THE freedpeople have always been rather a mythical class to me. Born and reared in Massachusetts, I have known little of the colored race except through the newspapers and the antislavery societies. And though I’ve industriously read the discussions about the negro and his capabilities in the former, and have espoused the antislavery cause from childhood with all my heart, the real Southern negro, born and reared a slave, has always been a subject of curiosity and speculation.
But a recent visit to a Border State, in a family where the servants are colored, and generally of the class set free by the Proclamation, has given me an opportunity for observing them closely. I have not been out of my way to obtain material for these sketches, but have jotted down, without exaggeration, what has come directly under my observation. And the only merit in the jottings is that they are the plain, unvarnished truth. They interested me in spite of their simplicity, and may be interesting to others.
Amy is a colored woman who does the washing for the family where I spent the summer. She is a demure, pleasant-faced woman, with a very slight trace of white blood in her regular features. Her skin, however, is as black as the devoutest adherent to the Shem, Ham, and Japhet doctrine could desire.
When Amy first brought my clothes home, I could not help looking at her with some curiosity, and a longing to know if there was a history behind those pathetic, luminous eyes of hers. So I broached a leading question or two.
“Have you any children, Amy ?”
“ Yes ’m, —one boy. I 've been the mother of fifteen children, but this boy is all I’ve got left.”
I am astonished. Fifteen children, and Amy still looks fresh, young, and unwrinkled.
“ Does your boy go to school, Amy ? ”
“Yes ’m, I’m trying hard to keep him to school regular. But there are no schools here for the colored people except pay-schools, and sometimes it’s pretty hard to send him. I mean to give him an education though. He’s right smart, — Dave is. He can read splendid.”
I multiply questions about Dave and the “pay-schools,” and learn that, though the colored people are taxed with the whites to support the free schools, some learned judge has discovered that it is “unconstitooshunal” for the blacks to attend them, and they are forced to make up little private schools to educate their children. After a little more talk with Amy, I make my plans to give a spare hour or two each day to Dave, and thus save her the pittance she pays for his schooling. This little piece of friendliness unlocks her heart to me, and before many days she has told me all her story. I shall not attempt to give half the pathos of it, but, as nearly as I can, I will tell it in her own language, which is very good, and has little of the plantationnegro accent. She has always been a house-servant, she says, and used to good society, and her manners are consequently much better than those of the field-hands.
“When the war broke out,” Amy begins, “me and my husband had hired our time and was living in a little home of our own in Louisville. I was cooking, and my husband was driving a dray, and my three children — all I had left — were out at my mistress’s place, five miles from town.
“ But when the war begun, missis sent for me, ’cause I ’spect she was afraid I’d be for running away. My husband did n’t belong to her, he belonged to a man the other side of town, and he run away as soon as he could, and followed the army ; and just as soon as they would take him for a soldier he ' listed ’ and was in the army for more’n three years.
“ Missis had me up on the plantation, and she kept pretty strict watch on all of us. By and by she began to get great pieces of cloth in the house, and she cut out trousers, and set us to making them, and making shirts and knitting stockings, and when we said, ‘What’s these for, missis ; what you make all these things for ?’ she’d say, ‘ O, those dreadful Yankees up North they ’re coming down here to take the poor colored folks and sell ’em away South, where they treat them awful. And I’ve got a great parcel of ’em out in the woods yonder, hiding from Abe Lincoln’s men, and I’m making these clothes to keep them warm.’
“ Then I’d say, 'O Lord bless us, how good you are to them pore colored folks, missis ! ’ and I’d look as innocent ; and all the time I knew she was making them clothes for the Butternut soldiers.
“One day, missis’s son that was in the Butternut army, he came there with a heap of his men, and missis put ’em all up in the great garret that was over all the house. They came in the night, so she thought we did n’t know it. But we did ; we mistrusted, and was always keeping watch round, and one of our people seed them come. Then in the morning missis set me to baking heaps of corn-bread, and cooking chickens and everything good to eat, and kept telling me she was going to send them to the pore colored people hid out in the woods. And I pretended I believed It every word.
