Life-of-a-Slave-Girl (not my book)

I. Childhood
I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy
childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and
considered so intelligent and skilful in his trade, that, when
buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent
for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of
paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting
himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own
affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but,
though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose,
he never succeeded. In complexion my parents were a light shade
of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes. They lived
together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I
was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of
merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be
demanded of them at any moment. I had one brother, William, who
was two years younger than myself—a bright, affectionate child. I
had also a great treasure in my maternal grandmother, who was a
remarkable woman in many respects. She was the daughter of a
planter in South Carolina, who, at his death, left her mother and his
three children free, with money to go to St. Augustine, where they
had relatives. It was during the Revolutionary War; and they were
captured on their passage, carried back, and sold to different
purchasers. Such was the story my grandmother used to tell me;
but I do not remember all the particulars. She was a little girl when
she was captured and sold to the keeper of a large hotel. I have
often heard her tell how hard she fared during childhood. But as
she grew older she evinced so much intelligence, and was so
faithful, that her master and mistress could not help seeing it was
for their interest to take care of such a valuable piece of property.
She became an indispensable personage in the household,
officiating in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress.
She was much praised for her cooking; and her nice crackers
became so famous in the neighborhood that many people were
desirous of obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests
of this kind, she asked permission of her mistress to bake crackers
at night, after all the household work was done; and she obtained
leave to do it, provided she would clothe herself and her children
from the profits. Upon these terms, after working hard all day for
her mistress, she began her midnight bakings, assisted by her two
oldest children. The business proved profitable; and each year she
laid by a little, which was saved for a fund to purchase her
children. Her master died, and the property was divided among his
heirs. The widow had her dower in the hotel which she continued
to keep open. My grandmother remained in her service as a slave;
but her children were divided among her master’s children. As she
had five, Benjamin, the youngest one, was sold, in order that each
heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents. There was so
little difference in our ages that he seemed more like my brother
than my uncle. He was a bright, handsome lad, nearly white; for he
inherited the complexion my grandmother had derived from
Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Though only ten years old, seven hundred
and twenty dollars were paid for him. His sale was a terrible blow
to my grandmother, but she was naturally hopeful, and she went to
work with renewed energy, trusting in time to be able to purchase
some of her children. She had laid up three hundred dollars, which
her mistress one day begged as a loan, promising to pay her soon.
The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a
slave is legally binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave,
being property, can hold no property. When my grandmother lent
her hard earnings to her mistress, she trusted solely to her honor.
The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!
To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts. My
brother Willie and I often received portions of the crackers, cakes,
and preserves, she made to sell; and after we ceased to be children
we were indebted to her for many more important services.
Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early
childhood. When I was six years old, my mother died; and then,
for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a
slave. My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s
mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both
nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been
weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might
obtain sufficient food. They played together as children; and, when
they became women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her
whiter foster sister. On her death-bed her mistress promised that
her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her
lifetime she kept her word. They all spoke kindly of my dead
mother, who had been a slave merely in name, but in nature was
noble and womanly. I grieved for her, and my young mind was
troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and my
little brother. I was told that my home was now to be with her
mistress; and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable
duties were imposed on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I
was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as
much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for
hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free from care as that of
any free-born white child. When she thought I was tired, she would
send me out to run and jump; and away I bounded, to gather
berries or flowers to decorate her room. Those were happy days—
too happy to last. The slave child had no thought for the morrow;
but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human
being born to be a chattel.
When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened
and died. As I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy,
how earnestly I prayed in my heart that she might live! I loved her;
for she had been almost like a mother to me. My prayers were not
answered. She died, and they buried her in the little churchyard,
where, day after day, my tears fell upon her grave.
I was sent to spend a week with my grandmother. I was now old
enough to begin to think of the future; and again and again I asked
myself what they would do with me. I felt sure I should never find
another mistress so kind as the one who was gone. She had
promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer
for any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many
proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes
that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would
be so. They thought she would be sure to do it, on account of my
mother’s love and faithful service. But, alas! we all know that the
memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her children
from the auction block.
After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read,
and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter,
a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had
taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do
unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I
suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give
much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a
child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I
spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of
injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell;
and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I
bless her memory.
She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all
distributed among her relatives. Five of them were my
grandmother’s children, and had shared the same milk that
nourished her mother’s children. Notwithstanding my
grandmother’s long and faithful service to her owners, not one of
her children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing
machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton
they plant, or the horses they tend.
