I was born a slave, as was my father before me, but I shall die a free man. The words sound wonderful when they roll off your tongue—a free man. You almost want to bite into the words and chew on them for a while, to taste their sweetness, and their bitterness. You get the urge to say them real slow, almost afraid that they might just up and disappear on you.
The word freedom certainly has an awe-inspiring power to it. I don’t think white folks really understand just how powerful it truly is. They were, after all, born to it, they live with it, and they die comfortable in it.
Now for us black folk, we know different. We know just how powerful the word freedom really is. For two hundred and forty long years we did not have it. Like Moses’ people we were lost in the Egypt of our bondage. And when we broke the chains at last, we paid with our blood for the getting of it.
I should know, because I was there and paid my price in full for what little piece of freedom I now have.
Maybe you saw me marching in the Decoration Day parade last week. As I marched in that parade I found it hard to believe it’s the thirtieth anniversary since the Civil War ended. The time has flowed like a river, as I guess it does with all lives. It seems to move sluggish at first, meandering along as if every day will stretch into an eternity. And then, ever so imperceptibly, it moves faster and faster. You’re fourteen and you march off to war, somehow believing in your immortality, and with that first thundering volley that illusion is killed forever. But time still seems to go slow. You get a bit older, marry, have children, start a job, and then one day you turn around and there is gray in your beard and a slowness in your step. You look back at what was and shake your head as if it was a dream—only yesterday, you say; but that yesterday was thirty years past.
So I marched in the Decoration Day parade again.
General Howard, who started the college I went to, marched in this one, right down Market Street, a whole flock of other old generals and colonels right along with him. That fellow who wrote Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace from over Craw-fordsville, he was a general too during the war and he was marching up front as well. They were followed by the boys who fought with them through four long and bitter years of Civil War. Our battle flags were held up to the wind again, powerful names written upon them in fading gold letters, the names of battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Petersburg, where I was, and Appomattox.
So there up front were the generals and the white soldiers right behind them. And forgotten, way in the back of the parade came us black soldiers. You see, even though we bled with them and died with them, it seems now they don’t quite want us marching with them. But every May 30 we come out anyhow for the parade, the few of us still left, and we march in the parade too, invited or not. Maybe it’s cussedness on our part, but I think it’s because we want to remind folks that blacks fought in the war too, and died in the war.
I admit we’re getting old now; a lot of us boys are getting gray in the beard and a bit bald on top. But when we put the blue Yankee suits on, smelling of mothballs, it all comes back, like it’s in the blood somehow. You can almost hear the sergeants cussing at us again, you can almost feel the cool breeze of morning as we stood in line, waiting for the order to charge, the thunder of the cannon booming all around us. We stand a little straighter again, laughing when one of us has a hard time buttoning up his uniform, our backs cracking when we hear the long roll of the drums and snap to attention.
So you might have seen me way in the back of that parade. I was the one with a drum slung over my shoulder, my empty left sleeve pinned up across my breast. An old one-armed drummer, I guess, is kind of a queer sight. But I’m getting ahead of myself and maybe I should tell you it in the way it happened, rather than all backwards the way I’m telling it right now.
* * *
My name is Samuel Washburn. At least, that’s the name I go by now. You see, it wasn’t my birth name and the name they said over me when the preacher dunked me in the river. Why, then I was just plain Sam, though some called me Sambo, or the Washburn family’s newest nigger.
Like I said before, I was born a slave. As near as I can reckon now it was in the year 1849 or maybe 1850.
Now you might be wondering: Sam, if you were born a slave, how come you can write a decent hand and folks call you a lawyer? Well, all that in its proper time.
My ma was a house slave, working inside the Washburns' big house. She was able to wear some fine clothes, for a slave, the cast-off’s of the Missus. She never was hit either, at least while old Massa Washburn was alive. My pa was a free man, a blacksmith no less, living in Perryville, Kentucky.
He’d been born a slave too on the Washburn farm. But he learned himself a trade and after doing all the blacksmithing work for the Washburns, they’d hire him out to other white folks who needed things done, like shoeing horses, making tools, putting iron rims on wagon wheels and such. In what little time he had left at the end of the day he'd make a couple of extra things. He could turn out a real fine lightning rod or a weather vane that was all so fancy, and Massa Washburn let him sell these things. Half the barns and houses around Perryville must have had one of Pa’s lightning rods on them and never one of them burned from lightning (though they sure didn’t keep the Yankees from burning them down when the war came).
