English professor discovers, digitizes historic slave manuscript in Library of Congress

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Katherine Bassard, a professor of African American literature in the Department of English, found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

Fields Cook was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1817, and though he died more than 100 years ago, his life and most intimate thoughts survive and were recently revived.

“A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” is one of the few, if only, surviving manuscripts written before the Civil War by a slave still in bondage. The historic document recently was discovered by Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., (M.A.’86/H&S). senior vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of African American literature in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

With the help of Joshua Eckhardt, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and two dedicated graduate student workers, Bassard is turning the manuscript into a digitized, searchable, and freely downloadable file.

“It’s the first enslaved writer of an autobiography, the first slave narrative with manuscript provenance, and the first African American writer writing primarily for an audience other than white northerners,” Bassard said.

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