A self-taught young slave astonishes his fellow prisoners by reading aloud the newspaper account of Lincoln’s new emancipation proclamation. Based on actual events.
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Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation
By Pat Sherman
Eerdmans Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2010 Pat Sherman
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Excuse me, sir." Ben tugged on the sleeve of a passing gentleman. "Does that say Broad Street?" He pointed to the wooden sign on the corner.
"Yes." The man pulled away impatiently.
"And that other one, please. That's King Street, right?"
Ben studied the signs, trying to remember the letters. Broad. B-R-O-A-D. King. K-I ...
"Boy?" The man had turned to stare at him. "Shouldn't you be getting along?"
"Yes, sir." Ben threw his carrying sack over his shoulder and hurried away. Don't let them know you can read. That's what his father had told him. Slaves weren't allowed to read.
Ben's father had known how to read a little—just enough to teach Ben the alphabet. But then his father had been sold and now no one knew where he was. Ben's mother had wanted him to keep learning, but she couldn't read, and Ben was so busy helping in the kitchen. He had no time for alphabet letters.
A few months ago, though, the master had apprenticed him to Mr. Bleeker, a tailor in Charleston. Ben was still a slave, but he could learn a trade and live in the city.
Learning the tailor trade wasn't easy. Mr. Bleeker was always barking orders. Not just "Dust the shelves!" or "Sweep the floor!" but "Get me the extra-fine silk thread!" or "Where did I put my ledger again?" Ben wondered how Mr. Bleeker had ever found anything before he came along. Ben spent so much time searching and fetching, he felt dizzy by the end of the day.
Then he discovered something wonderful. There were all kinds of secret ways to learn how to read. Almost without thinking, Ben had begun to recognize the names Mr. Bleeker wrote in the ledger. Ben could even tell what was inside the boxes on the shelves by the words on the outside.
"I don't know what it is about Ben," he heard Mr. Bleeker boast to a customer. "He just seems to know so much."
Now Mr. Bleeker was sending Ben on errands all over the city.
M-A-R-K-E-T. He turned onto Market Street. He loved walking around Charleston now. There were words everywhere, on the sides of wagons and in store windows: Ice and Coal, Fresh Eggs and Cream, Hats and Gloves, China Teas.
S-T-A-T-I-O-N-E-R-Y. He studied the window. The stationery store sold paper, ink, and pens of all sorts.
Simon's Dry Goods Store, his next stop, was always busy. Ben studied the words on the shelves and barrels while he waited in line.
When his turn came, he handed Mrs. Bleeker's list to the girl behind the counter. Ben watched as she took things from the shelves.
"Uh, excuse me," Ben said pointing to the soap. "Mrs. Bleeker wants Pear's Soap, not Pearl's."
"That's Pear's." The girl slapped the box down hard.
"I mean, she said the kind that comes in the yellow box, not the blue one," Ben added quickly.
The clerk replaced the soap. Her face was sour.
"Well, you tell Miz Bleeker Pearl's Soap is as good as Pear's any day. See?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Ben piled everything into his sack, making sure it was all there. Mrs. Bleeker trusted him. Nothing was ever missing from her list.
Outside the store, Ben spied a copy of the Charleston Mercury that someone had tossed into the gutter. He snatched up the newspaper, glad to see that it wasn't too torn and dirty. He began to fold it into a hat as he walked along. Lots of boys and men, white and black, wore paper hats to keep off the sun. No one would wonder why he had a newspaper as long as he kept it on his head.
Before Ben got back to the tailor shop, he stopped beneath a big beech tree. The dense, low branches hid him from prying eyes as he unfolded the newspaper and spread it on the ground. He began searching for the names and words he had heard people talking about. Henry Clay ... Daniel Webster ... Abolition. A-B-O-L-I-T-I-O-N. Ben spelled it out. That word meant the end of slavery. Emancipation. E-M-A-N-C-I-P-A-T-I-O-N. That meant freedom. The Charleston Mercury didn't like those two words at all.
It was getting late. Ben rolled up the rest of the paper and stuffed it into his shirt.
After Ben had worked as an apprentice for a year, Mr. Bleeker gave him permission to visit his mother. He was allowed to spend a Sunday on the plantation, as long as he was back before sunset.
Ben was so excited he couldn't sleep. He got dressed in the dark, tucked a copy of the Mercury inside his shirt, and started the twelve-mile hike well before sunrise. If he hurried, Ben figured he'd be there by breakfast. The road wound past the tobacco fields where the field hands were already out working. No Sunday rest for them.
