- Historic Sites
Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
But John could not shield his brother from everything. The year when the shirt became obligatory was also the year of two dramatic events that hastened growing up in a hard world. In April of 1861, when Booker was five, the war began, and in July his master died. The beginning of the four fighting years was exciting: to the whites because it was adventurous and because they could not conceive of losing, to the Negroes because they hoped that if their masters did lose they would be free. The whole neighborhood was present at the first muster of the Franklin Rangers, the proud Company D of the Second Regiment of Virginia Cavalry. Young Frank and Billie Burroughs were in that group which gathered with its horses—most men had two—in the field at Taylor’s Store. Frank and Billie were the only two of the six Burroughs boys to die in the war.
Their father died first, of “lung fever,” and was buried on the plantation, beside the road leading down to the house. To a little slave boy this was a much more serious event than the beginning of the war. It was part of a good owner’s articles of faith that slaves should not be sold and families broken up except in cases of absolute necessity; but the death of a master was always a time for financial stocktaking. The Burroughs slaves were at once the most valuable and the most negotiable part of the estate. Altogether they were worth $5,500 out of the property’s total value of about $10,000.
The will was not probated until November, and during that summer Booker certainly learned that there was a chance he could be sold away from his mother. His master’s will provided that he was now the property of his mistress, Elizabeth Robertson Burroughs. But if she should die—or marry again—the property should be divided among the fourteen Burroughs children. All the Burroughs slaves knew about the neighborhood bogeyman, “Tradin’ Tom” Dudley, who lived only a few miles away in a big house with an auction block right in his front yard. And they knew of the master’s son Tom Burroughs, who also traded in slaves. The rumor was that he had a pot of gold buried down in Georgia; Booker heard the slaves singing a song in the Quarters:
But Elizabeth Burroughs was not going to die—or marry again. She stayed on, and she needed all the slaves to keep the place running. Her five eldest children had married and left home years before, Frank and Billie were off with the Rangers, and only sixteen-year-old Newton was at home with his six sisters. The three elder Burroughs girls were above the old-maid line of twenty-five. And young Eliza, Laura, and little Ellen America were, according to a candid relative, not very pretty, “but better people never lived.”
In Up From Slavery , Washington makes very few judgments about his owners. The only member of his master’s family whom he mentions in the brief, generally nameless account of his owners was young Master Billie, who, before his enlistment, often interceded to save the slaves from being whipped. But Washington corresponded with Laura in later years and asked her down to Tuskegee to see his school. Miss Laura herself had taught school near Halesford, and one of little Booker’s chores had been to ride bareback behind her to the schoolhouse, hold the horse while she dismounted, and then take the horse back to the farm, where it was needed for work during the day. At no time did he himself enter the schoolhouse. When he looked in and saw the white children studying the books that were denied to him, he felt that to walk in that door would be “the same as getting into paradise.”
As he grew older he took other trips behind Laura’s sisters, and the plantation, which had seemed “about as near to nowhere as any locality gets to be,” became fixed between certain points. He found out that when you turned right at the gate, the post office of Halesford was about two miles down the pike near the Staunton River. Over the river in Bedford County was the big tobacco market town of Lynchburg. When you turned left toward the post office of Taylor’s Store, three miles along, you could go right on to Rocky Mount, the county seat. From there a stagecoach ran over the mountain to Big Lick (later the city of Roanoke). But Booker could go to none of these places without one of his mistresses or a pass from his owners.
There was a group of neighborhood men called the Patrol—in the Quarters they were known as “paterollers”—night riders who looked for slaves absent from their plantations without passes. The patrollers also searched the neighborhood Quarters for arms, and broke up any gathering of Negroes.