19th century American slavery letters coming to Norwich for Black History Month

PUBLISHED: 14:52 02 October 2012

Sarah F  Hicks Williams. Mother of Presbyterianism.

Sarah F Hicks Williams. Mother of Presbyterianism.


A collection of letters which reveal a vivid snapshot of 19th-century American slavery are coming to Norwich for Black History Month.

Black History Month

More than 100 special events for people of all ages are taking place across Norwich and Norfolk for Black History Month.

African and Caribbean heritage is being celebrated in a month-long festival packed full of music, dancing, storytelling, lectures and more.

Its aim is to celebrate the contributions black people past and present have made to the world, help promote diversity and challenge prejudice.

The array of activities on offer during October ranges from storytelling and crafts for children, to talks about subjects relating to black history, music and theatre, to the chance to listen to African and Caribbean beats.

Abraham Eshetu, chairman of the Norfolk Black History Month steering group, said he hoped everyone would get involved.

For more details about the celebrations and specific events visit

The letters – spanning the 1850s and 1860s – were written by Sarah Hicks Williams, a young, white, middle-class woman who left her New York state to marry a slaveholder.

On loan from the University of North Carolina, they will be available online as part of a “digitisation” project by the Norfolk Record Office, with the original copies displayed at the Containing Multitudes exhibition at the Millennium Library in Norwich from Monday.

The exhibition has been organised by Rebecca Fraser from University of East Anglia’s school of American studies.

She has been researching the history behind the correspondence and has written a book charting Sarah’s life story which is due to be published in November.

Dr Fraser said: “Sarah Hicks Williams came from a particularly religious family who were heavily engaged in the moral reform movements of the period. Her father, Samuel, was a prominent business leader in New Hartford, New York, and an active member of the Whig Party.”

Sarah’s sister was also married to a staunch anti-slavery campaigner so, when she married Benjamin Williams in 1853 and moved to become plantation mistress to 37 enslaved men, women and children, it was met with incredulity.

In one of the collection’s early letters, Sarah talks about her future: “There are but two things that I know of to dislike in the man. One is his owning slaves. I cannot make it seem right, and yet, perhaps, there may be my sphere of usefulness.”

But 14 years later, she appears to have settled into her role as plantation mistress.

A letter from August 1867 says: “As to hired help, I get along fast, change most every month, three have run away during the last few months that we had clothed up be deacent [sic], they came to us naked (all but) they are an ungrateful race, they drive me to be tight and ‘stingy’ with them.”

Dr Fraser said she found the move from “moral reforming attitude to becoming a competent slave-holding mistress... very shocking”.

She added: “I felt that somehow she sold out on her principles, and by the time of the civil war she had completely cut ties with Mary and James [her sister and brother-in-law].”

The Containing Multitudes exhibition will run for two weeks alongside a series of public talks.

For more information visit

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