II. The New Master And Mistress.
Dr. Flint, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of
my mistress, and I was now the property of their little daughter. It
was not without murmuring that I prepared for my new home; and
what added to my unhappiness, was the fact that my brother
William was purchased by the same family. My father, by his
nature, as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skillful
mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common
among slaves. My brother was a spirited boy; and being brought up
under such influences, he daily detested the name of master and
mistress. One day, when his father and his mistress both happened
to call him at the same time, he hesitated between the two; being
perplexed to know which had the strongest claim upon his
obedience. He finally concluded to go to his mistress. When my
father reproved him for it, he said, “You both called me, and I
didn’t know which I ought to go to first.”
“You are my child,” replied our father, “and when I call you, you
should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and
water.”
Poor Willie! He was now to learn his first lesson of obedience to a
master. Grandmother tried to cheer us with hopeful words, and
they found an echo in the credulous hearts of youth.
When we entered our new home we encountered cold looks, cold
words, and cold treatment. We were glad when the night came. On
my narrow bed I moaned and wept, I felt so desolate and alone.
I had been there nearly a year, when a dear little friend of mine
was buried. I heard her mother sob, as the clods fell on the coffin
of her only child, and I turned away from the grave, feeling
thankful that I still had something left to love. I met my
grandmother, who said, “Come with me, Linda;” and from her tone
I knew that something sad had happened. She led me apart from
the people, and then said, “My child, your father is dead.” Dead!
How could I believe it? He had died so suddenly I had not even
heard that he was sick. I went home with my grandmother. My
heart rebelled against God, who had taken from me mother, father,
mistress, and friend. The good grandmother tried to comfort me.
“Who knows the ways of God?” said she. “Perhaps they have been
kindly taken from the evil days to come.” Years afterwards I often
thought of this. She promised to be a mother to her grandchildren,
so far as she might be permitted to do so; and strengthened by her
love, I returned to my master’s. I thought I should be allowed to go
to my father’s house the next morning; but I was ordered to go for
flowers, that my mistress’s house might be decorated for an
evening party. I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them
into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a
mile of me. What cared my owners for that? he was merely a piece
of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by
teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was
blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach; presumptuous in him,
and dangerous to the masters.
The next day I followed his remains to a humble grave beside that
of my dear mother. There were those who knew my father’s worth,
and respected his memory.
My home now seemed more dreary than ever. The laugh of the
little slave-children sounded harsh and cruel. It was selfish to feel
so about the joy of others. My brother moved about with a very
grave face. I tried to comfort him, by saying, “Take courage,
Willie; brighter days will come by and by.”
“You don’t know any thing about it, Linda,” he replied. “We shall
have to stay here all our days; we shall never be free.”
I argued that we were growing older and stronger, and that perhaps
we might, before long, be allowed to hire our own time, and then
we could earn money to buy our freedom. William declared this
was much easier to say than to do; moreover, he did not intend to
buy his freedom. We held daily controversies upon this subject.
Little attention was paid to the slaves’ meals in Dr. Flint’s house. If
they could catch a bit of food while it was going, well and good. I
gave myself no trouble on that score, for on my various errands I
passed my grandmother’s house, where there was always
something to spare for me. I was frequently threatened with
punishment if I stopped there; and my grandmother, to avoid
detaining me, often stood at the gate with something for my
breakfast or dinner. I was indebted to her for all my comforts,
spiritual or temporal. It was her labor that supplied my scanty
wardrobe. I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress
given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of
the badges of slavery.
While my grandmother was thus helping to support me from her
hard earnings, the three hundred dollars she had lent her mistress
were never repaid. When her mistress died, her son-in-law, Dr.
Flint, was appointed executor. When grandmother applied to him
for payment, he said the estate was insolvent, and the law
prohibited payment. It did not, however, prohibit him from
retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that
money. I presume they will be handed down in the family, from
generation to generation.
My grandmother’s mistress had always promised her that, at her
death, she should be free; and it was said that in her will she made
good the promise. But when the estate was settled, Dr. Flint told
the faithful old servant that, under existing circumstances, it was
necessary she should be sold.
On the appointed day, the customary advertisement was posted up,
proclaiming that there would be a “public sale of negroes, horses,
&c.” Dr. Flint called to tell my grandmother that he was unwilling
to wound her feelings by putting her up at auction, and that he
would prefer to dispose of her at private sale. My grandmother saw
through his hypocrisy; she understood very well that he was
ashamed of the job. She was a very spirited woman, and if he was
base enough to sell her, when her mistress intended she should be
free, she was determined the public should know it. She had for a
long time supplied many families with crackers and preserves;
consequently, “Aunt Marthy,” as she was called, was generally
known, and every body who knew her respected her intelligence
and good character. Her long and faithful service in the family was
also well known, and the intention of her mistress to leave her free.
