Courage Spurs on Freedom
The realization presented itself as formidable, abject and heartrending. At the outset, I attempted to let it slip by without my notice. I laughed at it, declared it a notion, and turned away. We needed it, I reasoned. No—not needed—we depended upon it. Justice displayed itself clearly in the practice, I decided. Though lucid on the surface, it indeed gleamed gilded, for beneath, there was the defiling decadence. Each day this grew more blatant. I gazed from my balcony at the vast tobacco fields with the dark figures moving through them slowly—and plaintively, as I soon apprehended something beyond the South’s easy-going lifestyle. It shifted across my mental awareness like a dark cloud—ominous and eminent, shadowing everything in its path. Those dark figures wincing involuntarily, labored daily, bound by invisible chains. Slavery.
The “negroes” existed only to serve us. Each morning our family’s cook, Millie, and the other two black girls, just purchased from Georgia, brought in breakfast for our family. The house servants did everything, from cooking our daily meals to washing the bed clothes. And the rest of them; the field hands, all toiled in the tobacco fields, laboring without meed. Overall, the slaves were the backbone of every plantation in the South. This fact I used, to justify it, and it served sufficiently well for a time, till something happened on our plantation that changed everything.
Father intended to participate in an auction. He told us he hoped to exchange a field hand, whom he deemed insolent and lethargic, for a hardworking one who would benefit us adequately with assiduous labor. “The negro Tom—yep, he’s the one. Outright stubborn, that’s what he is,” Father stated. For a moment or two, as I comprehended his words, I almost allowed them to slip away into vagueness, when a realization struck me. Tom? Tom—Tom had been at our estate since his boyhood. And he had a family. The family didn’t live on our plantation, though. They dwelt on a neighboring one. But I had seen them together on several occasions. And when I thought of Tom and his family, I understood it all of a sudden. It meant splitting the family up even further. The little babies, with their large dark eyes and their tightly curled hair, would never know their papa. They’d never know his name or what he looked like. They would miss his big booming laugh and his comforting arms.
After breakfast I retired to my room, and dwelt in despondency, pondering over everything, doubting everything, and pain filled my heart. I asked, “Why did I never think?” and “What if I lived in slavery? What if…” But it was no use. I at once understood what freedom meant. Freedom meant everything. Father left for the auction with Tom. Courageous and stoic, Tom stood as stolidly as possible, but the expression he wore was one of deep pain, grief and anguish. I glimpsed it, and I couldn’t forget it, as I stood on the balcony, watching them ride away—the black man on a nag while my Father rode his best bay mare.
When the twilight began to sheath the tops of the trees in dusky velvet, and when the slaves returned from the fields, Father returned. He dismounted with haste, and his tone was strident with terse excitement. I at once felt that something was amiss, as his mien was contorted with vivid anxiety, his motions clipped and hurried. Mother greeted him on the veranda, while the house servants crowded in the doorway apprehensively. “Tom—he ran away! That good-for-nothing slave!” Father exploded with a vehement flourish of his hand. A gasp rippled through the listening servants. I too, felt confused by the news. But, then a very odd, very peculiar relief rushed over me. Mother, flustered and worried by Father’s antagonism, fell into a state of tearful disturbance, and the house slaves murmured amongst themselves, their black eyes wide with ferment. And in the turmoil of the moment, they failed to notice me, standing in the shadows of the hall, misty-eyed and pensive.
“De North. He done goin’ to de North—to de free land,” muttered one of the slaves, only to be hushed furiously by the others. The matter was dropped, but it hooked me. Over and over again I repeated mentally those words. “He done goin’ to de North—to de free land.” It took me several moments to realize what he had meant. I’d heard of it, something to do with a train underground. Father and the overseer knew of whole bands of slaves—twenty or more at times, who would vanish into the night, without a word. A posse might pursue them based on trails left from a fire ring, and footprints perhaps, but they’d never caught up with the fugitives. The negroes simply vanished.
I understood why the servant who had mentioned the “free land” had been so quickly silenced. Peril loomed everywhere. A master had the liberty to whip the life out of his black if he liked. But as the group in the front hall dispersed, their faces revealed not fear, but hope and shining anticipation.
The crisp grass and light zephyr refreshed my bleary mind, as I stepped along briskly. A few evenings had passed since the excitement of the runaway. My Father, our overseer, the sheriff and several other fellows had taken off, in pursuit of Tom. I tried to forget it all, but suddenly a noise saluted my ears. I paused, my eyes flitting round, at the brush and at the thicket of cedars and birches nearby. A sobbing noise became distinct. I caught my breath, and listened sharply. The sobbing was muffled and choked. I opened my lips and called abruptly, “I hear you—methinks you had better come out.” The sobs halted at once. I repeated what I had said, in a louder, firmer tone, as I neared the thicket from whence the sound had come. I perceived a small dark figure, someone about my height, appearing from the high top of the brush. In the fading light, a figure emerged from the shadows. The person trembled violently, and was followed by two little children. The three of them approached slowly, hesitantly and fearfully. The shoulders of the tallest one, whom I recognized to be a negro women, with her two children, shook from held-in weeping. Her cheeks glistened with fresh tears, and in a quivering voice, she begged me to not alert the household of her presence. I hadn’t the heart to do so, and, filled with compassion, I spoke to her softly, reassuring. At this, her façade transformed slightly into relief, but that poignant look remained in her ebony eyes. Tears began to flow afresh after several moments of silence, for the pathos which impressed me must have descended over my visage, issuing a gentle touch on her poor heart.
I bade her tenderly to relate to me her dilemma, for a supposition had birthed itself in my mind, that she was Tom’s wife. This she revealed quietly, shaking her head in a childlike, desperate manner, as though she did not wish to believe the words she spoke. Fear and anxiety tormented her, I perceived. It wrenched her heart, and tormented her mind. And the longing aspect of her drawn countenance disclosed plainly that she yearned to follow him into that distant Freedom Land. The two little children, huddled against their mother, were wide-eyed and trembling under the influence of their mother’s deep distress. They did not understand, I knew. Good chance that they would never see their father and mother together again, and experience the paternal affection which I had known all my life. And at that moment, a notion struck me—a notion that startled me for an instant, but then slowly played into reality. If I followed my impulse, there would be no turning back. And above all, peril shadowed it as a sinister cloud shades a valley black. Doubt overwhelmed me as I rapidly plotted it all out. As a daughter of an eminent Maryland planter, my determination to aid Tom’s wife and children portended sincere risk. I would become a turncoat to the ways of the south. If caught, a certainty loomed of living branded as an aid to the cause of slave liberation. But as the North Star sparked itself into visibility in the darkening sky, and as I quietly lead the three into the dusk of the woods, towards a cave that could serve as a temporary hideout, a peace slipped among us, audacity warmed my heart. Tom’s courageous flight and the tremulous bravery of his family, enkindled in me a flame of rash valor. Pausing in the thicket, I glanced up through the dense trees overhead, through which blotches of the sky blinked through, and the North Star caught my eye, luminous and blazing, a reminder that its Creator also created Freedom.