Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.

PrintPrintEmailEmail

One night every week Booker found himself away from the plantation, alone and frightened. The war had brought heavier tasks to the few at home, and one of these was almost more than Washington could manage. He took corn to be ground at Teel’s mill, on Indian Run, about three miles from the plantation. The heavy sack of corn on the horse’s back was evenly divided on each side when he started out, but when he got on the back-country road that led off the pike there were gullies in the red clay, and steep grades. Inevitably the corn shifted and the sack fell off, carrying the small rider with it as he tried to hold it back. The only thing to do then was to wait for someone to come along who could help lift the sack. On the lonely road this could be hours. It was often after dark when the corn was ground, and the ride back was full of terror. Rustles in the trees could be wolves or wildcats or even army deserters, who were said to cut off the ears of little colored boys. And lateness meant being whipped.

At home his easiest job was in the Big House dining room, where he kept flies off the table at meals by working a large set of paper fans, operated by a pulley. It was here that he picked up most of his knowledge about the white world. As the paper whispered and slapped together and the voices of the family rose above the clatter of crockery, Booker absorbed conversation with a curiosity and retentiveness that they could not have guessed.

They talked mostly about the war, for their involvement was complete. All six of the sons had enlisted, and the household was constantly stirring with news of them; their goings and comings on furlough or sick leave, their wounds—and their deaths. From the time the war began the Burroughs slaves, for all their secret wish that their master’s enemies would win the war, could not help sharing in the family’s griefs. When young Master Billie died in the spring of 1863 there was sorrow in the Quarters that Booker remembered as “only second to that in the ‘Big House’… it was no sham sorrow, but real.” Frank’s death was particularly poignant because he had re-enlisted after being given a medical discharge by the Surgeon General. He died aboard a hospital ship on his way home.

In Up From Slavery Washington made a specific point of the fact that the slaves were just as eager to help take care of their wounded young masters as the white relatives. Nursing young Newton must have given everybody one of the war’s few light moments. His record soberly stated that he had been wounded “in the right thigh.” The family language was simpler: “Uncle Newt got shot in the rump, and he was teased a lot for it. People said he must have been running away and he said, ‘well, if you had bullets whizzing all around you, you’d run too.’”

When Newton had left, it meant that there were, for the first time, no white males regularly on the plantation. Washington said in his book what he frequently stressed later in speeches to white southerners: that the behavior of the vast majority of slaves during the war had proved that the Negro should be considered worthy of “a specific trust.… The slave who was selected to sleep in the ‘big house’ during the absence of the males was considered to have the place of honor. Anyone attempting to harm ‘young mistress’ or ‘old mistress’ during the night would have had to cross the dead body of the slave to do so.”

But with all their personal loyalty, the slaves kept listening for news of northern victories, and in Up From Slavery Washington reported that they knew the outcome of every battle. There were a good many poetic ideas about the Negro grapevine—that in some way this child of nature was able to pluck happenings out of the air in an extrasensory manner denied the white man. As Stephen Vincent Benêt says in John Brown’s Body:

The wind from the brier patch brought him news That never went walking in white men’s shoes.

Washington gave a simpler explanation: that the slave who went for the mail hung around and listened to the talk at the post office, then told the latest news to other slaves whom he met on the road. He did not mention that on the Burroughs plantation he was sometimes the slave who went for the mail. Nor did he disclose that in the Halesford neighborhood there was another explanation for the mysterious slave grapevine.

Only a mile from Taylor’s Store lived a planter called Ol’ Menas, who owned twenty-nine slaves. One of them could read. The girl who cleaned the master’s room in the morning would sneak out the latest newspaper and return it after it had been read. It would be carefully folded or crumpled as it had been before—but the news in it was already on its way.

In the early months of 1865 every day brought “its news and mutterings of great events.” The deserters came out of the woods and walked the main road openly along with whole regiments of discharged soldiers. In the Quarters the singing was louder: