Read an Excerpt
By Callie Smith Grant
BARBOUR BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA layer of fog settled over the saltwater marshes of eastern Maryland. Moving slowly through the silver haze was a wagon drawn by one beaten-down old horse. A young white woman held the reins, and tucked in the back sat a six-year-old slave girl called Minty. She shivered in her sack dress in the damp fog. Her soft brown eyes blinked in terror, for Minty had just been sold.
Not an hour before, she'd been dragged crying from her momma and poppa, carried screaming from the only home she'd ever known, a slave cabin on the land of Master Edward Brodas in Dorchester County. Now she was on her way to this stranger's house. The woman needed some kind of help with her work at home, but she was not well off. The only slave she and her husband could afford to buy from the master was a child-Minty.
Where's she gonna take me? Minty thought. What they gonna do with me? Horrible scenes paraded through her mind, drawn from whispered nighttime conversations she had overheard and only half-remembered or understood. Were white people really ghosts? Would they beat her? Kill her? One frightful image faded into the next as her heart pounded with terror.
In the early 1800s, at the time Minty was born, black people had much to fear in America. Whether they lived in the northern or southern states, most of them were slaves. The few blacks who were free did not have the same rights that most white people took for granted. Even in the North, there were all sorts of restrictions on where they could live, what jobs they could hold, and who they could marry.
The southern states had a huge and rapidly increasing population of slaves. As the number of black slaves increased, white people became more and more fearful of a black uprising that would kill thousands of white men, women, and children.
Some white masters didn't like slavery but believed they didn't have any choice about having slaves. The entire southern way of life was dependent on slavery. Life revolved around the huge, wealthy farms called plantations, which grew acres and acres of cotton and tobacco. These plantations needed hundreds of slaves to do all the work. The blacks farmed the land, cared for the livestock, cooked the food, cleaned the clothes, and performed innumerable other tasks for their masters. Without slaves, their owners wondered, how could the plantations survive?
Slaves owned nothing, not even themselves. Slaves were bought and sold as if they were objects or animals. The life of a slave was full of uncertainty, because if the fields did not produce and the master of the plantation did not prosper, he might feel the need to sell some slaves for extra cash. Some masters tried to keep families together, but not all masters were kind. Wives were often sold and separated from their husbands. Children like Minty were routinely sold as well. It was a sad day at the plantation when any slave was sold, but when families were split up, the grief was especially great.
Whether a master was kind or not, the life of a slave was one of poverty, fear, and brutally hard work. Slaves were dependent on the generosity of their master for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. No master was particularly generous in those areas.
Slaves usually lived in one-room shacks with dirt floors and no windows. The cabins were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The only heat came from a fireplace that smoked up the cabin, and this was where all the cooking was done as well. Most slaves had one outfit to wear-one dress or one pair of pants and a shirt.
The life of a slave was strictly regulated. Slaves could not simply come and go as they pleased. They needed written permission to travel from place to place. They were discouraged from meeting together in large numbers. Even religious meetings in the slave quarters were sometimes frowned upon.
It was illegal to teach a slave to read and write, although the wives and daughters of some plantation owners taught their house slaves to read the Bible. The workday for most slaves stretched from before the sun rose to after it set.
Under such conditions, it was inevitable that some slaves would run away. When they did, they were hunted down like animals, with large packs of dogs. Occasionally, a slave escaped and was never heard from again. Most runaways, however, were quickly recaptured and whipped severely to punish them and to make an example of them so that others would be too frightened to try the same thing. Punishment and the fear of punishment were the main weapons white southerners used to maintain their power over the blacks who lived in their midst.
Araminta Ross, as Minty was named at her birth around 1820, had already learned more than she ever wanted to know about this life of slavery, even in the few years she had been alive. One thing she never learned was her birthday, because such records were not normally kept for slaves.