Word that Ben was coming got to the house before he did. His mother was waiting for him at the door. And everybody on the plantation who had family in Charleston wanted to see Ben. All morning, they asked him questions about their families and gave him messages to take back.
Finally, Ben and his mother had some time alone. First, Ben read her a passage from an old, worn Bible she had hidden in her room. Then he read her the newspaper, every word. She made him repeat the name "Abraham Lincoln" twice. "That's the new fellow that's running the country," Ben explained.
"I know," she said quietly. Ben noticed the tiredness in her voice. She had taken extra jobs, she told him, mending and sewing for ladies on nearby plantations, often working late into the night after her own chores were done. Slaves could earn extra money that way, penny by penny.
She reached into her apron pocket and took out a gold coin. She held it up. "This is a dollar." Ben had never seen a gold dollar before, not even in the tailor shop.
"When you learn to write, it will be yours," she said.
Ben began to study harder than ever. He wouldn't disappoint his mother.
When he swept the shop in the early morning, Ben wrote letters with his finger in the dust. When he washed the windows, he wrote letters with soap and quickly wiped them clean. He saved every scrap of paper Mr. Bleeker threw out and filled an empty ink well with water to make a pale ink. Then he whittled a twig to a sharp point and began to make letters on the back of the used paper.
The one thing he couldn't do was keep his reading and writing a secret from the other slaves. Word got around.
When he made deliveries, people pulled him into the kitchen or the little back rooms where they slept. "Teach us," they whispered.
"Teach me." The little girl scrubbing the steps asked him to write her name in water on the stones.
"Teach me." The boy shoveling coal wanted to write his name with soot.
"Teach me." Every place he went.
At Christmas, Ben's mother gave him the gold coin.
He never saw his mother again.
In the spring, war broke out between the states, and you didn't need a newspaper to know it. Overnight, the streets filled with soldiers in gray uniforms. A dozen times a day someone would stop Ben to ask where he was going. Over and over he repeated that he was Mr. Bleeker's boy, Ben, just running errands. He kept his eyes down. He didn't look at signs anymore.
But he still picked up a newspaper every chance he got.
As the Union Army pushed closer to the city, white people began to flee. The Bleekers boarded up their tailor shop. They had to go, Mr. Bleeker said. He was sorry they couldn't take Ben with them.
Weeks went by. No one knew what was going to happen. Some men insisted they were all going to be sold inland. Others claimed there was a whole regiment of black soldiers fighting for the Union up at Fort Wagner. They said they'd join up the minute they got the chance to run away.
Somebody even said that Lincoln had issued a Proclamation of Emancipation &mdsah; that he had freed the slaves. Could Lincoln really do that? everyone asked.
Even though Ben wanted a newspaper more than anything, he kept quiet. He would just forget about reading. It could only lead to trouble.
One night someone jostled him awake. A voice whispered that the men had pooled all their bits of chewing tobacco together and bribed one of the guards for the latest copy of the Mercury.
They lit a torch so he could see. Ben squinted at the paper.
"Go on," someone murmured. "Read it. We all know you can read."
"Read." Voices rose from the darkness. "Read!"
"The Message of Abraham Lincoln is to be found in this journal this morning ..." Ben read softly.
"Louder," someone called out. "Stand up."
Slowly Ben stood up. Every man in the prison was awake, every face turned towards him. He drew a deep breath.
"On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three ..." His voice became stronger and clearer. "All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...."
Excerpted from Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation by Pat Sherman Copyright © 2010 by Pat Sherman. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Pat Sherman works as a writer, library professional, andwriting instructor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Herprevious books include The Sun's Daughter,illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Clarion), and severalnonfiction books for young people on historical subjectsranging from colonial America to the present day.
Floyd Cooper has won many prestigious awards for hisillustration, including the 2009 Coretta Scott KingIllustrator Award for The Blacker the Berry,written by Joyce Carol Thomas (Amistad), plus threeprevious Coretta Scott King Honors, a Da Vinci Award, andan NAACP Image Honor. Among the more than eighty books hehas illustrated are Mississippi Morning by RuthVander Zee (Eerdmans) and Meet Danitra Brown byNikki Grimes (HarperCollins). Floyd lives in Pennsylvania.Visit his website at www.floydcooper.com.
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