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Sambo: A Man and A Brother by S. A. Sheilds


"But," I said eagerly, "you do not deny that slavery was a curse to the country—to Southerners most of all?"

"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."

"How better?"

"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 experiences."

"You relieved G——of the —th regiment?" I said.

"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 light."

"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 have nuffin'!'

"'But you have had nearly five hundred dollars.'

"'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 almost worshipped.

"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 the North.'

"'Done got nuffin' here,' she asserted positively.

"'You have that little cabin Mrs. H—— allows you to live in.'

"'Sho' now, Mars' Cap'n, 'course I has.'

"'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 personal responsibility."

"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 choose?'

"'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 you?'

"'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?' I asked.

"'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 the bride.

"'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 sarsy.'

"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 kill him.'

"'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 chillen, nohow.'

"'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 own offspring.

"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 her children!'

"'Murdered them?' I cried.

"'Yes. She is in the office, and you will have to see her, I suppose. It is awful!'

"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' to eat.'

"'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 other darkey.

"'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——.