Louis Hughes, author and businessman, was born a slave in Virginia in 1832. Hughes remained in bondage over thirty years and spent most of that time in Tennessee. While still in slavery, Hughes secretly learned to read and write and later published a remarkable autobiography, Thirty Years a Slave. He not only relayed his experiences of slavery, escape, and freedom, but also pictured plantation and slave life in extraordinary detail.
At age six, Hughes was separated from his mother forever when he was sold in a local Virginia slave market, an event that left an indelible mark on his life. In 1844 wealthy Mississippi planter Edmund McGee purchased Hughes as a Christmas gift for his wife; Hughes remained with the family for the next twenty years. Initially an errand boy, Hughes became the McGee's butler in 1850 when they built an extravagant home outside Memphis. As a house servant, Hughes did not often engage in heavy labor, but he did experience the wrathful whims of his mistress. “Some weeks it seemed I was whipped for nothing,” Hughes recalled, “just to please my mistress' fancy.” (1) He was severely beaten for repeated attempts to escape; his fifth attempt in June 1865 proved successful.
Hughes and his wife Matilda, the McGees' cook who escaped with him, ultimately settled in Milwaukee, where they established a successful laundry business. Hughes eventually capitalized on the medical skills McGee taught him as a slave and pursued a career in nursing. His autobiography, published in 1897, has remained a rare source for documenting numerous aspects of slave life.