When the day of sale came, she took her place among the chattels,
and at the first call she sprang upon the auction-block. Many
voices called out, “Shame! Shame! Who is going to sell you, aunt
Marthy? Don’t stand there! That is no place for you.” Without
saying a word, she quietly awaited her fate. No one bid for her. At
last, a feeble voice said, “Fifty dollars.” It came from a maiden
lady, seventy years old, the sister of my grandmother’s deceased
mistress. She had lived forty years under the same roof with my
grandmother; she knew how faithfully she had served her owners,
and how cruelly she had been defrauded of her rights; and she
resolved to protect her. The auctioneer waited for a higher bid; but
her wishes were respected; no one bid above her. She could neither
read nor write; and when the bill of sale was made out, she signed
it with a cross. But what consequence was that, when she had a big
heart overflowing with human kindness? She gave the old servant
her freedom.
At that time, my grandmother was just fifty years old. Laborious
years had passed since then; and now my brother and I were slaves
to the man who had defrauded her of her money, and tried to
defraud her of her freedom. One of my mother’s sisters, called
Aunt Nancy, was also a slave in his family. She was a kind, good
aunt to me; and supplied the place of both housekeeper and waiting
maid to her mistress. She was, in fact, at the beginning and end of
every thing.
Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in
energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs;
but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair
and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke
of the lash. She was a member of the church; but partaking of the
Lord’s supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind.
If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular
Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it
was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been
used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children
from eking out their meagre fare with the remains of the gravy and
other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what
she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound
and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no
chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how
many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size
they ought to be.
Dr. Flint was an epicure. The cook never sent a dinner to his table
without fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to
his liking, he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her
to eat every mouthful of it in his presence. The poor, hungry
creature might not have objected to eating it; but she did not object
to having her master cram it down her throat till she choked.
They had a pet dog, that was a nuisance in the house. The cook
was ordered to make some Indian mush for him. He refused to eat,
and when his head was held over it, the froth flowed from his
mouth into the basin. He died a few minutes after. When Dr. Flint
came in, he said the mush had not been well cooked, and that was
the reason the animal would not eat it. He sent for the cook, and
compelled her to eat it. He thought that the woman’s stomach was
stronger than the dog’s; but her sufferings afterwards proved that
he was mistaken. This poor woman endured many cruelties from
her master and mistress; sometimes she was locked up, away from
her nursing baby, for a whole day and night.
When I had been in the family a few weeks, one of the plantation
slaves was brought to town, by order of his master. It was near
night when he arrived, and Dr. Flint ordered him to be taken to the
work house, and tied up to the joist, so that his feet would just
escape the ground. In that situation he was to wait till the doctor
had taken his tea. I shall never forget that night. Never before, in
my life, had I heard hundreds of blows fall; in succession, on a
human being. His piteous groans, and his “O, pray don’t, massa,”
rang in my ear for months afterwards. There were many
conjectures as to the cause of this terrible punishment. Some said
master accused him of stealing corn; others said the slave had
quarrelled with his wife, in presence of the overseer, and had
accused his master of being the father of her child. They were both
black, and the child was very fair.
I went into the work house next morning, and saw the cowhide still
wet with blood, and the boards all covered with gore. The poor
man lived, and continued to quarrel with his wife. A few months
afterwards Dr. Flint handed them both over to a slave-trader. The
guilty man put their value into his pocket, and had the satisfaction
of knowing that they were out of sight and hearing. When the
mother was delivered into the trader’s hands, she said. “You
promised to treat me well.” To which he replied, “You have let
your tongue run too far; damn you!” She had forgotten that it was a
crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child.
From others than the master persecution also comes in such cases.
I once saw a young slave girl dying soon after the birth of a child
nearly white. In her agony she cried out, “O Lord, come and take
me!” Her mistress stood by, and mocked at her like an incarnate
fiend. “You suffer, do you?” she exclaimed. “I am glad of it. You
deserve it all, and more too.”
The girl’s mother said, “The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope
my poor child will soon be in heaven, too.”
“Heaven!” retorted the mistress. “There is no such place for the
like of her and her bastard.”
