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What We Did for Freedom MAG
“Don’t it ever bother you?”
“That your girl be white.”
I looked over at my two-year-old daughter playing with pebbles she had collected from the river bank. She picked them up one by one and dropped them into an empty glass jar. She looked up at me and smiled, her light brown curls bobbing and her brown eyes sparkling the way young people’s eyes do. “No,” I said to Mary Jane. “That don’t trouble me.”
“She be Massa’s?” Mary Jane asked as she fried onions on the stove.
“Young Massa. Right when I firs’ come.” I went back to peeling the red potatoes for supper in the big house. For us it would likely be beans and corn cakes again. Then we would all get together at the big fire pit, and we would talk and dance and tell stories about how life used to be back in Africa. If there was a couple jumpin’ the broom, that’s when they would do it.
There were only about 40 of us counted-for blacks down on this tobacco-growing plantation in South Carolina, but with plenty of children nobody bothered to put in the books until they could work. The masters mostly left us alone to do as we pleased once the work was done.
“That babe his too?” she asked, nodding at my bulging belly beneath my blue serving dress and dirty apron.
“Nor for certain. Might be Nathaniel’s,” I said. “We been married six months.”
Mary Jane studied my belly. “Might be. ’Less you get another white chile, there’s no tellin’.” She sighed as she stirred sugar into the blackberries for a pie. “It be sad, but there be no shame in it. It be me a while back when Massa firs’ get his land,” she said. “How old you be when you come?”
“Fourteen,” I sighed, rolling out the pastry dough and flipping it. “Been three years.” I slapped at a mosquito and wiped my forehead, leaning against the counter to rest.
Mary Jane put her spoon down and turned to me. “This heat can’t do nothin’ but bad to a woman as pregnant as you.”
I gave her a look. “Well, what d’you expect me to do, Mary Jane? I can’t lie around, just waitin’. There ain’t nothin’ for me ’cept work. Nathaniel in the fields and me in the big house. If I don’ work they might take lil’ Hannah away. I don’ think I could bear it. Ain’t nothin’ gonna help us here.”
The small windows were open, and so was the door, but the brick kitchen was still hotter than a red cooking skillet. Things were not made any better by the fact that the ovens had to be kept going all day. It was just me and Mary Jane in here, and sometimes one of the children. “I’d better go get changed. ’Bout time for supper.”
“I gotta get them pies cooked first.” She gestured toward the blackberry pies sitting on the counter, waiting to go in the oven.
“I know,” I said, wiping my hands on my apron, “but I wanna wash up first an’ put little Hannah with old Bess.” Old Bess was the oldest slave on the plantation. She was 86, and looked after the small children while their mammas were working.
I picked Hannah up and put her on my hip. I jiggled her a little as I left, promising Mary Jane to be back in half an hour. I walked down the narrow footpath, my shoes kicking up dust. The field hands I passed were barefoot, not because they didn’t have shoes, but because they fit so badly, it was more painful to wear them than to risk gettin’ bitten or stung or pricked. I was required to wear the shoes, though, because I worked in the big house.
Along the fields was a circle of small cabins. The ground was hard-packed from so many feet wearing on it through the years. Under the ancient oak tree in the clearing was Old Bess, sitting on a blanket.
“Another one?” she croaked when she saw me coming with Hannah. She was surrounded by 20 or so children, ranging in age from infancy to about four years old.
“You got anyone to help you with these young’uns?” I asked as I set Hannah down in a patch of shade next to one of her friends.
“Sally come down sometimes,” Old Bess squinted at me.
I wouldn’t be back until after the master and his family had gone to bed, so Nathaniel would get Hannah after he was released from the fields. He would put her to bed with the other children in our cabin, then he would go to the bonfire with the other adults. They would tell stories, and I would be back just in time for the dancing.
I climbed up the stairs to the cabin and grabbed my clean dress, apron, and cap. Two cabins down, I saw my best friend, Nan, coming out of her cabin. She was also a serving girl. We waved and walked together to the kitchen. Mary Jane was just pulling the pies out of the oven.
“’Bout time!” she huffed, “Get those dishes lookin’ all fancy-like for the mistress.”
By the time we were done, Goldie, the third serving girl, was walking in wearing her matching uniform. Each of us picked up a silver platter of food and proceeded cautiously down the stone steps, not tripping if we valued our lives. A girl poked her head out of the doorway to the back of the big house, urgently waving us in.
“Massa ain’t in the best mood,” she whispered, then she cracked open the door to the dining room. Sally and Goldie were holding the soup tureen, and I was carrying the bottle of wine the master had requested. The dining room was facing west, and the wall was all windows, so the gorgeous sunset was visible to all but the master, who sat with his back to it. If I wasn’t serving dinner, I would have looked out, maybe hoping to see Nathaniel in the field, but my thoughts were disrupted when the master snapped his fingers in my direction. I hurried to fill his glass, then his son’s, then his wife’s, then his oldest daughter’s. I receded into a corner, looking at Kayla. She looked just like Hannah.