He worked for near on to twenty years, never spending even two bits on himself come Sundays. He worked and saved and he finally bought himself into freedom for all of fifteen hundred dollars. Massa Washburn even gave him a little piece of land at the edge of town to live on in exchange for his doing some of the chores around the farm. So Pa set himself up as a smithy and was saving money again to buy Ma out of slavery. You see, if it wasn’t for Ma, Pa would have gone north over the Ohio River when he bought his freedom. Being a free black man in Kentucky wasn’t the best of things, especially with the troubles starting, but he loved Ma and wouldn’t leave her behind. Sad thing was that there wasn’t just Ma after I came along and so he was going to have to buy me too. I had two sisters, but both of them died of the cholera. It was sad; Ma would cry anytime their names were mentioned, though I don’t recall it since I was only three when it happened. At least Pa wouldn’t have to buy their freedom as well.
Finding out you’re a slave is a strange sort of feeling. I grew up alongside Ben Washburn, he being my age, the only son of Massa and Missus Washburn. All the rest of their children were girls and a lot older than us.
Ma was his mammy and nursed him same as me. We played together out on the front porch on warm summer days. We’d play Indians. My big cousin Jimmie, who was born of Ma’s sister who died birthing him, and I would be the Indians and Ben would be George Washington or Daniel Boone. We always lost.
I think I was about five, maybe six or so when one day I got awful mad at Ben and said I wanted to win for a change. He laughed at me and said I couldn’t win since I was a stupid nigger slave.
I got mad and punched him hard in the eye. Now, it wasn’t anything, just a little boy’s punch that could barely hurt a fly, but he started into bawling and ran into the big house. Out came his mama with my ma right behind her. And I saw that my ma was awful scared, her eyes wide, and she was wringing her apron up into knots of worrying. It was a queer sort of feeling. I could see my ma was scared to death of the Missus and it seemed as if everything in the world got terribly quiet, everybody stopping to see what was going to happen.
I thought Missus Washburn would take my arm right off of me when she yanked me off the ground. She picked me up and shook me till it felt like my head was about to burst and I couldn’t see all too well.
And Ma just stood there, crying softly, and I saw she was afraid. I started screaming for Ma to make her stop but Ma just stood there frozen, all pale and shaky. Missus Washburn finally threw me back down on the ground, where I landed hard on my head, and then she turned to my ma.
“If your little nigger brat ever lays hands on my boy again I’ll sell both of you down south.”
Ma tried to open her mouth to say something but no words could come out of her and she just stood there shaking.
Well, this was one big commotion. Everybody saw it. I noticed the other black folks, and there was about twenty of them living on the Washburn farm, were standing very quiet, not saying anything. Massa Washburn came around from the back of the house and asked what all the fuss was about. The Missus just laid into him, shouting that he was too easy on his niggers, that they needed firm treatment. He tried to make her calm down and go back into the house and she started yelling even louder.
He got real mad then, but it wasn’t at her who was causing all the fuss but rather at us. He cursed and shouted at Ma to get out of sight and take me along. Ma swept me up off the ground and ran.
I guess I was pretty badly hurt. I had fevers for a while, got real dizzy when I tried to stand up and threw up anything Ma tried to put into me.
Pa came to see me on Sunday visiting day and I saw him standing outside our cabin talking with Massa Washburn, their voices low. Pa seemed vexed, his head bowed as Massa Washburn talked angrily and then went away.
My pa came into our cabin. Ma started into crying and he held her, making hushing sounds. He came over to where I was lying on our cornhusk mattress and sat down by me, putting his hand to my head.
Pa was a big and powerful man and afraid of nothing. He’d go into a stall with the meanest mule, talking soft to it, and next thing you knew he’d have four new shoes on him and the mule just eating sugar out of his hand. His arms were like twin knots of solid hickory wood, his chest as strong as iron barrel hoops. But he could be the gentlest man you’d ever know. I never once heard him rise his voice to Ma, never once saw him put a hand to her, except to touch her gently. He was the same with me and I’m not ashamed to admit that even after forty years I still love him and still get a bit damp in the eyes when I think of him.
He talked with me for a long time that morning and I never forgot it. He told me a lot of things, about being colored or white, slave or free, servant or master. I guess it was troubling for him because I asked the simple questions that little ones ask, which so often cut into the heart of how crazy our world sometimes is.
“Why are we slaves and they’re free?”
“What does Jesus say about these things? The preacher keeps saying we’re supposed to love each other.”
“Does God hate colored folks ’cause we’re slaves and the white folks aren’t?”
Pa tried to answer the questions, and as I asked them he’d sometimes sigh, chuckle softly, his deep voice rich and smooth.
