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The Washed Window

May 2024
12min read

For the young ex-slave a Vermont schoolteacher opened the door to civilization

Older people in Arlington, Vermont, have a special interest in the last house you pass as you leave our village to drive to Cambridge. It was built and lived in for many years by our first, local skilled cabinetmaker. In the early days nearly every house had one or a few good pieces of professionally made furniture, brought up from Connecticut on horseback or in an oxcart. These were highly treasured. But the furniture made here was, for the first generation after 1764, put together by men who just wanted chairs, beds, and a table for the family meals—and those as fast as they could be slammed into shape.

For many years Silas Knapp lived in that last house practicing his remarkable skill. Nearly every house of our town acquired in those years one or two pieces of his workmanship. They are now highly prized as “early Nineteenth-Century locally made antiques.”

He not only made many a fine chest of drawers and bedside stand there; he also brought up a fine family of children. You may never have noticed this house as you drove by, but once, some twenty or thirty years ago, a great American leader, who chanced to pass through Vermont, asked to be shown the old Knapp home. He had been delivering an important address to a large audience in Rutland. When he stood in front of the low old house he took oft his hat and bowed his gray head in silence. Then he explained to the person who had driven him down to Arlington, “For me it is a shrine.”

This is the story behind that visit and of why it was to him a shrine. It goes back to the exciting, heartshaking years of the Civil War. When that terrible passage in our history ended, it left in the South thousands and thousands of newly emancipated Negroes, free, but dishearteningly ignorant—ignorant not only of their letters but of the simplest ways of civilized life. In prewar days in the South, it had been a grave legal offense, punishable with heavy social and legal penalties, to help a Negro to literacy. Naturally, the white people of the South could not at once shift gears into the opposite attitude. Many of the first schools were taught by northern girls, keyed up to the crusader tensity of purpose by the four years of war.

Among these was young Viola Knapp, the schoolteacher daughter of the cabinetmaker who lived in that small house which we Arlington people pass every time we go to see a “down-the-river” friend. To the accompaniment of great anxiety, and great pride in her courage from her Arlington family and neighbors, she made the difficult trip from Arlington down South to one of the newly established schools for illiterate Negroes—they were all illiterate.

When she arrived at the rough, improvised little school, not nearly as well built or well equipped as the little district schools on our back roads, Viola Knapp found that she was regarded as a social outcast by all the white people in town. No one spoke to her, no one even looked at her. She had great difficulty in finding a place to live, and finally moved herself into a tumble-down, two-room, abandoned poor-white frame house close to the new school.

The ostracism was as complete as human imagination could make it. Her existence was ignored with great ingenuity. If she walked down one side of the street, any white person who happened to be on that side silently and instantly crossed over and walked on the other side, ft she went into a shop to buy something, every white person present turned at once and went out, leaving her alone with the clerk, who served her without speaking or looking at her.

One would have thought that a blooming young woman in her twenties away from a good home for the first time would have suffered a good deal from this. So she might, except that she was from Vermont, and wasn’t too much cast down, even by disapproval from others, if she herself felt sure she was doing the right thing. I won’t say that she did not also find considerable satisfaction (she was human) in undergoing some martyrdom for a cause she considered good.

But evidently, from what followed, what most helped her ignore the disagreeable parts of her experience was her liking for another northern white person who was being ignored and ostracised in the same way. This was young Lieutenant Ruffner of the U.S. Army, stationed there to care for the military cemetery where Federal soldiers, killed in a battle near the town, were buried.

It did not take the two lively young outlasts long to make each other’s acquaintance, and the acquaintance soon became an engagement. After a while, a suitable while, they were married. It turned out a very happy, lifelong mating. As time went on, the young lieutenant rose in the Army, became a major, became a general. The Ruffners lived in many cities, towns and army posts, bringing up a fine crop of children who also turned out well.

Our Vermont Viola had a much more colorful and wide-horizoned life than she would have had if she had not gone a-crusading. Many years later, after his wile’s death, Major Ruffner (f never understood why we always called him Major) used to come every once in a while to Arlington to see the people who had known his wife in her girlhood. He was quite an old man then, and glad to talk about his past to any younger generationer who would listen. I’ve heard him, many’s the time, tell the story I’m setting down here.

But I have also heard it from the lips of the distinguished American educator who, as a boy, had been a student of Viola Knapp Ruffner. He became one of my father’s valued friends in later years. This is about as he used to tell it to us, with many more details than I ever saw it given in print.

“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.

“You must remember that I never had done any work except perfectly rough, unskilled heavy labor. I had never cleaned a room in my life, I had never seen a dean room in my life. But I was used to doing as I was told and dead set on managing to go ahead with learning more than I would in that poor beginners’ schoolroom. So I began taking out things which anybody could see were trash, like mildewed rags, which fell apart into damp shreds the minute I touched them. There were, also, I remember, some mouldy heaps of I don’t know what, garbage maybe, that had dried into shapeless chunks of bad-smelling filth. In one corner was the carcass of a long-dead dog, which I carried out to the pile of trash in the side yard. Glass was everywhere, broken and unbroken empty whiskey bottles, bits of crockery ware. These I swept with the broom and picking up my sweepings in my hands (I had no idea what a dustpan was for) carried them outside.

