Yale University Authenticates Account of a Nineteenth-Century Black Prison Inmate

reedmss2_0Yale University has announced that researchers have determined that a manuscript acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 2009 is the earliest known memoir written by an African American prison inmate.

The book-length manuscript was written under the name of Robert Reed with the title, The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict. But Caleb Smith, professor of English and American studies at Yale, has determined that the author’s real name was Austin Reed, a free Black man. Reed served a prison term of 15 years for theft in what is now known as the Auburn Correctional Facility. The manuscript was authenticated through newspaper accounts, prison records, and court files and further research by Christine McKay of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Professor Smith is preparing the manuscript for publication.

“The Reed prison narrative manuscript is a revelation. Nothing quite like it exists,” says David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. “Reed is a crafty and manipulative storyteller, and perhaps above all he left an insider’s look at the American world of crime, prisons, and the brutal state of race relations in the middle of the 19th century.”

“The Reed manuscript is an astonishing discovery and a unique resource documenting the lives of African-American prisoners in antebellum America,” says Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature. “Handwritten manuscripts of novels and memoirs by 19th-century African Americans remain extraordinarily rare. The Reed manuscript significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American Literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America.”

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