Letter, Granville White Spraggins to Ritta Boscoe, 20 November 1853
This letter was written by Granville White Spraggins to his mother Ritta Boscoe, who lived in Halifax County, Virginia. It was sent from Chippawa, Canada, which is just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. In reading the letter, students will become aware that Granville Spraggins was a runaway slave, as he inquires about his family and discusses the meaning of freedom.
The most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Act. Enacted in 1793, the original fugitive slave act was virtually unenforceable. The 1850 act changed that, making easier the capture of runaway slaves in northern states. The act provided a financial incentive for compliance by compensating local commissioners who assisted with the repatriation of runaways. Most notably, any African American accused of being a runaway was denied the right to a jury trial, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, and the right to testify in his or her own behalf. A court-appointed commissioner alone decided whether or not to extradite the accused. In addition, a commissioner could summon any local resident to search for fugitives, and a $1,000 fine faced anyone who refused. For southerners, the act's enforcement was a test of northern willingness to uphold the new consensus on slavery. To many in the North, the law was an affront to their "states' rights," as they felt they were being forced to support the institution.
For runaways living in the North, the Fugitive Slave Act meant they could be captured and returned to the South. According to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, within a year of the act's passage, roughly 5,000 fugitives living in the North moved to Canada. Perhaps Granville Spraggins was one of these individuals, or perhaps he went directly to Canada after fleeing bondage.
This letter is a single item found among a group of miscellaneous letters in a collection of Spraggins family papers, dating to 1809–1967. The collection consists of 2,601 items and begins with the papers of Thomas Lanier Spragins (1789?–1863), a lawyer, planter, and justice of the peace who lived at Cherry Hill, Halifax County, Virginia. Records of four of Thomas Spragins's children—Leonidas Dawsey Spragins, Fayette Baker Spragins, Thomas Melchizedek Spragins, and Eliza Ann (Spragins) Clark—are also included in the collection.
Eliza Ann (Spragins) Clark married Thomas Adolphus Clark and moved to Clarkton, a six-thousand-acre estate also in Halifax County. Over time, she collected the family papers, which remained at Clarkton until the death of her granddaughter, Anita Grace (Clark) White, in 1970. Through Mrs. White's estate the manuscripts were donated to the Virginia Historical Society. Thus, the story of Granville White Spraggins is entwined with five generations of Spragins and Clark family members from Halifax County.
The Virginia Historical Society also owns a second collection of Spragins family papers. This collection includes more of Thomas Lanier Spragins's papers, including about 100 letters with his son, Leonidas Dawsey Spragins. In a letter written 3 January 1848, Leonidas Spragins tells his father, "I have hired Granvill out at the Hotell for this year for $100." A 22 August 1853 letter includes the sentence, "I expect to be in N. Y. in a few days." These brief passages, along with the other evidence, suggest that the Leon Spraggins mentioned in Granville Spraggins's letter is probably Leonidas Dawsey Spragins.
Did Spraggins expect his mother to get the letter? We do not know. We know that Southern post offices destroyed abolitionist mailings from the North, and certainly the Halifax postmaster would have been suspicious of any letter arriving from Canada. Perhaps the fact that it was addressed to Mr. Absolom Boscoe made it acceptable.
However, there is no Absalom Boscoe listed in Virginia in the 1850 census. There is an Absolum Bostick living in Halifax, and he was a correspondent of Thomas Dorsey Spragins. According to the census, Bostick was white, and a slave owner. We do not know if he was the intended recipient. We know the letter reached Halifax and ended up in the papers of the Spragins family. In other words, the Spragins family and their descendants saved the letter.
The letter was written on both sides of a single sheet of paper and folded to fit into the envelope. The envelope was addressed to Mr. Absalom Boscoe, although the letter itself, when folded, has the words, "to Ritta Boscoe," written on the outside. The numbers scribbled on the letter probably have nothing to do with Spraggins. Perhaps someone used the letter as scratch paper. Notice that Spraggins closes the letter twice. He may have written the letter in one sitting, but probably added the long postscript later.
Some students will assume that enslaved men and women were unable to read or write. While laws varied, many states, including Virginia, prohibited teaching reading and writing to slaves. Nonetheless, some owners taught their slaves to read, primarily as a means of religious instruction. Some individuals, such as George Teamoh, became literate by teaching themselves. W. E. B. DuBois estimated that 5 percent of enslaved men and women could read, and the historian Eugene Genovese suggests this number may be a bit low. It is possible that Granville Spraggins got someone to write for him, but the emotion expressed in the letter suggests otherwise.
Chippawa November 20, 1853
I am in Canada now having arrived in the beginning of June last and I would have wrote sooner but was hard pressed for time I am in good employment and like the place well and I will be happy to hear from you as soon as possible I am well and in good health hoping this will find you the same I get good wages and get on very well I wish you to write soon as I am anxious to hear from you and tell me where you are and how you are getting on and if my brother and sisters are living with you or where they are and if my grandmother is still living and where she is and how my uncles all are and if they are all well and if my Aunt Maria and all my cousins are well and where they are and my Aunt Martha and family if they are well with kind wishes to al my friends.
I remain Dear Mother
*I have changed my name since I got to a country that is free in reality that I get pay for all the work I do and no one to boss or drive me I can go where I like and when I like and nobody to say what doest thou I am working as hard as I can and getting all the money I can to buy you off as quick as I can if I can get word wher you are and I am very anxious to hear from so be sure and write soon Leon Spraggins was here seeking for me but I was down east at the time but I will not go over to the states again and no one can take me here so with ever kind wish I remain Dear Mother
Your aff son
Activities: Teaching the Document
1. Have your students read the letter and typescript carefully. Students will realize that Granville Spraggins was a runaway slave, even though Spraggins never uses the term. Have them identify specific passages that indicate Spraggins's status.
2. What is the purpose of the first part of Spraggins's letter? What is the purpose of the second part? What may have prompted him to write more?
3. Have your students take turns reading the letter aloud. How does Granville Spraggins sound to them? Does he sound different in the postscript?
4. Draw your students' attention to the passage concerning Leon Spragins and have them guess who he might be. Read them the information in the Archival Context section, and ask about Leon Spragins again. Can we be sure that Leon Spragins is Granville Spraggins's owner?
5. How does Granville Spraggins define freedom?
6. Why do you think Granville Spraggins changed his name?
7. Does Granville Spraggins expect the letter to reach his mother? If so, must he depend on the white family or families to get it to her? He seems to expect she would be able to respond. How would she accomplish that?
8. Does the presence of the letter in the Spragins collection suggest it has reached her or that it was held back because of its inflammatory content? How would the white Spragins family have felt about seeing a letter like this from someone they still considered a slave?
9. The letter raises more questions than it answers. Where would you go to find more information on Granville Spraggins?
• David Blight, ed. Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory.
• Howard Dodson and Sylviane A. Diouf. In Motion: the African-American Migration Experience.
• Eugene Genovese. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.
• Herbert Gutman. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.
• William Still. The Underground Railroad.
Standards of Learning
• VS.7a, USI.8d, USI.9a, USI.9b, VUS.6c