Lunsford Lane's death-defying journey out of slavery in NC: 'His story mattered'

Joel Brown Image
Tuesday, February 6, 2024
Lunsford Lane's remarkable journey out of slavery
Lunsford Lane's amazing story of ingenuity and will to find a way out of enslavement in Raleigh and gain the freedom of his family is the subject of a new book.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Lunsford Lane's amazing story of ingenuity and will to find a way out of enslavement in Raleigh and gain the freedom of his family is the subject of a new book that shines a new light on this remarkable life.

"In some way, Lunsford Lane is a forgotten celebrity, " said NC State history professor Craig Friend who spent years researching the life and celebrity of Lunsford Lane.

Lane was born into bondage in Raleigh in 1803, enslaved by Raleigh's founder father Joel Lane. He toiled as a house servant at the downtown Raleigh plantation of Sherwood Haywood. Lunsford's father, Edward, was enslaved just yards away at John Haywood's estate. The Haywoods were prominent state power brokers of the time.

Lunsford used that proximity to power and money -- along with his father's idea for smoking tobacco -- as an entryway to freedom.

"(Lunsford) starts selling tobacco with his father's help. His father comes up with the idea of flavoring poor-quality tobacco and making more of a profit," Friend said. "Lunsford has access to state legislators and so he sells tobacco every morning to the legislators coming to the Capitol."

It takes him a decade, but Lunsford saves enough to purchase his freedom -- buying himself from the now cash-strapped widow of his enslaver for $1,000 ($34,700 in today's money).

However, Lunsford had a family, a wife and five children still enslaved in Raleigh. So, he stays in the city to earn and save enough money to buy them too.

"Lunsford begins raising enough money towards that end. But in the early fall of 1840, he's approached by two magistrates in the city of Raleigh, who tell him he must leave," Friend details.

Lunsford's emancipation put him at odds with North Carolina law. He could remain free -- but had to leave the state, permanently.

Lunsford Lane (Photo Credit: NC State)

He'd only raised enough to purchase his daughter. He does. They take the train north to New England where Lunsford becomes a celebrity on the speaker's circuit -- giving speeches to white abolitionists.

"After every single talk he passes around the hat asking for money to save his family," says Friend. "The thing he tapped into is not anti-slavery but pro-family. He has to save his family."

Finally armed with enough money to buy his wife and remaining children, Lunsford returns to Raleigh. But his stardom in anti-slavery circles in the north ignited fiery backlash at home. Hours after purchasing his family's freedom -- an angry white mob kidnaps Lunsford.

He's taken to Raleigh's gallows where he's tarred and feathered. Lunsford's life is ultimately spared. He and his family depart Raleigh together the next morning.

23 years later, with slavery now abolished in the U.S., Lunsford Lane returned. And Black Raleigh, where his death-defying journey to freedom and entrepreneurialism had become a legend, hailed him a hero.

"His story mattered," Friend said. "So I wrote the book because I thought he was worthy of being remembered."

Lunsford Lane marker in Raleigh

Professor Friend's book should be released sometime in 2025. The working title: Becoming Lunsford Lane: The Lives of an American Aeneas.