Tough, Rugged, and Evolving Masculinity: Harry Compton, an Enslaved and Free Black Man in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey


  • Kenneth E. Marshall



This article explores the little known yet intriguing life of Harry Compton (c. 1743–c. 1814), who first comes to our attention in the 1883 narrative of the life of his famed granddaughter, Silvia Dubois. An enslaved person turned independent businessman, Compton constructed a complex and evolving concept of masculinity in the face of oppression, encouraging us to understand black masculinity in slavery and freedom as a life-long pursuit of self-empowerment and personal reinvention. His story, which occurred mostly in rural New Jersey, adds nuance to scholars’ understanding of early black masculinity as a public performance that showcased one’s power and authority, or self-worth, while also providing an important example of black masculinity as a developing process. In telling Compton’s story, the article advances a number of narrative threads pertaining to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New Jersey, including slavery, gender, culture and economy, and the law. An analysis of Compton allows the reader to learn a great deal about the world in which he lived and, ultimately, overcame through his dynamic masculinity performed in various public settings.