Read an Excerpt
God's Own Time
In the late 1860s, students excavating the grounds of a Nashville freedmen's school called Fisk University made a gruesome discovery. Digging just beneath the surface of the earth, they came upon heaps of chains and manacles from Porter's Slave Yard, where, up to the time of Yankee occupation, enslaved men, women, and children had been bought and sold. They did not let these rusted relics of their bondage lie buried. They gathered them together instead and sold them for scrap iron and, with the proceeds, bought Bibles and spellers, turning the instruments of their enslavement into the agencies of their liberation.
The Jubilee Singers would use the same alchemy to champion the freedmen and rescue their school from oblivion. Impoverished, bedraggled, half starved, they took the secret, sacred hymns of their bondage and not only "sang up the walls of a great university" but taught the nation and the world an enduring lesson about the dignity and educability of black Americans.
The matriarch of the Jubilees was a frail, tenacious former slave named Samuella Sheppard. She was quintessentially American: her ancestors were Indian, African, and white. Her maternal great-grandmother, Rosa, was the free, full-blooded daughter of a Cherokee chief, But in order to remain with her enslaved African husband, himself the son of a chief, she lived as a slave of the Donelsons, one of the founding families of Nashville and the inlaws of General Andrew Jackson. Whenever theDonelsons gave her trouble, Rosa would return to her tribe, threatening vengeance on anyone who might try to mistreat her enslaved children in her absence. Rosa had fourteen children and lived to the age of 109. Among her daughters was Ella Sheppard's grandmother, Rebecca, who married a fellow Donelson slave and gave birth to twelve children, including Ella's mother, Sarah Hannah Sheppard.
Ella Sheppard's paternal grandfather was James Glover Sheppard, a white planter who had moved from North Carolina to Hernando, Mississippi, in the early 1800s. Glover Sheppard sired at least one black child by his female slaves: a bright, enterprising boy named Simon. When Glover's white son, Benjamin Harper Sheppard, married Andrew Jackson's grandniece, Phereby Donelson, the slaves of both families were combined into one household and lived on Phereby's father's Nashville estate about a mile from the Cumberland River.
Sarah was a slave playmate of Phereby's children and grew into a voluble but pious and capable domestic servant. Though marriages between slaves were not legally binding, in about 1844, seventeen-year-old Sarah was wedded to Harper Sheppard's slave half brother, Simon, who worked for the family as a coachman. Having risen to the position of the white Sheppards' head nurse and housekeeper, Sarah gave birth, in February 1851, to a frail, skinny baby daughter she named Samuella, or Ella for short.
When Ella Sheppard was about three years old, Sarah discovered that her mistress had trained the child to spy on her. This was common enough in slaveholders' households. With buttered biscuits and sweet cakes, owners bribed black children to inform on parents suspected of shirking, sabotage, plotting escapes or insurrections; there are even stories of owners posting parrots in their fields and cookhouses to act or so they told their slaves as spies.
"I had made my first report, which the mistress had magnified, and threatened mother," Ella recalled.
Stung by this revelation and realizing that it would lead eventually to the alienation of our affection and teach me to lie and deceive, in agony of soul and despair she caught me up in her arms, and while rushing to the river to end it all, was overtaken by Mammy Viney, who cried out, "Don't you do it, Honey. Don't you take that that you cannot give back." She raised her eyes to Heaven and said, "Look, Honey, don't you see the clouds of the Lord as they pass by? The Lord has got need of this child."
In another version, the old slave's name was Aunt Cherry, and her prophecy was even more explicit: "God's got great work for this baby to do" she is supposed to have said. "She's going to stand before kings and queens."
Whatever it was Sarah was told, she hugged "her helpless baby to her breast" and walked "back into slavery to await God's own time."
Major Harper allowed his half brother, Simon, to hire himself out. For several years, Simon worked as a liveryman at the Hermitage with an industrious freedman named William Napier, the father of James Carroll Napier, the "Frederick Douglass of the South" and with "Uncle Alfred" Jackson, Old Hickory's head coachman. Simon eventually bought his own freedom for eighteen hundred dollars and began saving another thirteen hundred dollars toward purchasing Sarah's liberty as well.
In 1854, Harper Sheppard and his family moved out of their Nashville home and lingered briefly at the Hermitage in preparation for their move to a plantation in Okolona, Mississippi. Up to then, Phereby Sheppard seemed resigned to Simon's purchasing and manumitting her head housekeeper. But one night, Sarah overheard Phereby tearfully confess to her husband that she had simply pretended to agree to sell Sarah to Simon in order not to prolong Sarah's grief at their separation. The major implored her to let Simon buy her freedom, but Phereby was adamant.
"Sarah shall never belong to Simon" she declared. "She is mine and she shall die mine. Let Simon get another wife."
In her despair, Sarah again considered drowning herself and her daughter, but by the next morning she had decided to seek out her mistress instead. She told her that if Phereby allowed Simon to purchase Ella, Sarah would remain her faithful slave. But if she refused to let Ella go, she would kill herself and her daughter.
"My baby", she told her mistress simply, "will never be a slave."
Phereby knew this was no idle threat...