Sambo: A Man and
A Brother by S.
"But," I said eagerly, "you do not
deny that slavery was a curse to
the country—to Southerners most of
"My dear fellow," said Captain S——,
knocking off the ashes from his cigar,
"don't go into that! We were talking
about negroes, not about slavery. I suppose,"
he added meditatively, "there are
not many men in the country who have
faced more of the negro race than those
of us who spent some part of our term
of service in the Freedmen's Bureau.
Imagine settling disputes from morning
till night between negroes and between
negroes and whites! If you abolitionists—as
you called yourselves before the
emancipation—want to have some of the
romance and sentiment of negroism dissolved,
live amongst them for a time."
"You were in Virginia?" I said.
"Yes, but the negroes there are a better
class than in the States farther South
and more remote from cities."
"Well, more intelligent. To see the
deepest ignorance you have to go to
the cotton-plantations, miles in extent,
where men, women and children have
been born and have died as cotton-pickers.
Of course I am not now speaking
of the freedmen as they are, for it is ten
years since I was on duty in G——, Mississippi,
where all the horrors of freedom
were first revealed to the poor creatures."
"'Horrors of freedom!'" I repeated.
"It meant starvation to many, and intense
suffering to others. Turn out a nursery
of children of five years old to care
for themselves, and they will fare better
than many of the grown men and women
of whom I knew in my Southern
"You relieved G——of the —th regiment?"
"Yes, and I often think of our meeting
at the dépôt. He had about two
minutes before taking the train to Vicksburg.
'Cap,' he said, 'go to Sim's to
board. Real Southern hospitality, and
his wife's a mother if you are sick—bound
to have bilious fever, you know.
And, Cap, those confounded niggers
think the Bureau is bound to back them
up, right or wrong, and in about ninety-nine
cases out of a hundred they're
wrong. Clerk's got the reports and papers.'"
"Well?" I said.
"He was right. The way those planters
allowed the negroes to impose upon
their good-nature and true generosity
confounded me. I went to relieve an
oppressed race, and, by Jove! I was inclined
to consider the planters in that
"But I don't understand."
"I'll show you. When the planters
found they could still have the practised
slave-labor in the cotton-fields by
paying fair wages, they made contracts
with the negroes by the year. It was
my fortune to be the referee on all disputes
on the accounts of the first year
of such contracts, and I solemnly declare
the liberality and consideration of
the planters would astonish the hard-fisted
business-men of some of our factories.
They knew the improvidence of the race,
and out of regard for them, instead of
paying them in money, they allowed
them to obtain goods in their names at
the leading stores. Almost invariably
these bills exceeded the amount stipulated
for in the contract, but I never
knew one case where the employer
made the negroes work out their debt.
When I would tell them how the accounts
came out, they said: 'Well, captain,
let it go: I'll pay the bills. These
poor fellows do not understand the use
of money yet.'
"But the negroes had the laws of possession,
the rights of freedom and privileges
of slavery in such a hopeless muddle
that no Gordian knot ever required
more patience than an effort to enlighten
them as to their rights and wrongs. The
only limit set to their credit at the stores
was that the purchases were to be confined
to food and clothing. Without
any idea of money or economy, they
were wasteful, and heard with long faces
that the pile of money they confidently
expected was awaiting them had already
been spent. Conversations like the following
occurred many times a day:
"'No money, Mars' Cap'n? Why, ole
mars' he done 'greed to gib me fou' hund'ed
dollars dis year, an' I done worked
faithful, Mars' Cap'n; an' now I ain't to
"'But you have had nearly five hundred
"'Clare to Goodness, Mars' Cap'n, I
ain't had one cent—not one cent.'
"'But you have had it in meal, bacon,
calico and other goods at the store.'
"'But dey allers gives a nigga his food
and clothes, Mars' Cap'n—allers. We
ain't got to pay for dat ar, for sure?'
"'Yes. Now you can earn your own
money you must pay for your own food.'
"'But dey nebber does—nebber! And
dar's only de ole 'ooman an' two picaninnies.
Dey's nebber ate fou' hund'ed
dollars up in a year.'
"'But you have had a suit of clothes,
and there is calico charged to you.'
"'But we ain't got to pay for clothes?
Dey allers 'lows a nigga two suits a year—allers?
