Dinah Hope Browne, also known as Di, was born enslaved to a woman named Priscilla on a plantation near Petersburg, Virginia, in 1815. The single available source about her life is a dictated biography published in England in 1863. According to this narrative, her mother worked as a house servant and her biological father, Henry Hope, was a white slave owner, planter, and partner in a clothing warehouse. Dinah’s sister, also fathered by Hope, was born six months before Priscilla’s death from consumption. Dinah was then raised by her grandparents, and although little is known about her childhood, she started working at her slave owner’s house at age ten. She was abused and repeatedly beaten for small offenses; for example, when Dinah did not retrieve Henry’s boots in a satisfactory time period, he kicked her on her right thigh.
At age thirteen, in the month of July or August, Dinah escaped from the plantation; however, on her second night away she experienced a frightening thunderstorm, later regretting that she had left at all. A few days after the storm, Dinah heard the sound of horses and chains rattling. Unfortunately, those sounds signaled that she had been captured. Her owner immediately threw her into jail. On Dinah’s first night in prison, she received twenty‐four lashes on her naked back for escaping from the plantation. Afterwards, she was jailed for five weeks. Upon release, Dinah was taken to Henry and was branded on her right shoulder and on the instep of her left foot.
Henry Hope decided that Dinah would marry Jem Browne, so after they jumped the broom, they were declared husband and wife. Together they had fifteen children, including four sets of twins. Only three of their children survived past infancy: Priscilla, who was sold at age ten; an unnamed girl, who died from a sickness; and Charlie, who died shortly after being told he was to be sold. In 1855, after twenty years of marriage, Jem Browne died. He had never recovered from an assault by an overseer named Wildshaw who had beaten him with a hammer.
In 1860, Henry labeled Dinah “useless” because her children were grown, and because she would not marry Jones. She then determined to escape later that night. Throughout her escape, she faced several obstacles, but eventually found refuge in Pennsylvania for four months with a white clergyman, up until March 1861, just before the beginning of the American Civil War. To maintain her freedom, Dinah boarded a ship in New York that took her first to Calcutta, India, where she lived for several months. After another long voyage, she arrived in London, England, in March 1863. While in London, she stayed with an unidentified woman. To earn a living, Dinah did needlework; but, due to the physical violence she had endured for the greater part of her life, it was very difficult for her to work because of the intense pain from the eleven scars she bore on her body.
During her time in England Dinah dictated her life story to John Hawkins Simpson, who published Horrors of the Virginia Slave Trade …The True Story of Dinah, an Escaped Virginian Slave in December 1863. The narrative depicts the humanity of Browne and other enslaved African Americans and sought to encourage sympathy for abolition among British readers at a time when there was significant support for the Confederacy. It also argues that the system of slavery was contrary to Christianity, the ideal of social equality, and the spirit of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence.
After the publication of this biography, Dinah disappears from the historical record. Her narrative did not gain much attention during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However Simpson’s biography has been referenced by scholars including Monroe N. Work (1928); Sharon Harley (1995); and Ervin L. Jordan (2005) who describes it as “an explicit eyewitness account of Virginia slavery.” (158). Professor John Blassingame, however, in his magisterial Slave Testimony (1972) states that Brown’s narrative is overly focused on her flight from bondage and includes it in a list of narratives that are “unreliable” (xxviii) as a guide to the details of slave life.
Read the full, original biography by Adele N. Nichols in the African American National Biography.
Simpson, John Hawkins. Horrors of the Virginian Slave Trade and of the Slave‐Rearing Plantations. The True Story of Dinah, an Escaped Virginian Slave, Now in London, on Whose Body Are Eleven Scars Left by Tortures Which Were Inflicted by Her Master, Her Own Father. Together with Extracts from the Laws of Virginia, Showing That Against These Barbarities the Law Gives Not the Smallest Protection to the Slave, But the Reverse. 1863. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/simpson/summary.html
Blassingame, John. Slave Testimony (1972)
Jordan, Jr. Ervin L. “Queen Victoria's Refugees: Afro‐Virginians and Anglo‐Confederate Diplomacy.” in Virginia's Civil War. Edited by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt‐Brown (2005).
Harley, Sharon. The Timetables of African‐American History (1995)
Work, Monroe N. A Bibliography of the Negro (1928)
Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.