“ The Yankee soldiers was getting thick about these days, and pretty soon I saw a heap of ’em coming up to our well for a drink. Some of our people generally happened to be about the well when any of the Yankees was round ; so this time I was hanging round there, pretending I was getting some water. One of the soldiers—I ’spect he was an officer — said to me kinder low, while he was drinking,
‘ Seen any Butternut soldiers about here ? ’
“‘Should n’t darst to tell you if I had,’ I said, ‘’cause they’d kill me certain sure if I told anything.’
“' You need n't be afraid to tell me,’ said he. ‘ You never shall be hurt for it. We are your people’s friends you know ; we ’re all Abe Lincoln’s men.’
“So I made him promise solemn not to get me in any scrape, and to go away after I told him, and come again that night, and then I told him all about the Butternut soldiers in our garret.
“After dark he came riding horseback, with all the other Yankees, and roused up missis. She was an awful strong Union woman then, and she offered to git supper for ’em or anything. But he would ’sist on searching the garret, and there he found the Butternut soldiers, and took them away, every one. I pretended to be awful scairt, and the Yankee captain, he never even so much as looked at me as if he knew me.
“About this time the colored folks was running away all the time, and nobody seemed to mind nothing about it. We was only five miles from the river, and one of the Yankees told me if I crossed over it was free there, and plenty of soldiers there would give me all the washing I could do. My husband was in the army, then, I knew. One afternoon I took my three children, — Dave was the oldest, and was just about nine, — and I walked them five miles down to the river. Nobody interfered with me, and I got a boat and got took over.
“ Well, after a while I got up here to this place, and got a room of some colored folks, and took in washing. There was a camp of soldiers here then, and they paid pretty good, and the white folks was all very good to me, and I got along well. When my husband found out where I was, he sent me money quite regular, and in about a year I’d saved up one hundred and fifty dollars. Then I bought an acre of land with a little shanty on it, and paid that money down, and ’greed to pay so much every year till I got it clear paid for.
“ I kept on working and putting by all the money I could, when I heard about Mr. Lincoln’s setting all the slaves free. And then my heart was set on going down after my two girls in Kentucky. One was eighteen and the other was nigh sixteen years old. They was both sold away from me five years before, and I had n’t seen ’em since ; but I knew just where they were, and I had no rest till I started off to fetch ’em up here.
“It was a mighty lonesome place about where the man lived who owned them, — a miserable sort of a place ; and when I got there I found my oldest girl down sick, and her master — he was a dreadful drinking man and very ugly, he was —had gone away. When I got there and see my two girls, I keep up courage, and told ’em I was going to take them away, and I was n’t a bit afraid. But all the time I felt as if there was danger in the air, and I never once took off my things. It was near dark when I got there, and I sot up all night with my bonnet on, ready to start in the morning. In the morning I got a carriage from town. There was heaps of Lincoln’s men in town, and I was n’t so scared then, and I got my girls to the cars, and got ’em home all safe.
“But when I had got ’em home, I found that my oldest had n’t long to live. Then she told me how she came to be so miserable. You see her master was a drinking man, and he was awful mad at all the colored people on account of the war. One day he told Anna — that was her name — to bring in some wood to put on the fire, and she come in with a big log on her shoulder. 'T was so heavy she could n’t bring it very fast, and with that he took a stick and hit her over the head so she fell down, and the log it fell on her ; and then he kicked her heavy, to make her get up, and some way or ,nother he broke three of her ribs, and them ribs never was sot, so she was pretty near dead when I got her home. When she died, I had three doctors in to look at her, — white doctors they were, — and there was a lump on her side where the bones was broken big as my fists.”
Here Amy stops to wipe away a tear or two, and I find I am crying in sympathy.