"And much argument failed to convince
the poor fellows that food and
clothing were no longer to be had for
nothing, the usual end of the discussion
being, often with great tears rolling down
the black faces, 'An' I was promised fou'
hund'ed dollars! Ole mars' done promised
dat ar, an' I've jes' worked dis whole
year for nuffin'.'
"Their perfectly childlike faith in the
promise of their old masters made their
disappointment more acute than can be
imagined by those who are used to the
close bargains driven with the working
community farther North. 'Ole mars''
represented to them their sole idea of
vast wealth and power, and was usually
"I do not deny the many horrible exceptions,
the shocking cruelties, that blot
the records of slave-life; but I do maintain
that they were exceptions, and that
nine cases out of ten—nay, more than
that proportion—that came under my
personal observation proved that a sincere
love existed between masters and
slaves. In many instances I saw planters
impoverished by the war supporting
old slaves or whole families in absolute
idleness, simply because the poor
creatures, after a short trial of freedom's
vicissitudes, had come back to 'home an'
ole mars',' and he had not the heart to
turn them away.
"One woman, whose circumstances I
knew, came to me for a pass to go North.
"'But, Kate,' I said to her, 'you are
much better off here than you can be at
"'Done got nuffin' here,' she asserted
"'You have that little cabin Mrs. H——
allows you to live in.'
"'Sho' now, Mars' Cap'n, 'course I
"'But at the North you will have no
house unless you can pay for it.'
"'Pay for it! Why, don't they gib
deir niggas a cabin?'
"'No. You may get a room, but you
will have to pay so much a week to be
allowed to live in it. And Mrs. H——
lets you have your food too.'
"'But dey'll gib a nigga her food,
cap'n—nebber make her pay for a
han'fu' of meal an' a lash o' bacon?'
"'You will have to pay for every
mouthful. And it is cold there too,
Kate—very cold at this time of the
year. You will have to buy clothes or
freeze to death.'
"'But dey'll 'low me two suits?'
"'Not unless you pay for them. And
work is not plenty, Kate, for the cities
are crowded with negroes who were discontented
here. Suppose you cannot
get work, you will have no cabin, no
food, no clothes.'"
"Did you convince her?" I asked.
"No. She said to me, 'Guess you's
mistaken 'bout dat ar, Mars' Cap'n.
Dey mus' gib deir niggas a cabin an'
a bite, you know; and dey makes piles
o' money. And sho' now, Mars' Cap'n,
all de free folks is rich—dey mus' be.
Nobody's po' dat's free.'
"You see," he added earnestly, "they
did not know what freedom meant. It
was a gorgeous vision of doing as they
pleased, unlimited riches and idleness.
They could work or not: whether they
starved or not, they had not taken into
consideration. Freedom came upon them
too suddenly, and they had no idea of
"But," I said, "they could form families,
be free to keep their children."
To my surprise, Captain S—— began
to laugh. "Of all the ludicrous scenes I
remember," he said, "none were funnier
than those occasioned by the new ideas
of matrimony. I remember one pretty
pouting mulatto about eighteen who came
with a tall, powerful negro to the office
for a marriage license. They were married
in the church, and some few words
were spoken of the solemnity of the bond
between them. In about two weeks the
bride burst into my office one morning,
followed by her husband. 'Mars'
Cap'n,' she said, 'can't I go home ef I
"'Certainly,' I said.
"'Dar, you nigga!' she said. 'I's
gwine home dis bery day.'
"'But, Mars' Cap'n,' said the man,
'the minister said she was to lib 'long
o' me fur allers.'
"'Oh,' I said, 'she wants to leave
"'Jes' fo' sure I does! I'se gwine
home: I done tired o' bein' married,
I is. I'se gwine back to ole missus.'
"'Does your husband treat you badly?'
"'Nebber, Mars' Cap'n,' said the man
earnestly. 'I done make the fire ebery
mornin', an' cook her a hoecake 'long o'
my own, so dat gal sleep half de day.
An' I done give her two pair earrings.'
"'What do you complain of?' I asked
"'Sho' now, Mars' Cap'n, I ain't a-complainin';
only I done tired o' dat
nigga, an' I'se gwine home.'
