Lunsford Lane 1803-1879 (H-125)

Enslaved. Bought freedom in 1835. An abolitionist, nationally known orator, and entrepreneur. Wrote his Narrative in 1842. Was born nearby.

Location: 150 East Edenton Street in Raleigh
County: Wake
Original Date Cast: 2018

Lunsford Lane was born into slavery on May 30, 1803. As a domestic slave for Sherwood Haywood, a prominent banker in Raleigh, Lane had a constant desire to be free. So, he worked odd jobs and saved his money to purchase his freedom. As a domestic slave, he had opportunities that farm hands did not have. Always emphasizing the positive, Lane acknowledged this fact: “This was a privilege which comparatively few slaves at the South enjoy; and in this I felt truly blessed.”

In towns and cities, the enslaved commonly worked multiple jobs and earned extra money when possible. Lane was different, however. He started his own “independent business,” selling tobacco. He eventually had three branches in Fayetteville, Salisbury, and Chapel Hill. When Lane earned his money, he saved it. He still dressed modestly and maintained the same habits, for he did not want unnecessary attention brought to his accumulation of wealth. Eventually he saved enough—$1,000—to purchase his freedom. Sherwood Haywood was willing to manumit Lane, but a local judge ruled that nothing “meritorious” had been done by the enslaved to earn his freedom. In 1835 Benjamin Smith, Lane's wife's owner, accompanied Lane to New York. There he became a free man.

He returned to his home state where he purchased a house in 1839. He lived there with his wife, Martha, and their six children, all slaves of Benjamin Smith. In North Carolina as a free man, Lane, writes historian Craig Friend, “avoided the law for five years.” In September 1840 Lane received notice that because he had been emancipated in New York, he was in violation of a state law prohibiting free blacks from other states from entering North Carolina. Lane had 20 days to leave the state. Therefore, he left and went to Boston with one of his daughters, having paid Smith for her freedom.

In New York, Lane sought money to return to North Carolina and delivered lectures to abolitionist groups. In 1842 a rude return awaited him. He was unsuccessfully charged with promoting abolitionism. His friends later tried to shelter him. A boisterous mob in Raleigh, however, found him and tarred and feathered him. During this tumultuous time, Lane purchased his family’s freedom. With the help of some white friends and a little subterfuge, the family soon fled town. Lane’s mother accompanied them; Lane had persuaded the Haywood family to free her. Two years later, Lunsford’s father was manumitted and joined his family in New England.

In 1842, Lane penned The Narrative of Lunsford Lane. In it, he describes his days in slavery and his pursuit of his and his family’s freedom. The narrative reveals his awareness of social constraints and his constant desire for upward social mobility. No matter how grim or seemingly bleak, Lane emphasized the positive.

From 1842 to 1856, the Lane family resided in Massachusetts, and Lane spoke on the abolitionist circuit with notables such as Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, Lane and his wife worked in a hospital in Massachusetts. After the war, he and Horace James, the namesake of James City, established a freedman’s school near New Bern. Lane continued his industrious ways during the 1870s; he sold medicine and worked as a fundraiser for charities. In 1879, the indefatigable Lane succumbed to a heart attack. He is buried in Jersey City.

Lunsford Lane, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. . . . (1842)
William L. Andrews, ed., The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy & Thomas H. Jones (2003)
William L. Andrews, North Carolina Roots of African American Literature (2006)
John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (1995)
Craig T. Friend, forthcoming biography of Lunsford Lane

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