“ Horrible brute ! ” I cried. “ Can you ever forgive that dreadful man ? ”
“Well, missis,” Amy goes on, in that soft, pleading voice of hers, “ when I first heard what she had to tell, I felt just as it I could go down there and go tluough him as the wheat-cutter goes through the wheat ; but when I come to see my girl die, she died so peaceful, and was so thankful to go, and was able to pray for that man, and say she forgive him, I got so I could forgive him too, for you know what the Lord says about ‘ forgiving our enemies.’ It was pretty hard to remember it at first, but now if I was to meet him in heaven next minute, I do believe I should n’t find nothing against him in my heart.”
It would take too long to tell Amy’s whole story, — how her second daughter sickened and died, and how the two younger children had followed,—how sickness and trouble had prevented her from meeting the first payments she had promised on her little place, and she lost it altogether, — how her husband came home after the war, and was industrious and steady, and they had worked and saved until they now had a little place almost all paid for. “And it is a very comfortable home to me,” she said, “ though I suppose it would look like a shanty to you.”
Of the fate of all her fifteen children but one she was certain. This one, her oldest child by another husband, was sold away from her when only five years old ; and though he is now, if living, a young man of twenty-three, she knows nothing of him.
“ I can’t help having a longing all the time to know where he is, though the Lord has been very good to me in lettingall my children come home to die,” she said with unconscious pathos. “ Once my baby, eleven months old, was sold away from me. It was a nursing baby then, and I prayed the Lord strong to give it back to me, ’cause it appeared like I could n’t bear to have it go nohow. And so I prayed, day and night, in the kitchen, and about my work, and everywhere ; and sure enough, in three weeks they brought it back to me from ten miles away, ’cause they said it pined so there was no such thing as keeping it away from me. It lived just a week, and I held it when it died. I always believed in the force of prayer after that.”
Of such simple tragedy is her life made up, saddened all through till the colors of it are as sombre as her face, but lighted up here and there by her hope of a blessed heaven to come.
She reads the Bible, and has great comfort in it. For this woman, at middle age before she saw the light of freedom, toiling hard with both her hands for daily bread, has yet found time to learn to read within the last five years, and reads intelligently and well.
Dave comes daily to say his lessons. He is a rollicking, bright-looking boy, with close-cropped wool and mouth of cavernous depth and breadth. He is quick to learn, and can "read and write and cipher.” His ideas of history and geography are still crude, and it is impossible to divine in what spirit he receives instruction. When I attempt to tell him the story of Columbus and his discovery of this continent, his mouth begins to unfold into a broad grin. Before I get the Santa Maria and Niña and Pinta half across the Atlantic, he is chuckling at an infectious rate, and by the time the first ship has touched land he is fairly doubled up in convulsions of laughter in which it is impossible not to join.
I have n’t the least idea why he regards the discovery of America as so good a joke, and conclude it is merely his way. Next day, when I test his memory of the subject, he can tell me the whole story straight through, always on the broad grin.
My sketch would be incomplete unless I added an account of Jacob and Rosa, the man and maid servants of our household.
Jacob is a slow-moving, lumbering fellow, about thirty, so decidedly African that he would make a black spot in the deepest darkness. He came to his heritage through the Emancipation. Proclamation. He had a kind master, and never knew the worst horrors of slavery, but he is very proud of and thankful for his freedom. He shows his appreciation of it by trying to fit himself to be a free man. He has an idea that a free man ought to be educated, and for the last five years, which mark his exodus from slavery he has set apart three months in each year for schooling. The other nine months he works for wages, and he has already got some little earnings in the bank, and the hope of a home some day.
Just now it is his “schooling-time,” and he works for his board, and goes to school twice a day, studying hard every spare minute. It is quite touching to go into the kitchen at night, and see him poring over an atlas or a slate, with that heavy, dumb expression in his black eyes which the negroes wear.
Sometimes I help him a bit in his lessons, and point out a cape on the map. He tells me he has just begun to study geography.
“And I find it so hard,” he says, deprecatingly. “ Sometimes when little boys only half as high as me answer a question right off that a big fellow like me don’t know a word of, I feel so ashamed of myself I don’t just know what to do.”
Another night he asked me, rather confidentially, if there was any use in studying geography.