"It was wasted talk, I found afterward,
that I spent in trying to convince
her of her duty to her husband. They
left the office together, but the bride disappeared,
and the disconsolate husband
never found her, to my knowledge. One
of the neighbors told me, 'He jes' spiled
dat gal, Mars' Cap'n, a-lettin' her have
her own way all de time. My ole woman
ain't wuff shucks if I don't ware
her out 'bout onct a week.'
"'How do you wear her out?' I asked.
"'Jes' wif a stick, Mars' Cap'n. Women
ain't good for nuffin' 'less you give
'em a good warin' out when they gits
"And I found afterward that this man
beat his wife till she fainted about once a
week. The best of the joke was, that
when I remonstrated with him the woman
told me she 'didn't want no Bureau
'terference with her ole man!'"
"But, Cap," I said, "you cannot defend
the custom of tearing children
from their mothers?"
"No," he said gravely: "it hardened
them. I have been as soft-hearted as
any man over the supposed maternal
anguish of negro women, but I assure
you, old fellow, my own observation
quite cured me. It may be there are
cases, such as we weep over in Uncle
Tom's Cabin, but my own experience
shows not one. I think the custom of
taking children in infancy to put them
in dozens under the care of old negresses
past work may be answerable for the indifference
I have seen manifested by
negro mothers. I have known more
than one case where the love of a colored
nurse for her white charge was
strong as mother-love. I remember
one woman who came to me in a violent
rage to ask if I could not punish
her mistress for striking her own child.
The little fellow had been naughty, and
had been corrected by his mother. 'What
fo' she done slap Mars' Tom?' she asked:
'he ain't done nuffin', po' chile!'
"'Nonsense!' I said. 'The boy was
naughty, and his mother boxed his ears.
Why, Chloe,' I added, 'what do you mean
by complaining? I have seen you take
your own baby by one leg and throw him
across the kitchen, without any regard to
the stoves or kettles he might hit.'
"''Course you has,' she said coolly:
'he's allers under my feet.'
"'But you might strike his head and
"'Well,' was the startling answer,
'he's nuffin' but a nigga.'
"And that was her own child, habitually
treated with neglect and blows by
his mother, while she cried over the
cruelty of slapping the white child she
had nursed. And it was not to curry
favor, but from a sincere belief that the
one child should be caressed and loved,
while the other must expect knocks and
blows, being 'nuffin' but a nigga.'
"One old crone told me, 'I've done
had sixteen picaninnies, Mars' Cap'n,
but I nebber seed none o' dem after dey
was 'bout six weeks old. Dey was in de
nussery, an' I was a rale smart cotton-picker,
and couldn't be spar'd to nuss
"'But were you not allowed to see your
own children?' I asked, as much shocked
as you would be.
"''Lowed! 'Course I was 'lowed ef I
wanted to bother 'bout 'em. But Law's
sakes! dey was all mixed up 'long o' de
others, an' I wa'n't goin' fussin' 'bout
some oder woman's baby, likely 'nuff.'
"Many such instances convinced me
speedily that—whether from want of natural
affection or from their having been
educated to indifference I do not pretend
to say—negro mothers in Mississippi had
certainly no violent affection for their
"But the most shocking case that came
under my immediate notice was that
of a woman seeking employment. She
came to my office with two handsome
boys, all three being bright mulattoes.
The little fellows were about three and
five years of age, with large brown eyes
and pretty faces, full of fun and vivacity.
The mother was a tall, fine-looking woman
of twenty-two or -three, and claimed
to be a good cook. I had one place
in my mind, and sent her there, as a
friend had mentioned to me that he
wanted a cook, and if one came for
employment would like to have her
sent to him.
"Unfortunately, he objected to the
children, but, thinking the mother could
board them out, told her to 'get rid of
the children' and he would employ her.
"The next day he came to me with a
face of horror. 'Captain,' he said, 'the
cook you sent me has murdered both
"'Murdered them?' I cried.
"'Yes. She is in the office, and you
will have to see her, I suppose. It is
"I found the woman waiting my coming
with a face of perfect composure.
"'Hannah,' I said, after I had heard
the accusation of the people in the house
where the crime was committed, 'what
have you to say?'
"'Nuffin', Mars' Cap'n. Mars' T——
done sed I mus' git rid o' de picaninnies;
and dey was bothersome, anyway—allers
eatin', 'deed dey was, Mars'
Cap'n'—this very earnestly, as if to defend
herself—' allers a-hollerin' for suffin'
"'But, Hannah, Mr. T—— wanted
you to leave them with some of the
women to board.'