The poor mother turned away, sobbing. Her dying daughter called
her, feebly, and as she bent over her, I heard her say, “Don’t grieve
so, mother; God knows all about it; and HE will have mercy upon
me.”
Her sufferings, afterwards, became so intense, that her mistress felt
unable to stay; but when she left the room, the scornful smile was
still on her lips. Seven children called her mother. The poor black
woman had but the one child, whose eyes she saw closing in death,
while she thanked God for taking her away from the greater
bitterness of life.
III. The Slaves’ New Year’s Day.
Dr. Flint owned a fine residence in town, several farms, and about
fifty slaves, besides hiring a number by the year.
Hiring-day at the south takes place on the 1st of January. On the
2d, the slaves are expected to go to their new masters. On a farm,
they work until the corn and cotton are laid. They then have two
holidays. Some masters give them a good dinner under the trees.
This over, they work until Christmas eve. If no heavy charges are
meantime brought against them, they are given four or five
holidays, whichever the master or overseer may think proper. Then
comes New Year’s eve; and they gather together their little alls, or
more properly speaking, their little nothings, and wait anxiously
for the dawning of day. At the appointed hour the grounds are
thronged with men, women, and children, waiting, like criminals,
to hear their doom pronounced. The slave is sure to know who is
the most humane, or cruel master, within forty miles of him.
It is easy to find out, on that day, who clothes and feeds his slaves
well; for he is surrounded by a crowd, begging, “Please, massa,
hire me this year. I will work very hard, massa.”
If a slave is unwilling to go with his new master, he is whipped, or
locked up in jail, until he consents to go, and promises not to run
away during the year. Should he chance to change his mind,
thinking it justifiable to violate an extorted promise, woe unto him
if he is caught! The whip is used till the blood flows at his feet; and
his stiffened limbs are put in chains, to be dragged in the field for
days and days!
If he lives until the next year, perhaps the same man will hire him
again, without even giving him an opportunity of going to the
hiring-ground. After those for hire are disposed of, those for sale
are called up.
O, you happy free women, contrast your New Year’s day with that
of the poor bond-woman! With you it is a pleasant season, and the
light of the day is blessed. Friendly wishes meet you every where,
and gifts are showered upon you. Even hearts that have been
estranged from you soften at this season, and lips that have been
silent echo back, “I wish you a happy New Year.” Children bring
their little offerings, and raise their rosy lips for a caress. They are
your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you.
But to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar
sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children
who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she
wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be
an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized
her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable
of feeling a mother’s agonies.
On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to
the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken
from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-
trader, and their mother was brought by a man in her own town.
Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader
to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do.
How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one,
wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother
in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind.
She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone!
Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her.
Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.
Slaveholders have a method, peculiar to their institution, of getting
rid of old slaves, whose lives have been worn out in their service. I
knew an old woman, who for seventy years faithfully served her
master. She had become almost helpless, from hard labor and
disease. Her owners moved to Alabama, and the old black woman
was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for
her.
IV. The Slave Who Dared To Feel Like A Man.
Two years had passed since I entered Dr. Flint’s family, and those
years had brought much of the knowledge that comes from
experience, though they had afforded little opportunity for any
other kinds of knowledge.
My grandmother had, as much as possible, been a mother to her
orphan grandchildren. By perseverance and unwearied industry,
she was now mistress of a snug little home, surrounded with the
necessaries of life. She would have been happy could her children
have shared them with her. There remained but three children and
two grandchildren, all slaves. Most earnestly did she strive to make
us feel that it was the will of God: that He had seen fit to place us
under such circumstances; and though it seemed hard, we ought to
pray for contentment.
It was a beautiful faith, coming from a mother who could not call
her children her own. But I, and Benjamin, her youngest boy,
condemned it. We reasoned that it was much more the will of God
that we should be situated as she was. We longed for a home like
hers. There we always found sweet balsam for our troubles. She
was so loving, so sympathizing! She always met us with a smile,
and listened with patience to all our sorrows. She spoke so
hopefully, that unconsciously the clouds gave place to sunshine.
There was a grand big oven there, too, that baked bread and nice
things for the town, and we knew there was always a choice bit in
store for us.
But, alas! Even the charms of the old oven failed to reconcile us to
our hard lot. Benjamin was now a tall, handsome lad, strongly and
gracefully made, and with a spirit too bold and daring for a slave.
