The Washed Window


“I never knew exactly how old I was when I first saw Mrs. Ruffner, for in the days of slavery, family records—that is, black family records—were seldom kept. But from what I have been able to learn, I was born, a slave, on a Virginia plantation, about 1858. My home had been a log cabin with a dirt floor about fourteen by sixteen feet square. We slept on frowsy piles of filthy rags, laid on the dirt floor. Until I was quite a big youth I wore only one garment, a shirt made out of agonizingly rough refuse flax.

“We slaves ate corn bread and pork, because that could be grown on the plantation without cash expense. I had never seen anything except the slave quarters on the plantation where I was born, with a few glimpses of the ‘big house’ where our white owners lived. I cannot remember ever, during my childhood and youth, not one single time, when our family sat down together at a table to eat a meal as human families do. We ate as animals do, whenever and wherever an edible morsel was found. We usually took our food up in our fingers, sometimes from the skillet, sometimes from a tin plate held on our knees, and as we chewed on it held it as best we could in our hands.

“Life outside our cabin was as slovenly and disordered as inside. The white owners made no effort to keep things up. They really could not. Slaves worked; hence any form of work was too low for white people to do. Since white folks did no work, they did not know how work should be done. The untaught slaves, wholly ignorant of better standards, seldom got around to mending the fences, or putting back a lost hinge on a sagging gate or door. Weeds grew wild everywhere, even in the yard. Inside the big house, when a piece of plastering fell from a wall or ceiling, it was a long time before anybody could stir himself to get it replastered.

“After the end of the Civil War, when we were no longer slaves, my family moved to a settlement near a salt mine, where, although I was still only a child, I was employed—often beginning my day’s work at four in the morning. We lived in even more dreadful squalor there, for our poor rickety cabin was in a crowded slum, foul with unspeakable dirt—literal and moral. As soon as I grew a little older and stronger, I was shifted from working in the salt mine to a coal mine. Both mines were then owned by General Lewis Ruffner.

“By that time I had learned my letters and could alter a fashion read. Mostly I taught myself but with some irregular hours spent in a Negro night school, after an exhausting day’s work in the mines. There were no public schools for ex-slaves; the poor, totally unequipped, bare room where colored people young and old crowded in to learn their letters was paid for by tiny contributions from the Negroes themselves.

“About that time I heard two pieces of news which were like very distant, very faint glimmers in the blackness of the coal mine in which nearly all my working hours were spent. One was about a school for colored students—Hampton Institute it was—where they could learn more than their letters. The other was that the wife of General Ruffner was from Vermont, that before her marriage she had been a teacher in one of the first schools for Negroes, and that she took an interest in the education of the colored people who worked for her.

“I also heard that she was so ‘strict’ that nobody could suit her, and that the colored boys who entered her service were so afraid of her and found her so impossible to please that they never stayed long. Rut the pay was five dollars a month, and keep. That was better than the coal mine—and then there was that chance that she might be willing to have me go on learning. I got up my courage to try. What could be worse than the way I was living and the hopelessness of anything better in the future?

“But I can just tell you that—great, lumbering, muscle-bound coal-mining boy that I was—I was trembling when I went to ask for that work. The Ruffners had just moved into an old house that had been empty for some time and they were not yet established, their furniture not unpacked, the outbuildings not repaired. When f first saw her Mrs. Ruffner was writing on an improvised desk which was a plank laid across two kegs.

“I falteringly told her I had come to ask for work. She turned in her chair and looked at me silently. Nobody had ever looked at me like that, not at my rags and dirt but as if she wanted to see what kind of person I was. She had clear, steady gray eyes, I remember. Then she said, ‘You can try.’ After reflection she went on, ‘You might as well start in by cleaning the woodshed. It looks as though it hadn’t been touched for years.’

“She laid down her pen and took me through a narrow side passage out into the woodshed. It was dark and cluttered with all kinds of dirty, dusty things. A sour, mouldy smell came up from them. Great cobwebs hung down from the rough rafters of the low, sloping roof. Stepping back for a moment, she brought out a dustpan and a broom. A shovel leaned against the woodshed wall. She put that in my hand and said, ‘Now go ahead. Put the trash you clean out on that pile in the yard and we’ll burn it up later. Anything that won’t burn, like broken glass, put into that barrel.’ Then she turned away and left me.