I encourage him with words of good cheer, and remind him that, since he has learned reading and writing, nothing can be very hard, then I give him anecdotes of poor white boys who have taught themselves under disadvantages as great as his, and have risen to fame and eminence. Above all, I show him that the only way for the colored people to reach perfect freedom is out of ignorance into the light of intelligence ; and I promise him the boon — dear to every freedman I have ever met —of the ballot, when education has fitted him for it. And before I go away, the dumb eyes speak and glisten.
“ Lord bless you, missis,” he says ; “if my head was so full of learning as yours is. I'd give a’most anything.”
Rosa, our kitchen maid, is eighteen, graceful and trim, and hardly less black than Jacob. She wears dangling earrings set with blue glass stones, and a bright pink frock which fits her as neatly as a French grisette’s. She had only been with us a week or two when Sylvia came into the parlor where we were all sitting.
“ What do you think Rosa wants to do ?” she said, laughingly. “Actually she desires to come into the parlor and play for us. She says she can sing, and that she plays the organ in the colored Methodist Church.”
We all cried out to let her come in, and in a few minutes, quite radiant and self-conscious, Rosa tripped in to the piano. She struck a few fine rolling chords, and then begun to sing. We all started in amazement. Pure and clear and full of melody, her voice soared like a lark’s, and overflowed the room with its volume. We had expected to be amused, but we were dumb with astonishment.
Kate, whose delicate soul finds expression at the piano, but whose voice is hardly strong enough for vocal expression, flushed and trembled with delight as Rosa sang, and, when she ended, murmured with a sigh, almost of envy, “ O, if I had a voice like that ! ”
Next day I questioned our black swan about her advantages for cultivation. Her father and mother, with their three daughters, had been slaves till 1863. They had had a kind master, and were never sold apart. After becoming free, the parents had put the three girls in school, and now they could read and write, and her father had hired a piano, and all had learned to play a little. Rosa and her second sister “lived out,”but the youngest, only eleven, was still in school.
“We shall make a teacher of my little sister,”said Rosa, complacently, as she told me all this.
“But how did you learn to play and sing so well ? ” I asked.
“ O, I took a few lessons, but I get it mostly by ear. But you ought to hear my next sister play and sing. She can sing splendid ; I'm nothing alongside of her.”
“But where did you get your style, Rosa ? who taught you to sing in the way you do ? ”
“ Well, I 've listened to white folks’ singing, and two or three times I 've been to an opera, and heard ladies sing there. I bet you I listened close. And after that I could just imitate them, every motion.”
It must have been true, for no uncultured voice could have executed a song as Rosa does. There is much artistic grace in her method, and every day the kitchen, resounds with her warblings. We hear that she and her sisters give concerts for the aid of their church, contributing, from their inheritance of the negro’s
Of music and of song,
The gold that kindly nature sifts
Among his sands of wrong,”
These are a few of the freedpeople I 've met. They are the servants in our household. I do not know that they are more or less interesting than those in other families. But I reflect that many a fair girl who trills feeble imitations of Parepa or Kellogg in a Fifth Avenue parlor would burst with envy if she could hear the pearl-like voice which comes from the sable throat of Rosa, washing the dishes in our kitchen. And when I read in the newspapers the orations of Elijah Pogram, and the essays of Jefferson Brick on the inferiority of the negroes, their lack of thrift, industry, earnestness of purpose, and capacity to take care of themselves, and on the grave danger involved in giving them the ballot, I wonder whether, if I were a solitary woman with three children, — a stranger in a strange land, — I could with my bare hands build up a home, and secure a prospect of comfort for my old age as Amy has done ; and whether I should have had the patience like her to master the alphabet and the speliing-book when past middle life. And I wonder how many white men thirty years old — not merely ignorant immigrants from over the sea, but men born upon our own soil and in the free North too — are ready, like Jacob, to lay aside their little earnings, and spend three months of every year for five years in the school-house, fitting themselves for the ballot and the other privileges and duties of American citizenship. Perhaps Messrs. Pogram and Brick will condescend to tell us.