My brother William, now twelve years old, had the same aversion
to the word master that he had when he was an urchin of seven
years. I was his confidant. He came to me with all his troubles. I
remember one instance in particular. It was on a lovely spring
morning, and when I marked the sunlight dancing here and there,
its beauty seemed to mock my sadness. For my master, whose
restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking
whom to devour, had just left me, with stinging, scorching words;
words that scathed ear and brain like fire. O, how I despised him! I
thought how glad I should be, if some day when he walked the
earth, it would open and swallow him up, and disencumber the
world of a plague.
When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his
command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will
must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm
felt half so strong.
So deeply was I absorbed in painful reflections afterwards, that I
neither saw nor heard the entrance of any one, till the voice of
William sounded close beside me. “Linda,” said he, “what makes
you look so sad? I love you. O, Linda, isn’t this a bad world? Every
body seems so cross and unhappy. I wish I had died when poor
father did.”
I told him that every body was not cross, or unhappy; that those
who had pleasant homes, and kind friends, and who were not
afraid to love them, were happy. But we, who were slave-children,
without father or mother, could not expect to be happy. We must
be good; perhaps that would bring us contentment.
“Yes,” he said, “I try to be good; but what’s the use? They are all
the time troubling me.” Then he proceeded to relate his afternoon’s
difficulty with young master Nicholas. It seemed that the brother
of master Nicholas had pleased himself with making up stories
about William. Master Nicholas said he should be flogged, and he
would do it. Whereupon he went to work; but William fought
bravely, and the young master, finding he was getting the better of
him, undertook to tie his hands behind him. He failed in that
likewise. By dint of kicking and fisting, William came out of the
skirmish none the worse for a few scratches.
He continued to discourse, on his young master’s meanness; how
he whipped the little boys, but was a perfect coward when a tussle
ensued between him and white boys of his own size. On such
occasions he always took to his legs. William had other charges to
make against him. One was his rubbing up pennies with
quicksilver, and passing them off for quarters of a dollar on an old
man who kept a fruit stall. William was often sent to buy fruit, and
he earnestly inquired of me what he ought to do under such
circumstances. I told him it was certainly wrong to deceive the old
man, and that it was his duty to tell him of the impositions
practised by his young master. I assured him the old man would
not be slow to comprehend the whole, and there the matter would
end. William thought it might with the old man, but not with him.
He said he did not mind the smart of the whip, but he did not like
the idea of being whipped.
While I advised him to be good and forgiving I was not
unconscious of the beam in my own eye. It was the very
knowledge of my own shortcomings that urged me to retain, if
possible, some sparks of my brother’s God-given nature. I had not
lived fourteen years in slavery for nothing. I had felt, seen, and
heard enough, to read the characters, and question the motives, of
those around me. The war of my life had begun; and though one of
God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered.
Alas, for me!
If there was one pure, sunny spot for me, I believed it to be in
Benjamin’s heart, and in another’s, whom I loved with all the ardor
of a girl’s first love. My owner knew of it, and sought in every way
to render me miserable. He did not resort to corporal punishment,
but to all the petty, tyrannical ways that human ingenuity could
devise.
I remember the first time I was punished. It was in the month of
February. My grandmother had taken my old shoes, and replaced
them with a new pair. I needed them; for several inches of snow
had fallen, and it still continued to fall. When I walked through
Mrs. Flint’s room, their creaking grated harshly on her refined
nerves. She called me to her, and asked what I had about me that
made such a horrid noise. I told her it was my new shoes. “Take
them off,” said she; “and if you put them on again, I’ll throw them
into the fire.”
I took them off, and my stockings also. She then sent me a long
distance, on an errand. As I went through the snow, my bare feet
tingled. That night I was very hoarse; and I went to bed thinking
the next day would find me sick, perhaps dead. What was my grief
on waking to find myself quite well!
I had imagined if I died, or was laid up for some time, that my
mistress would feel a twinge of remorse that she had so hated “the
little imp,” as she styled me. It was my ignorance of that mistress
that gave rise to such extravagant imaginings.
Dr. Flint occasionally had high prices offered for me; but he
always said, “She don’t belong to me. She is my daughter’s
property, and I have no right to sell her.” Good, honest man! My
young mistress was still a child, and I could look for no protection
from her. I loved her, and she returned my affection. I once heard
her father allude to her attachment to me, and his wife promptly
replied that it proceeded from fear. This put unpleasant doubts into
my mind. Did the child feign what she did not feel? or was her
mother jealous of the mite of love she bestowed on me? I
concluded it must be the latter. I said to myself, “Surely, little
children are true.”
One afternoon I sat at my sewing, feeling unusual depression of
spirits. My mistress had been accusing me of an offence, of which
I assured her I was perfectly innocent; but I saw, by the
contemptuous curl of her lip, that she believed I was telling a lie.
