his memoir in 1855. Later, he settled in Jamaica, where an abolitionist benefactor had gifted him land.

The Narrative of Samuel Ringgold Ward

In his memoir Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro (1855), Ward presents himself as a fugitive and abolitionist, and shows how he pursued Black social mobility through an agenda of middle-class respectability. He also portrays himself as an authentic speaker on American slavery, even though he had no personal memory of his life in enslavement.

His book combines individual and collective stories of African Americans’ struggles in a racist white society that denied their abilities and thwarted their aspirations. He relates the devastating effects on free Blacks in the Northern USA of being barred from schools and jobs, and validates them as self-made Americans with hard-won social, intellectual, and professional accomplishments.

Ward’s vision of Canada echoes his journalism and other Black transborder autobiographies, by framing it as a place where African Americans found physical safety from (re)enslavement, economic opportunities, a social community, and a new identity. Adopting the stance of a traveler, he paints a picture of Canada as a beautiful, fertile, and vibrant destination for African Americans.

He also praises the British anti-slavery movement, invoking Britain’s long history of slavery to persuade his readers to support abolitionist efforts in Canada. The book actively promotes African American migration to Canada, even though it also addresses white Canadian racial prejudices against Blacks, by presenting the African Canadians as successful, socially mobile, and cosmopolitan people.


Primary Sources

There are several editions of Ward’s narrative. A scholarly edition is this one:

    • Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Antislavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England. 1855. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

An online edition accessible for free is this one:

    • Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-slavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England. 1855. Documenting the American South (DocSouth). Charlotte, NC: University of North Carolina, 1999. Ward_Autobiography

Selected Research Literature

    • Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African American Autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
    • Ball, Erica L. To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
    • Burke, Ronald K. Samuel Ringgold Ward: Christian Abolitionist. New York: Routledge, 1995.
    • Ferré-Rode, Sandrine. “Black Pilgrims in Canaan: African-Americans and Emigration to Canada in Samuel Ringgold Ward’s Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro (1855).” Revue française d’études américaines 149 (2016): 14-25.
    • Kerr-Ritchie, Jeffrey R. “Samuel Ward and the Making of an Imperial Subject.” Slavery & Abolition 33.2 (2012): 205-219.
    • Rhodes, Jane. “The Contestation over National Identity: Nineteenth-Century Black Americans in Canada.” Canadian Review of American Studies / Revue canadienne d’études américaines 30.3 (2000): 175-186.
    • Sawallisch, Nele. Fugitive Borders: Black Canadian Cross-Border Literature at Mid-Nineteenth Century. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2019.
    • Siemerling, Winfried. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.



Speeches and Journalism

General Interest and Educational Resources


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