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How a 'fluke' uncovered a rare autobiography, giving a narrative on slavery new life

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

You know that feeling of going down a rabbit hole on the internet? One thought, one click, one page leading to dozens of others. That's kind of how it started for Jonathan Schroeder.

JONATHAN SCHROEDER: This is 2016. I'm applying for jobs. And I had a question that was bugging me. It was basically, what had happened to Harriet Jacobs' son?

SUMMERS: Schroeder is a literary historian, and he knew the story of Harriet Jacobs, the abolitionist who famously wrote about her life and abuse while enslaved, her secret relationship with a white politician and her escape to freedom in the 1800s. Schroeder searched a database of historical documents for details on Harriet's son. He wasn't getting far, so he tried another search term focused on Harriet's brother, Johnathan S. Jacobs (ph).

SCHROEDER: It was just that little fluke that led me to switch, and very quickly, there it was in all caps. "The United States Governed By Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story Of Slavery."

SUMMERS: And with that, Schroeder had stumbled upon an autobiography by John Swanson Jacobs, first published in Australia in 1855 and largely lost to time - until now. Six hundred thousand despots is a reference to the number of slave owners in the U.S. at the time. I talked to Jonathan Schroeder about this incredible find, which is out in a new book that also includes more details about the life of the author.

I'm hoping you could start by telling us who John Swanson Jacobs was.

SCHROEDER: So John Swanson Jacobs was born in 1815 in Edenton, N.C., and he was born a sixth-generation slave. Today, he's a footnote in the life of his older sister, Hariet Jacobs, who is the best-known Black female author of the 19th century. He was an abolitionist in the U.S. and U.K. He was a gold miner in California and Australia. He was a sailor on four oceans and four continents. And he was an expat for nearly all of his free life.

SUMMERS: Can you tell us a little bit of the story of how his narrative came to be published? I mean, as I understand it, in the year 1855, John Swanson Jacobs walks into a newspaper office in Sydney, Australia.

SCHROEDER: He had become a gold miner after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. He left the U.S. for California, and then for Australia, which was going through its own gold rush at the same time as America's gold rush. And he eventually struck it rich or at least did well in the Australian gold rush. And that gave him a rare moment of time off from the kind of labor that dominated most of his life to go to Sydney and to finish the life story that he had begun practicing in the 1840s as an abolitionist in William Lloyd Garrison's Boston and Frederick Douglass' Rochester.

SUMMERS: And the 600,000 that he refers to, that's the number of slaveholders. Is that right?

SCHROEDER: That's correct. And that's unusual for the time because it was way more common for abolitionists to mention the 3 or 3 1/2 million enslaved people. White abolitionists in the anti-slavery movement often put pressure on Black authors to write a sentimental story that displayed the suffering of enslaved people through graphic scenes of pain.

SUMMERS: Right.

SCHROEDER: What Jacobs does is reject this kind of sentimental contract that Black abolitionists were supposed to sign up for. Jacobs calls out not only the slave-owning class by name but traces their acts of exploitation and violence to its sources in American law and American politics. And one of the most distinctive and amazing parts of this autobiography is that the last quarter of the autobiography is devoted to a denunciation and critique of America's founding documents, with the argument that these documents entrenched slavery within the founding documents of America's institutions.

SUMMERS: Jonathan, I wonder how you felt when you first happened upon this story and realized that you'd discovered something that few people had ever read, that few people knew about.

SCHROEDER: The first feeling I had was immediately knowing that this was a major find. And as the days unfolded after I had found it, I started to ask myself, how can I bring this back into the world? How can I do justice to bringing these words back to life and helping them retain the power that they once had? I guess the discovery of this narrative begs the question, how many other narratives like this are waiting to be found outside of America's borders in other digital archives?

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Jonathan Schroeder, who has written a biography around "The United States Governed By Six Hundred Thousand Despots" by John Swanson Jacobs. The book is out now. Jonathan, thank you so much for your time.

SCHROEDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.