Minty never doubted the love of her parents, who had already lost two other young daughters when their master sold them to a chain gang. Her parents were fiercely determined to protect her as much as possible from the suffering of their bondage. They worked hard to include her in the love of their large family. They taught her about their love for God and encouraged her to think of Jesus as her personal friend.
The entire community of slaves on the plantation helped Minty to find joy in the simple details of daily life and to hope for a better life in the world to come. It seemed this world held a grim future for baby Minty because slave life was so hard. Most of all, they taught her to express her sorrows and hopes in worship to God and to find comfort and inspiration in God's love for her.
Some plantation owners allowed their slaves to gather for church services. Others found any gathering too threatening. The slaves, they feared, would use the time to plan their escape or, even worse, to plot the murder of their masters. Where they were not allowed to worship openly, slaves often met in secret in what they called brush arbors-areas of dense pine thickets where the boughs would absorb sound. Even the fear of the whip could not keep them from praising Jesus out loud.
As Minty bounced along in the wagon, she looked up at the pearl-gray sky and called out to her closest friend. Oh, Jesus, watch over me, she prayed.
She knew Momma was praying for her at this very minute. She'd heard her momma pray every time a slave disappeared, whether the slave had been sold or was suspected to have run away.
"Jesus, protect Your children down here," Momma would pray fervently in the privacy of their one-room cabin. "Protect them! Make them strong, make them swift. Make them do right by You. Make them free." Then Momma would rock and moan. It was kind of like singing, but it was softer and seemed full of all the hurt in the world.
Until today, Minty had just watched her momma express those deep longings, while praying so hard it seemed likely to tear her soul from her body. But today Minty was learning to make some of those fervent prayers her own. Though Minty was still a child, she had grown years in her understanding of the world around her in just the last few hours.
She thought of the songs she'd heard sung in the slave quarters, songs the masters had decided were too dangerous and might cause a slave to think of freedom and personal dignity. At first, Minty had not been able to figure that out. How could it be dangerous to sing about wanting to go to glory and be with Jesus?
And what was wrong with singing about the stories in the Bible? Since most slaves could not read, Bible stories were told aloud and sung. Minty loved the songs about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt through all kinds of dangers to get to the Promised Land. She'd hear the grown-ups sing from the depths of their souls:
If I could I surely would Stand on the rock where Moses stood Pharaoh's army got drown-ded. Oh, Mary, don't you weep.
Or perhaps they would shout out her favorite:
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land.
Tell ole Pharaoh Let my people go!
Minty loved the songs. Sometimes they were sung softly in the cabin, and sometimes the field hands sang them loud and strong and in unison to help them get through the long day's toil. She knew what the songs were about: A day would come when Jesus would return to take them away and make everything right. Then the lion would lie down with the lamb and the bondage of slavery would no longer have a hold on them.
Even as a little slip of a girl, Minty understood that slavery was evil. Some Christian masters read their Bibles differently on that topic, and white folks all over the world discussed to no end whether or not slavery should continue to exist. But the slaves knew the good Lord had never intended them to be imprisoned in this life of fear and suffering.
Minty was still a little too young to understand that the songs she loved had a second meaning to black folks. They spoke of freedom. Sometimes they told of being freed from slavery by dying and going on to heaven, and sometimes they told about being alive and taking the actual journey north to liberty.
Minty would hear someone sing, Oh, Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan, and the sweet sounds seemed full of mystery to her. She had only recently been able to tell the words Canaan and Canada apart, they felt so alike rolling off her southern tongue. Just last week, Momma had explained that Canaan was the Promised Land in the Bible, but Canada was a snowy land way up north where blacks could not be held as slaves.
"Either one says freedom," Poppa had muttered as he poked at the fire with a stick.
Momma had given him a stern look out of the corner of her eye. "You hush," she scolded gently. Though the cabin felt warm, cozy, and safe, you could never be sure who might be listening outside. And it wouldn't be good to let the master know there was freedom talk going on in the quarters.