He’d shake his head and say, “I don’t know, son. I don’t think even Preacher Wilson knows the answer to that one.”
* * *
I remember that day all so well, as clearly as if it happened just yesterday. The air was soft with the touch of spring. The grass in the fields was coming up a dark rich blue green. The apple orchards were blooming, their white petals filled with a soft sweet smell of living. It was a Sunday morning when you wanted to be all so glad to be alive. You wanted to run through the fields just laughing, take a sip of icy water from a dark, deep pool of springwater and then lie on your back and watch the clouds float by, hoping you might catch sight of an angel sitting on top of one.
Yet it was a dark, chilly type of day inside of me. I was learning just how the world really was that spring morning. I was learning the meaning of words like slave and free. I was learning the dark hate that lingered behind he word nigger and the sadness inside so many folks, even inside the white folks who thought they ruled us, but down deep were maybe just a bit afraid of us as well.
I think every child, black, white, Indian, or whatever, must have that day in their soul. The day they learn that there is a world beyond their front door, a world not of smiles and laughter and love, but sometimes of darkness, and fear, and cold, evil things that twist through our souls.
It was early in the evening when he left us to go back to his little shop. Before he left he kissed me on the forehead, and pulled a little hard sugar candy out of his pocket and gave it to me.
I remember that day all so well. I remember it for all so many reasons, especially because it was the last time I ever saw my pa alive.
* * *
I woke up the following morning and heard Ma crying. Massa Washburn was standing outside the cabin with her and it sounded like he was crying as well. I got up and peeked out the door and saw him standing with Ma, and he even had his arm around her shoulder as she cried. A whole bunch of folks were gathered around them, and there lying on the porch of Massa’s house was Pa.
He was dead.
It seemed that when Pa left us he took a back road to town. It was getting dark out and there on the road he was stopped by slave catchers. Now, things were getting all stirred up in Kentucky in those days. More and more slaves were breaking free and running north, trying to get across the Ohio to freedom. And slave owners from down south were paying slave catchers to go after them.
Four of these slave catchers stopped my pa and said he looked like a runaway down from Nashville way. Pa got his freeman’s paper out and said he was not a slave and that they could go to Massa Washburn’s place and he’d prove it.
They laughed; one of them got some chains and said, Freeman or not, you’re a good-looking nigger and we’ll get two thousand dollars for you down in Mississippi. Pa knocked the one man down and started to run…and they shot him in the back.
He crawled back to Massa Washburn’s and died on the porch there after telling the Massa what happened.
I don’t really remember that much; a lot of what I think I remember is stuff my ma and others must have told me later. What I do recollect for sure was seeing my pa lying inside a coffin as they nailed the lid shut and then put him into the ground. It was raining hard, like the whole world was crying because a good man had died. Preacher Wilson prayed over the hole in the ground, saying that Pa was sitting with Jesus and the angels now. But all I could see was a rain-soaked box, the mud splattering as they shoveled the dirt in on top of him.
Ma said I was sick for a long time later and it was awful strange because I went for a couple of years and never said a word. People thought I was struck dumb from grief and getting my head shaken into a concussion. I guess I just didn’t have anything to say to the world, that’s all.
Massa Washburn was really angry about it all and even had the patrol men from down south arrested. Some white folks, I’m told, laughed about it, but there was a lot of good in Massa. There were a lot of other white folks who were angry too since they thought rather highly of Pa and said he was a good man. Massa Washburn even had them brought to trial. They were fined twenty-five dollars each for killing a freeman and then they were let go and told to get out of the county. Strange thing was that if Pa had still been Massa Washburn’s slave they’d have been fined Pa’s full value of fifteen hundred dollars. Back then a nigger as a slave was worth more than one who was free.
I guess I could say that’s when my being a child ended. Though I couldn’t speak for the longest time, Massa Washburn had me go to work in the barn, helping to tend the horses that he raised. I must have talked to them about my troubles in a quiet sort of way because I’ve always liked horses ever since, more than people sometimes.
I worked in that barn for close on to eight years. I finally started into talking again; it happened the night the barn caught on fire and I had to get help. I ran to Massa Washburn’s big house and started screaming there was a fire. They saved the barn and the animals and he said I was a good boy. I guess Massa Washburn was a bit partial to me because of the way my pa died and then me saving his barn and horses like that.
Even now, after all these years, I still think kindly of him, but of his son, Ben, I think he was the devil himself and that’s why I finally left, because of him…and because the war finally came.
Copyright © 2001 by William R. Forstchen