I wondered for what wise purpose God was leading me through
such thorny paths, and whether still darker days were in store for
me. As I sat musing thus, the door opened softly, and William
came in. “Well, brother,” said I, “what is the matter this time?”
“O Linda, Ben and his master have had a dreadful time!” said he.
My first thought was that Benjamin was killed. “Don’t be
frightened, Linda,” said William; “I will tell you all about it.”
It appeared that Benjamin’s master had sent for him, and he did not
immediately obey the summons. When he did, his master was
angry, and began to whip him. He resisted. Master and slave
fought, and finally the master was thrown. Benjamin had cause to
tremble; for he had thrown to the ground his master—one of the
richest men in town. I anxiously awaited the result.
That night I stole to my grandmother’s house; and Benjamin also
stole thither from his master’s. My grandmother had gone to spend
a day or two with an old friend living in the country.
“I have come,” said Benjamin, “to tell you good by. I am going
away.”
I inquired where.
“To the north,” he replied.
I looked at him to see whether he was in earnest. I saw it all in his
firm, set mouth. I implored him not to go, but he paid no heed to
my words. He said he was no longer a boy, and every day made his
yoke more galling. He had raised his hand against his master, and
was to be publicly whipped for the offence. I reminded him of the
poverty and hardships he must encounter among strangers. I told
him he might be caught and brought back; and that was terrible to
think of.
He grew vexed, and asked if poverty and hardships with freedom,
were not preferable to our treatment in slavery. “Linda,” he
continued, “we are dogs here; foot-balls, cattle, every thing that’s
mean. No, I will not stay. Let them bring me back. We don’t die
but once.”
He was right; but it was hard to give him up. “Go,” said I, “and
break your mother’s heart.”
I repented of my words ere they were out.
“Linda,” said he, speaking as I had not heard him speak that
evening, “how could you say that? Poor mother! be kind to her,
Linda; and you, too, cousin Fanny.”
Cousin Fanny was a friend who had lived some years with us.
Farewells were exchanged, and the bright, kind boy, endeared to us
by so many acts of love, vanished from our sight.
It is not necessary to state how he made his escape. Suffice it to
say, he was on his way to New York when a violent storm
overtook the vessel. The captain said he must put into the nearest
port. This alarmed Benjamin, who was aware that he would be
advertised in every port near his own town. His embarrassment
was noticed by the captain. To port they went. There the
advertisement met the captain’s eye. Benjamin so exactly answered
its description, that the captain laid hold on him, and bound him in
chains. The storm passed, and they proceeded to New York.
Before reaching that port Benjamin managed to get off his chains
and throw them overboard. He escaped from the vessel, but was
pursued, captured, and carried back to his master.
When my grandmother returned home and found her youngest
child had fled, great was her sorrow; but, with characteristic piety,
she said, “God’s will be done.” Each morning, she inquired if any
news had been heard from her boy. Yes, news was heard. The
master was rejoicing over a letter, announcing the capture of his
human chattel.
That day seems but as yesterday, so well do I remember it. I saw
him led through the streets in chains, to jail. His face was ghastly
pale, yet full of determination. He had begged one of the sailors to
go to his mother’s house and ask her not to meet him. He said the
sight of her distress would take from him all self-control. She
yearned to see him, and she went; but she screened herself in the
crowd, that it might be as her child had said.
We were not allowed to visit him; but we had known the jailer for
years, and he was a kind-hearted man. At midnight he opened the
jail door for my grandmother and myself to enter, in disguise.
When we entered the cell not a sound broke the stillness.
“Benjamin, Benjamin!” whispered my grandmother. No answer.
“Benjamin!” she again faltered. There was a jingle of chains. The
moon had just risen, and cast an uncertain light through the bars of
the window. We knelt down and took Benjamin’s cold hands in
ours. We did not speak. Sobs were heard, and Benjamin’s lips were
unsealed; for his mother was weeping on his neck. How vividly
does memory bring back that sad night! Mother and son talked
together. He asked her pardon for the suffering he had caused her.
She said she had nothing to forgive; she could not blame his desire
for freedom. He told her that when he was captured, he broke
away, and was about casting himself into the river, when thoughts
of her came over him, and he desisted. She asked if he did not also
think of God. I fancied I saw his face grow fierce in the moonlight.
He answered, “No, I did not think of him. When a man is hunted
like a wild beast he forgets there is a God, a heaven. He forgets
every thing in his struggle to get beyond the reach of the
bloodhounds.”