Go down, Moses, Minty sang to herself as the wagon slowed. She wrapped her thin brown arms around her body. Oh, Lord, be with me, she prayed over and over.
The wagon turned off onto a narrower dirt road she had never seen before, and Minty felt numb with both cold and fear. A small log house with a fence around it appeared. It didn't look anything like the Big House. It sat in a clearing in the woods, and Minty could smell the river nearby, but she had no idea where she was. She'd never left the Brodases' plantation before and had no idea what to expect.
Chapter TwoAt her new home, Minty was expected to help the young married mistress, Mrs. Cook, with her work as a weaver. She worked at home on a spinning wheel and loom, while Mr. Cook trapped fish and hunted animals for a living. The Cooks owned very little land and were not at all wealthy, but their log house was still the biggest one Minty had ever been in. She'd never set foot in the Big House on the Brodases' plantation when she had lived with her parents.
Though the Cooks' house had more than one room, Minty was expected to sleep on the floor next to the kitchen fireplace, as if she were a dog. They fed her about as much as they'd feed a dog, too. The Cooks wanted a willing and productive worker, but they were unwilling to spend even one cent more than it took to just barely keep their new slave alive.
Minty's job was to wind yarn while Mrs. Cook worked the wheel and loom. Yarn fuzz constantly got in Minty's nose and mouth, making her sneeze or cough. As hard as she tried, she couldn't perform her task properly, and she hated every minute of it. She was afraid of the Cooks because of their cruelty. Constant hunger pains dominated her waking hours, and she slept fitfully on the cold, hard floor. Most of all, she was homesick. Mrs. Cook scolded Minty constantly but never lifted a finger to improve her living conditions. Naturally Minty's work continued to be clumsy and slow. Finally Mrs. Cook handed Minty over to Mr. Cook. "See if she's any help to you outside. She's no use to me."
Mr. Cook showed Minty how to tend the muskrat traps in the river while he hunted elsewhere. The animals were highly valued for their fur. Minty moved back and forth, watching the line of baskets in the cold water. When she found a trapped muskrat, it took all her young strength to haul it out of the river. Some days it was so cold, she could hardly feel her bare feet.
In spite of the cold, Minty was relieved to be out of the house and off by herself. She'd learned to appreciate God's natural world from Poppa.
Although Poppa had never been allowed to learn to read, he was the smartest man Minty knew. He could predict the weather for the next day or the next season simply by watching the sky or observing animals in the woods. He knew which herbs and plants were poisonous and which were useful for healing. He understood how the phases of the moon could be used as a guide for successful farming or fishing. He was familiar with the shapes of all the constellations in the night sky, and he showed his daughter how they moved with the seasons.
In particular, he pointed out the North Star. It held a special meaning for Poppa and all other slaves, though it was seldom spoken of openly. As the long days and hungry nights dragged on, Minty began to understand his passion for that one stationary point of light: The North Star led to freedom.
In the half-light, just before dawn, Minty would often look for the North Star and think of Momma and Poppa. She knew they were trapped just like those river muskrats. As Minty prayed for a change in all their lives, a dream of freedom grew in the secret places of her soul.
The first step down the road toward her dream almost killed her. Minty came down with the measles. At the time when she lived, many illnesses could kill a child, but measles was one of the deadliest.
In spite of Minty's fever and weakness, the Cooks insisted that she continue wading barefoot in the cold river to haul in the heavy baskets with their trapped muskrats.
The fever increased, and Minty developed severe bronchitis. She grew weaker, and every breath was painful. One day she simply collapsed. The Cooks wrapped her in a blanket and left her alone.
Among the slaves who worked on the great plantations and even among those who worked for less wealthy owners, an amazing network of personal communication existed. All the white masters understood that the slaves knew more about what was going on in the Big House and knew it sooner than the white folks who lived there did. And news about the slaves themselves always traveled rapidly from one place to another.
Excerpted from HARRIET TUBMAN by Callie Smith Grant Copyright © 2002 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.