Matilda Hughes was born in Fayette County, Kentucky, on June 17, 1830. She was one of seven children. When she was very young, Matilda was part of a legal battle over her status. According to her mother and uncles, the entire family was supposed to be free because of an agreement made with a past enslaver. The man who owned them disagreed. Matilda’s uncles sued for their freedom and won their case with the help of abolitionist lawyers. But when the uncles started a case to free Matilda, her mother, and siblings, their enslaver sent the whole family further South. They were separated and sold to new owners before the case was decided.
Matilda and her sister Mary Ellen were bought by Edward McGee, a wealthy plantation owner who lived with his family in a grand home in Memphis, Tennessee. Matilda was made to work as the cook in his home. Edward gave Mary Ellen as a gift to his sister-in-law. The close relationship between Edward and his in-laws meant that Matilda stayed in close contact with Mary Ellen.
Working as a cook in a wealthy household was difficult, exhausting work. To make matters worse, Edward’s wife was cruel and demanding. After three years in the household, Matilda married Louis Hughes, her enslaver’s personal servant. Within a year, she gave birth to twins. But her happiness was short-lived. Mrs. McGee worked Matilda so hard that her body could not produce enough milk to feed the twins. Nor did she give her enough time to properly care for the babies, and they grew ill. One morning, after Mrs. McGee threatened to whip her, Matilda took her children to the local slave market, where she offered herself for sale. Louis knew about her desperate plan and supported her. They both hoped she might convince Edward to sell her to a new enslaver, where she might have a better chance of keeping her babies alive. The slave market alerted Edward, who brought Matilda back to his home. He and Mrs. McGee took turns whipping her cruelly. They swore they would never let her leave the household. The twins died before they reached their first birthday.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Edward declared his allegiance to the Confederacy, while Matilda and Louis looked for any chance to escape their enslavement. In 1862, Edward moved his whole household further South to Mississippi to escape the Union troops threatening to invade Memphis. Matilda was forced to stay with the family at Edward’s father’s plantation in Panola County, Mississippi, while Louis was sent to Edward’s plantation in Bolivar County. Union soldiers soon captured Edward, and Louis took the opportunity to try to claim his own freedom. Then Confederate soldiers swiftly caught Louis. They beat him and put him in jail in Panola. Before Louis was placed in jail, Edward’s father forced Matilda to witness her husband’s injuries and humiliation to discourage her from trying to escape.
Two months later, Matilda joined Louis in a second failed escape attempt. They were cruelly whipped and forced to visit the site where other enslaved people had been hanged. When Union soldiers began to close in on Panola, Edward’s father sent Matilda and Louis to a salt works near Mobile, Alabama, where they reunited with Edward. Edward died transporting more of his enslaved people to the salt works, and Matilda and Louis passed into the control of his father. At the salt works, Matilda gave birth to their third child. When Union troops threatened to take over the works, Matilda, Louis, and the baby were sent back to Edward’s father’s plantation.
Matilda and Louis started a new business, taking in the hotel guests’ laundry. They were so successful they moved into a larger home and expanded their business.
When the Confederacy surrendered in April 1865, Matilda and Louis should have been automatically freed. But Edward’s father refused to release any of his enslaved people. In June, Louis made yet another attempt to escape the plantation, leaving a very distraught Matilda behind. This time he succeeded in reaching Union lines. He hired two soldiers, who returned with him to the Panola plantation and helped him liberate Matilda, their child, her sister, and nine other people. On July 4, 1865, Matilda and Louis arrived in Memphis and began their new life together. After 35 years, Matilda Hughes was finally free.
Six weeks later, Matilda heard a rumor that her mother was living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Matilda had not seen her mother since they had been separated at the slave market decades ago. She was very eager to do whatever it took to reunite with her. She and her sister, Louis, and the baby set out for Cincinnati. When they arrived, they found not only Matilda’s mother but her eldest sister too. Matilda’s mom and sister had reunited while working as nurses for the Union Army and moved to Cincinnati together under the orders of a Union general.
Shortly after this reunion, the entire family set out for Windsor, Canada. They did not trust that the United States government would protect their rights, and Canada had long been known as a safe place for formerly enslaved people. In Windsor, Matilda and the women of their family set up a successful laundry business, while Louis took whatever work he could find to support the family. During this time, Matilda gave birth to twin baby girls.
In 1868, Louis secured a job at a new hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Matilda joined him with their children. The hotel hired Matilda to oversee their staff housing. Within a year, the enterprising couple had started a new business, taking in the hotel guests’ laundry. They were so successful they moved into a larger home and expanded their business. Louis eventually reunited with his brother, whom he had been sold away from in early childhood. Matilda supported Louis in pursuing his life-long dream of becoming a nurse. In his later years, Louis wrote a memoir detailing his life under and after slavery. This is the reason so much is known about his life and Matilda’s life.
Life after slavery was not easy for Matilda. She and Louis both worked hard to support their family, and they often endured long separations while Louis traveled for work. But Matilda found joy in both her freedom and her renewed connections with her family. When she passed away in 1907, her life stood as a testament to all that Black women had endured and achieved during and after slavery in the United States.