“Don’t talk so, Benjamin,” said she. “Put your trust in God. Be
humble, my child, and your master will forgive you.”
“Forgive me for what, mother? For not letting him treat me like a
dog? No! I will never humble myself to him. I have worked for
him for nothing all my life, and I am repaid with stripes and
imprisonment. Here I will stay till I die, or till he sells me.”
The poor mother shuddered at his words. I think he felt it; for when
he next spoke, his voice was calmer. “Don’t fret about me, mother.
I ain’t worth it,” said he. “I wish I had some of your goodness. You
bear every thing patiently, just as though you thought it was all
right. I wish I could.”
She told him she had not always been so; once, she was like him;
but when sore troubles came upon her, and she had no arm to lean
upon, she learned to call on God, and he lightened her burdens.
She besought him to do likewise.
We overstaid our time, and were obliged to hurry from the jail.
Benjamin had been imprisoned three weeks, when my
grandmother went to intercede for him with his master. He was
immovable. He said Benjamin should serve as an example to the
rest of his slaves; he should be kept in jail till he was subdued, or
be sold if he got but one dollar for him. However, he afterwards
relented in some degree. The chains were taken off, and we were
allowed to visit him.
As his food was of the coarsest kind, we carried him as often as
possible a warm supper, accompanied with some little luxury for
the jailer.
Three months elapsed, and there was no prospect of release or of a
purchaser. One day he was heard to sing and laugh. This piece of
indecorum was told to his master, and the overseer was ordered to
re-chain him. He was now confined in an apartment with other
prisoners, who were covered with filthy rags. Benjamin was
chained near them, and was soon covered with vermin. He worked
at his chains till he succeeded in getting out of them. He passed
them through the bars of the window, with a request that they
should be taken to his master, and he should be informed that he
was covered with vermin.
This audacity was punished with heavier chains, and prohibition of
our visits.
My grandmother continued to send him fresh changes of clothes.
The old ones were burned up. The last night we saw him in jail his
mother still begged him to send for his master, and beg his pardon.
Neither persuasion nor argument could turn him from his purpose.
He calmly answered, “I am waiting his time.”
Those chains were mournful to hear.
Another three months passed, and Benjamin left his prison walls.
We that loved him waited to bid him a long and last farewell. A
slave trader had bought him. You remember, I told you what price
he brought when ten years of age. Now he was more than twenty
years old, and sold for three hundred dollars. The master had been
blind to his own interest. Long confinement had made his face too
pale, his form too thin; moreover, the trader had heard something
of his character, and it did not strike him as suitable for a slave. He
said he would give any price if the handsome lad was a girl. We
thanked God that he was not.
Could you have seen that mother clinging to her child, when they
fastened the irons upon his wrists; could you have heard her heartrending groans, and seen her bloodshot eyes wander wildly from
face to face, vainly pleading for mercy; could you have witnessed
that scene as I saw it, you would exclaim, Slavery is damnable!
Benjamin, her youngest, her pet, was forever gone! She could not
realize it. She had had an interview with the trader for the purpose
of ascertaining if Benjamin could be purchased. She was told it
was impossible, as he had given bonds not to sell him till he was
out of the state. He promised that he would not sell him till he
reached New Orleans.
With a strong arm and unvaried trust, my grandmother began her
work of love. Benjamin must be free. If she succeeded, she knew
they would still be separated; but the sacrifice was not too great.
Day and night she labored. The trader’s price would treble that he
gave; but she was not discouraged.
She employed a lawyer to write to a gentleman, whom she knew,
in New Orleans. She begged him to interest himself for Benjamin,
and he willingly favored her request. When he saw Benjamin, and
stated his business, he thanked him; but said he preferred to wait a
while before making the trader an offer. He knew he had tried to
obtain a high price for him, and had invariably failed. This
encouraged him to make another effort for freedom. So one
morning, long before day, Benjamin was missing. He was riding
over the blue billows, bound for Baltimore.
For once his white face did him a kindly service. They had no
suspicion that it belonged to a slave; otherwise, the law would have
been followed out to the letter, and the thing rendered back to
slavery. The brightest skies are often overshadowed by the darkest
clouds. Benjamin was taken sick, and compelled to remain in
Baltimore three weeks. His strength was slow in returning; and his
desire to continue his journey seemed to retard his recovery. How
could he get strength without air and exercise? He resolved to
venture on a short walk. A by-street was selected, where he
thought himself secure of not being met by any one that knew him;
but a voice called out, “Halloo, Ben, my boy! what are you doing
here!”
