Enslaved Background Image

Stories / Noah Davis

Noah Davis

Noah Davis (Mar. 1804—7 Apr. 1867), enslaved shoemaker, and pastor, was born in Madison County, Virginia, to John and Jane Davis, slaves belonging to Robert Patten, a wealthy merchant and mill owner. Both of Davis's parents were devout Baptists who instilled in Davis a strong relationship to the church. 

By Davis's account, Patten was a comparatively fair master who valued his slaves and who accorded John Davis many privileges, among them the ability to raise livestock and to keep his children with him until they were old enough to go into trade. John Davis was the head miller at Patten's merchant mill located on Crooked Run, a stream between Madison and Culpeper County. He was able to read and figure, but he could not write. 

When Noah Davis was about twelve, Patten sold his mill and emancipated Davis's mother and father. Davis's family moved to one of Patten's farms near Stevensburg. In 1818, at the age of fourteen, Davis was apprenticed to Thomas Wright, a boot- and shoemaker who lived in Fredericksburg, about fifty miles from Davis's home. Davis's older brother was also apprenticed to Wright, and his presence helped assuage some of Davis's homesickness. 

For the first year of his apprenticeship, Davis helped Mrs. Wright in the house and kitchen, as was required of black apprentices. In his second year Davis entered the shop. He picked up drinking from the other shoemakers but was an honest and hard worker who enjoyed the esteem of both Mr. and Mrs. Wright. 

In addition to learning the shoemaking business, Davis learned how to write. He had already learned the alphabet from his father and now began to copy the names of customers written on the lining of boots and shoes. Davis also became increasingly religious. He had what he described as a conversion experience and was baptized at the Baptist church in Fredericksburg on 19 September 1831. He was subsequently elected a deacon of the church and married another recently converted slave, with whom he eventually had nine children. 

In an attempt to pursue his religious calling, Davis approached Patten to purchase his freedom. Patten agreed, fixing a price of five hundred dollars. In July 1845, Davis traveled to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities to raise his purchase price. After four months he returned to Fredericksburg with only one hundred fifty dollars. Discouraged, Davis returned to shoemaking but was then unexpectedly invited to Baltimore to serve as a Baptist missionary to the African American community. Leaving his wife and seven small children, Davis accepted the offer and, with the help of his white Baptist friends, secured an appointment as missionary of the Domestic Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  The SBC provided Davis with the balance of the money he needed to purchase his freedom.

While in Baltimore, Davis raised, through subscriptions and loans, the money to purchase his wife and two of his children. He worked steadily to increase the city's small Baptist population, establishing a church and a Sunday school. In 1855 the church moved to a new building and was christened the Saratoga Street African Baptist Church.

Despite the increased financial burden of his church's new facilities, Davis managed to purchase the freedom of two more of his children. To help raise the money to free his last three children, Davis traveled to Baptist churches in Providence and New York to plead his case in front of their congregations. In 1859 he also published a slave narrative entitled A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah  Davis, a Colored Man, Written by Himself, at the Age of Fifty-Four. In its conclusion Davis voiced his hope that by “making a book” he may not only raise the funds to free his children but also to discharge the heavy debt incurred by his church. Appended to the end of the narrative was one of Davis's sermons. 

Davis's narrative is similar to that of Moses Grandy in its function as a fund-raising device to purchase enslaved family members. Unlike other slave narratives, however, Davis's work is unusual for its conspicuous absence of scenes of violence. Robert Patten and the Wrights are good masters, and Davis does not appear to endure or even witness whippings or starvation. The presence of the concluding  sermon also suggests the narrative's function as religious document, in keeping with Davis's position as a Baptist missionary. It has been noted that Davis's account of his conversion experience is reminiscent of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. As such, his work is a notable example of the intersection between spiritual autobiography and the slave narrative. 

Davis died in Baltimore on April 7, 1867.

A version of this article by Julia Sun-Joo Lee originally appeared in African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Grandy, Moses  <https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-35670>.

Bibliography

Davis, Noah. A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, a Colored Man, Written by Himself, at the Age of Fifty-Four. (1859).

 

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography 1760–1865. (1986) 

 

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. (1979). 

 

Starling, Marion. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History (1982).

Adapted by

Jennifer Mojica Santana

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

March 1804

Noah Davis is born in Madison County, Virginia, to John and Jane Davis, devout Baptists, who were enslaved to mill owner and merchant Robert Patten.

c. 1816

At age 12, Patten sold his mill and emancipated Davis' parents. They moved to one of Patten's farms in Stevensburg, Virginia.

1818

At 14, Davis was apprenticed by Thomas Wright, alongside the former's older brother. His presence helped to assuage Davis' homesickness. During this time, he learned about the shoemaking business and also how to write, having learned the alphabet from his father. Additionally, his religious faith grew stronger..

September 19, 1831

Davis was baptized at the Fredericksburg Baptist church after a conversion experience. Subsequently, he was elected as a deacon of the church. He married an enslaved woman who had been recently converted. The couple had 9 children.

1845

Davis approached Patten for the purchase of his freedom, wanting to pursue his religious calling. They reached an agreement of $500. In July, Davis traveled to northern cities to raise his price. Four months later, he returned to Fredericksburg with $150 and had to continue with his shoemaking job. He was later invited to serve as a Baptist missionary to the African American community in Baltimore, Maryland, which he accepted. Davis secured an appointment as missionary of the Domestic Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moreover, while in Baltimore, he was able to raise the money for the purchase of his wife and two of his children.

1855

While working to increase Baltimore’s Baptist population, Davis established a church and a Sunday school. The church moved to a new building and was christened the Saratoga Street African Baptist Church. Around this period, he managed to purchase the freedom of two more of his children and traveled to Baptist churches in Rhode Island and New York to help raise money to free three more.

1859

Publication of his narrative, titled "A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, a Colored Man, Written by Himself, at the Age of Fifty-Four".