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Many years an inmate

Born a free black person in the early 1800s, Austin Reed did not stay free for long:  he was sent to the "House of Refuge," a Manhattan reform school where he learned to read and write in between whippings, then later he was sentenced to Auburn State Prison in upstate New York.

At Auburn, under the name of Rob Reed, he wrote “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict” in 1858—the earliest known prison memoir by an African American, now housed at Yale's Beinecke Yale Book & Manuscript Library.

“Finding any new text by an African-American author of the 19th century is significant, but this memoir has so much to say about captivity, freedom, and human rights," says English professor Caleb Smith, who authenticated the manuscript and discovered Reed's identity, in a Yale news release.

“Today, our country’s sprawling prison system draws comparisons to plantation slavery. Reed’s narrative shows how an especially gifted prisoner in the 1850s was already making the same connection.”

The Beinecke acquired the memoir in 2009; Smith is now readying it for publication.

"This was never printed, but certainly Reed wanted it to be,” he tells the New York Times. “He’s not writing for intimates, he’s not writing for himself. He’s writing it for the public.”

Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, prison
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