The quiet clinking of silver and china and glass was interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps and a frantic cry.
“Please, Sir, they’re eating dinner! Don’ disturb them, please!”
“Shut up, wench. Get outta my way!”
The overseer stormed into the room, dragging a slave with him.
“Mr. Jackson!” he huffed, “this slave up and hit me!” He was holding Nathaniel by his shirt front.
Overseer struck him over the head, and I felt the blood drain from my face as I watched my husband crumple to the floor. Nan and Goldie’s eyes flicked over to me in concern. I felt helpless. I bit my lip and felt a tear roll down my cheek as I witnessed my husband being beaten.
Master held up his hand. “Mr. White, that will do.”
The overseer stepped away from Nathaniel, but I could see blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
“Bring him downstairs, he won’t cause any trouble in that state,” Master said.
There was silence in the room until the Master snapped his fingers at me again. As I hurried to refill his glass, Master’s son spoke.
“You going to sell him, Father?” he asked, a malicious glint in his eyes.
“Maybe,” Master said slowly. He suddenly grabbed my arm and wrenched me toward him. He hissed into my ear, “You want your little girl to stay on this plantation, you get that husband of yours under control.” He released me, and I staggered back.
“Yes, Massa,” I said hurriedly.
The master looked thoughtful. “I changed my mind,” he said suddenly, pushing back from the table. “I’m selling that little girl of his.”
This time I could not stay silent. “Please, Massa,” I pleaded, “don’ sell my girl!”
He answered with a backhand slap as he stalked out of the room.
The master didn’t reappear for the rest of the evening. The three of us finished serving, and the mistress released us early. Goldie and Nan supported me on the path back to the cabins, where the entire plantation’s slaves were congregated. They were all whispering.
“Rose!” Someone jumped up and led me to a seat. “You gotta leave quick!”
“Nathaniel? Hannah?” I asked. My grief-clouded mind was suddenly sharp.
“He’s sleepin’. Overseer beat ’im pretty bad. She sleepin’ too.”
There was no way around it. All three of us had to leave, even though there was a good chance only I would make it to safety. I looked up at the stars, hoping for an answer. I saw a shooting star go right over the cabins. A good sign.
“We’ll leave tonight,” I whispered, then looked up at the other slaves. “Sing!” I told them, “so Massa don’t suspect nothin’!”
Mary Jane started a slow hymn, and most of the slaves joined in. Goldie pressed a bundle of food and clothes into my hands, and someone asked, “You takin’ the chile?”
“Leave Hannah,” another said. “We’ll take care of her.”
“You can’t leave the girl here. You’ll be invitin’ trouble.”
“You gotta take her. No tellin’ what Massa will do to her if she here.”
Nathaniel had been woken up, and he stopped the discussion with a wave of his hand. “We’ll take her. It’s for her own safety.”
We would leave as soon as Massa and his family had gone to bed and the fire died down. As I lay in bed next to Nathaniel, I asked him why he wanted freedom, besides the fact that he would probably die if he stayed. He yawned and answered, “You may not be feelin’ the lash in the kitchens, Rosie, but we sure feelin’ it in the fields. The men an’ the women an’ all them children. We all feelin’ it. Them overseers gettin’ heavy with the whips. We people too. We don’ deserve to be treated like spit on Overseer’s shoes.”
He fell asleep soon after that, while I lay awake. I didn’t know why I wanted freedom. I had to protect my family, and I knew life would get a whole lot worse for me if Nathaniel and Hannah ran off and I stayed. To tell the truth, day-to-day life for me in the kitchens wasn’t so bad. And I had gotten used to the nights. I guess that’s why I was leaving – so my children would know who their father was. I also had an ache to be free that I couldn’t understand. To do whatever I pleased would seem like someone was handing me the key to life, not to have to serve someone else or harvest someone else’s crops.
I was just drifting off when Goldie stuck her head in and motioned for me to wake Hannah. She was groggy and confused as I put her shoes on and draped her shawl around her. Nathaniel got the bundles together and strung them on his back.
I picked up Hannah and quietly followed Nathaniel. I looked over to the fire pit and the coals burning low for the last time. I shivered against the cold, and Hannah buried her face in my shawl.
Goldie draped an amulet around my neck, and gave Nathaniel a map of the Underground Railroad. She said we should head for a house on the other side of the forest. She kissed my cheeks and Hannah’s. “Godspeed,” she said.
Nathaniel took my hand and squeezed it, assuring my heart that everything was going to be all right. We turned toward the trees and took off running.
I felt as free as the wind.
Only Nathaniel and I made it to freedom. Hannah fell into a river we were trying to cross and drowned. We used 24 Underground Railroad houses to get to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We had several close calls, including one where a bounty hunter actually sat on the bed I was hiding under, and once when the barrel Nathaniel was hiding in fell over and the top popped off.
Nathaniel now works six days a week hauling ice to people’s iceboxes, and I stay in our tiny apartment and keep house. My baby was born two days after we arrived in Philadelphia.
Nathaniel and I named our new daughter Freedom. She is black.