His first impulse was to run; but his legs trembled so that he could
not stir. He turned to confront his antagonist, and behold, there
stood his old master’s next door neighbor! He thought it was all
over with him now; but it proved otherwise. That man was a
miracle. He possessed a goodly number of slaves, and yet was not
quite deaf to that mystic clock, whose ticking is rarely heard in the
slaveholder’s breast.
“Ben, you are sick,” said he. “Why, you look like a ghost. I guess I
gave you something of a start. Never mind, Ben, I am not going to
touch you. You had a pretty tough time of it, and you may go on
your way rejoicing for all me. But I would advise you to get out of
this place plaguy quick, for there are several gentlemen here from
our town.” He described the nearest and safest route to New York,
and added, “I shall be glad to tell your mother I have seen you.
Good by, Ben.”
Benjamin turned away, filled with gratitude, and surprised that the
town he hated contained such a gem—a gem worthy of a purer
setting.
This gentleman was a Northerner by birth, and had married a
southern lady. On his return, he told my grandmother that he had
seen her son, and of the service he had rendered him.
Benjamin reached New York safely, and concluded to stop there
until he had gained strength enough to proceed further. It happened
that my grandmother’s only remaining son had sailed for the same
city on business for his mistress. Through God’s providence, the
brothers met. You may be sure it was a happy meeting. “O Phil,”
exclaimed Benjamin, “I am here at last.” Then he told him how
near he came to dying, almost in sight of free land, and how he
prayed that he might live to get one breath of free air. He said life
was worth something now, and it would be hard to die. In the old
jail he had not valued it; once, he was tempted to destroy it; but
something, he did not know what, had prevented him; perhaps it
was fear. He had heard those who profess to be religious declare
there was no heaven for self-murderers; and as his life had been
pretty hot here, he did not desire a continuation of the same in
another world. “If I die now,” he exclaimed, “thank God, I shall die
a freeman!”
He begged my uncle Phillip not to return south; but stay and work
with him, till they earned enough to buy those at home. His brother
told him it would kill their mother if he deserted her in her trouble.
She had pledged her house, and with difficulty had raised money to
buy him. Would he be bought?
“No, never!” he replied. “Do you suppose, Phil, when I have got so
far out of their clutches, I will give them one red cent? No! And do
you suppose I would turn mother out of her home in her old age?
That I would let her pay all those hard-earned dollars for me, and
never to see me? For you know she will stay south as long as her
other children are slaves. What a good mother! Tell her to buy you,
Phil. You have been a comfort to her, and I have been a trouble.
And Linda, poor Linda; what’ll become of her? Phil, you don’t
know what a life they lead her. She has told me something about it,
and I wish old Flint was dead, or a better man. When I was in jail,
he asked her if she didn’t want him to ask my master to forgive me,
and take me home again. She told him, No; that I didn’t want to go
back. He got mad, and said we were all alike. I never despised my
own master half as much as I do that man. There is many a worse
slaveholder than my master; but for all that I would not be his
slave.”
While Benjamin was sick, he had parted with nearly all his clothes
to pay necessary expenses. But he did not part with a little pin I
fastened in his bosom when we parted. It was the most valuable
thing I owned, and I thought none more worthy to wear it. He had
it still.
His brother furnished him with clothes, and gave him what money
he had.
They parted with moistened eyes; and as Benjamin turned away,
he said, “Phil, I part with all my kindred.” And so it proved. We
never heard from him again.
Uncle Phillip came home; and the first words he uttered when he
entered the house were, “Mother, Ben is free! I have seen him in
New York.” She stood looking at him with a bewildered air.
“Mother, don’t you believe it?” he said, laying his hand softly upon
her shoulder. She raised her hands, and exclaimed, “God be
praised! Let us thank him.” She dropped on her knees, and poured
forth her heart in prayer. Then Phillip must sit down and repeat to
her every word Benjamin had said. He told her all; only he forbore
to mention how sick and pale her darling looked. Why should he
distress her when she could do him no good?
The brave old woman still toiled on, hoping to rescue some of her
other children. After a while she succeeded in buying Phillip. She
paid eight hundred dollars, and came home with the precious
document that secured his freedom. The happy mother and son sat
together by the old hearthstone that night, telling how proud they
were of each other, and how they would prove to the world that
they could take care of themselves, as they had long taken care of
others. We all concluded by saying, “He that is willing to be a
slave, let him be a slave.”

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