“The shed looked to me so much better that I went in to find Mrs. Ruffner. She was still writing. I told her, ‘I cleaned it.’ Pushing back her chair she went out to the woodshed with me.

“She made no comment when she first opened the door and looked around her with clear gray eyes. Then she remarked quietly, ‘There’s still some things to attend to. Those pieces of wood over there you might pile up against the wall in the corner. They would do to burn. Be sure to dean the floor well before you start piling the wood on it. And here’s another pile of rotten rags, you see. And that tangle behind the door. You’d better pull it all apart and see what’s there. Throw away the trash that’s mixed with it.’ She turned to go back, saying, ‘Just keep on till you’ve got it finished and then come and tell me.’

“She didn’t speak kindly. She didn’t speak unkindly. I looked at the woodshed with new eyes and saw that, sure enough, I’d only made a beginning. I began to pull at the odds and ends in that dusty mess behind the door. And to my astonishment I saw I was perspiring.

“The work wasn’t hard for me, you understand. It was like little boy’s play compared to the back-breaking labor I had always done. And it wasn’t that I minded carrying around in my bare hands things slimy with rot nor having liquid filth drip on my ragged pants. I was used to dirt, and my hands were as” calloused as my feet. I couldn’t feel much with them. What made me sweat was the work I had to do with my mind.

“Always before, when somebody had given me a piece of work to do, he had stood right there to do all the thinking. ‘Pull that piece of sacking out. That stick, put it on top of the woodpile. Those dried chicken bones, scrape them up from the dirt and throw them in the trash pile.’ All I had to do was to plod along, doing what I was told.

“I was determined to do it right this time. Now that I was really thinking about what I was doing, I was amazed to see how little I had done, how much more there was to do than I had seen.

“I stooped to pull apart the grimy, mud-colored tangle heaped up back of the door. As I stirred it, a snake crawled out from under it and wriggled towards the door. A big fellow. I wasn’t surprised. I was used to snakes. I dropped a stone on his head and carried his long, black body out to the trash pile in the yard.

“Now I had come to a corner where chickens had evidently roosted. Everything was covered with their droppings, like smearings of white paint. I thought nothing of handling them, and taking up the body of one I found lying stiff and dead in the midst of the rubbish. More rotted rags, a stained, torn pair of pants, too far gone even for me to wear, still smelling foul. Some pieces of wood, not rotten, fit for fuel. Everything I came to, had first to be pulled loose from the things it was mixed up with, and enough of the dirt shaken off to let me make out what it was. And thus I had to think what to do with it. No wonder that the sweat ran down my face so that, to see, I had to wipe my eyes with the back of my hands.

“Finally, the last of the refuse was taken apart and cleared away and the litter and filth which had dropped from it to the floor as I worked was swept together and carried out to the trash pile. I kept looking over my shoulder for somebody to make the decisions, to tell me what to do. ‘Throw that away. Save that. Put it with the firewood. Toss that into the barrel with the broken glass.’ But there was nobody there to give me orders. I went in to get Mrs. Ruffner. ‘I got it done’ I told her.

“Laying down her pen, she came again to see. I felt nervous as, silent and attentive, she ran those clear eyes of hers over what I had been doing. But I wasn’t at all prepared to have her say again, ‘That’s better, but there’s a great deal still to do. You haven’t touched the cobwebs, I see.’

“I looked up at them, my lower jaw dropped in astonishment. Sure enough, there they hung in long, black festoons. I had not once lifted my head to see them. ‘And how about washing the window? Here, step in here and get a pail of water for that. Here are some clean rags. You’ll have to go over it several times.’

“She went back into the house and I stood shaken by more new ideas than I could tell you. I hadn’t even noticed there was a window, it was so thick with dust and cobwebs. I had never had anything to do with a glass window. In the dark cabins I had lived in, the windows were just holes cut in the walls.

I set to work once more, the sweat running down my I face. Suppose she wouldn’t even let me try to do her work. I never could get into Hampton. What if I just never could get the hang of her ways? Stricken, scared, I began again to clean that woodshed! I went over and over every corner of it. Once in a while I stopped stock-still to look at it, as I had never looked at anything before, trying really to see it. I don’t know that I ever in my life afterwards cared about doing anything right as much as getting that little old woodshed clean.

“When I came to what I thought was the end, I stopped to get my breath. I looked up at the slanting roof. The rafters were not only cleared of cobwebs but bare of dust; the floor was swept clean, not a chip, not a thread, not a glint of broken glass on it. Piles of firewood against the walls. And the window! I had washed that window! Five times I had washed it. How it sparkled. How the strong sunshine poured through it. The woodshed was no rubbish pile. It was a room. To me it looked like a parlor. I was proud of it. I had never been proud of anything I had done until then.

“Then for the third time I went to call Mrs. Ruffner to inspect. Big boy as I was, twice her size, my hands were shaking, my lips twitching. I felt sick. Had I done it right this time? Could I ever do anything right?

“I watched her face as she passed my work in review, looking carefully up, down, and around. Then she turned to me and, looking straight into my eyes, she nodded and said, ‘Now it’s clean. Nobody could have done it any better.’

“She had opened the door through which I took my first step towards civilized standards of living.”

His name was Booker Washington.

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