"'Nebber sed so. Jes' sed—'deed he
did—"You get rid o' dem chillens an'
come here to cook." So I jes' waited
till dey was asleep, an' cut deir throats.
Dey nebber screeched.'
"I was sick with horror, but through
the whole of the examination the woman
showed no sign of emotion, though we
all went to the house where the two pretty
babies lay, stone dead."
"What became of her?" I asked.
"I have forgotten. I sent her to Vicksburg,
as the case was too grave for my
decision. I should not have held her
accountable, as she was evidently under
the impression that absolute obedience
was the law for her race.
"It was odd," he continued, "but after
that tragedy there came a farce in true
dramatic order. My office was hardly
cleared of the parties concerned in this
dreadful murder when I was attracted to
the window by the most horrible yelping
and squealing, and saw two negroes,
black as coals, barefooted, bareheaded
and ragged, one leading a dog, one
trying to drag two pigs into the yard
attached to my quarters. Seeing me,
one of them made a bow. 'Sarvent,
Mars' Cap'n,' he said.
"'What do you want?' I asked. 'Tie
those pigs up before you come in,' for he
was dragging them up the steps.
"'Likely shoats, ain't dey?' said the
other eagerly. 'We jes' come down
'bout dem ar shoats, Mars' Cap'n.'
"'An' dat ar dog,' broke in the other.
"Here the dog made a dash at the
pigs, and in trying to escape the latter
ran between the legs of the men, upsetting
one. Such a hubbub of squealing
pigs, barking dog, laughing and
swearing men as ensued beggars description.
When there was some order
restored, the pigs and dog tied up in the
yard, the biggest of the darkeys, scraping
his best bow, said, 'We jes' come, Mars'
Cap'n, 'bout a little complexity 'long o'
dat ar dog and dem two shoats.'
"'No 'plexity it all, cap'n,' said the
other.—'Jes' you keep to facks, you Hannibal.—You
see, Mars' Cap'n, dat ar nigga
he had de dog: jes' a good-for-nuffin'
mongrel, he is, fo' sure now.'
"'Rale likely dog, Mars' Cap'n,' broke
in the other. 'Dat ar dog'll twist a pig
off'n his legs onto his back quicker'n
winkin'—'deed will he.'
"I had been long enough in G—— to
appreciate this speech, having seen droves
of pigs in gardens or vegetable-patches
routed by dogs. A monstrous pig would
roll over perfectly helpless after a dexterous
twist of a small dog holding the hind
leg of the heavy animal between his
teeth. I do not know how they are
trained, but it is far more mirth-provoking
than any circus to see two or
three little yelping dogs rout some fifty
great pigs in this way.
'"Ain't wuff two shoats,' growled the
"'Wuff twenty-'leven racks o' bones
like dem ar.'
"'Stop!' I said.—'You speak, Hannibal,
and you wait till your turn,' I added
to the other man.
"'You see, Mars' Cap'n,' said Hannibal,
'Bill he wanted dat ar dog o' mine
powerful bad—'deed you did, you nigga!—an'
he done swopped off two missable
weak ole shoats on me for dat dog. Well,
Mars' Cap'n, I done fed up dem shoats
fo' free or fou' months; an', now dey's likely
pigs an' a-makin' bacon, Bill he wants
to swop back, he does.'
"'You see, Mars' Cap'n,' broke in the
other, 'dat ar dog was to be a huntin'-dog,
he was. Wish ter gracious you'd
jes' see him hunt! Stan' an' bark an'
yelp till dar ain't a quail in ten miles,
he will, an' splash inter de ribber till
he'll scare ebery duck fo' seven miles.'
"And then they went at it, abusing
and defending the dog, till we heard a
great scuffling, and saw the pigs had
broken loose and were tearing down the
street, followed by the dog, every nigger
in sight, and, bringing up the rear, Hannibal
and Bill, who never returned. How
they settled their dispute I never heard."
"One! two!" chimed the mantel-clock,
and we parted for the night, while I lay
awake a long time musing upon the "Sambo"
of my imagination and the "Sambo"
of the experiences of Captain S——.