19th Century: 1861

Harriet Jacobs (c.1813-1897)

                                                 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

                                                                 XLI.Free at Last

...  Mrs. Bruce came nto me and entreated me to leave the city the next morning.  She said her house was watched, and it was possible that some clew to me might be obtained.  I refused to  take her advice.  She pleaded with an earnest tenderness, that ought to have moved me, but I was in a bitter, disheartened mood.  I was weary of flying from pillar to post.. I had been chased during half my life, and it seemed as if the chase was never to end.  There I sat, in that great city, guiltless of crime, yet not daring to worship God in any of the churches.  I heard the bells ringing for afternoon service, and, with contemptuous sarcasm I said, "Will the preachers take for their text,"Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound?'[Isaiah 6:1] or will they preach from the text, 'Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you'?"[Matthew 7:12]  Oppressed Poles and Hungarians could find a safe refuge in that city; John Mitchell was free to proclaim in the City Hall his desire for "a plantation well stocked with slaves"; but there I sat, an oppressed American, not daring to show my face.  God forgive the black and bitter thoughts I indulged on that Sabbath day!  The Scripture says, "Oppression makes even a wise man mad"[Ecclesiastes 7:7]; and I was not wise;

     I had been told that Mr. Dodge said his wife had never signed away her right to my children, and if he could not get me, he would take them.  This it was, more than any thing else, that roused such a tempest in my soul.  Benjamin was with his uncle William in California, but my innocent young daughter had come to spend a vacarion with me.  I thought of what I had suffered in slavery at her age, and my heart was like a tiger's when a hunter tries to seize her young.

     Dear Mrs. Bruce!  I seem to see the expression of her face, as she turned away discouraged by my obstinate mood.  Finding her expostulations unavailing, she sent Ellen to entreat me.  When ten o'clock in the evening arrived and Ellen had not returned, this watchful and unwearied friend became anxious.  She came to us in a carriage, bringing a well-filled trunk for my journey- trusting by this time I would listen to reason.  I yielded to her, as I ought to have done before.

     The next day, baby and I set out in a heavy snow storm, bound for New England again.  I received letters from the City of Iniquity, addressed to me under an assumed name.  In a few days one came from Mrs. Bruce, informing me that my new master was still searching for me, and that she intended to put an end to this persecution by buyig my freedom.  I felt grateful for the kindness that prompted this offer, but the idea was not so pleasant to me as might have been expected.  The more my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property, and to pay money to those who had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from my sufferings the glory of triumph.  I  wrote to Mrs. Bruce, thanking her, but saying that being sold from one owner to another seemed too much like slavery; that such a great obligation could not be easily cancelled; and that I preferred to go to my brother in California.

     Without my knowledge, Mrs. Bruce employed a gentleman in New York to enter into negotiations with Mr. Dodge.  He proposed to pay three hundred dollars down, if Mr. Dodge would sell me, and enter into obligations to relinquish all claim to me or my children forever after.  He who called himself my master said he scorned so small an offer for such a valuable servant.  The gentleman replied, "You can do as you choose,sir.  If you reject this offer you will never get anything; for the woman has friends who will convey her and her children out of the country."

     Mr. Dodge concluded that "half a loaf was better than no bread," and he agreed to the proffered terms.  By the next mail I received this brief letter from Mrs. Bruce: "I am rejoiced to tell you that the money for your freedom has been paid to Mr. Dodge.  Come home to-morrow.  I long to see you and my sweet babe."

     My brain reeled as I read these lines.  A gentleman near me said, "It's true.  I have seen the bill of sale."  "The bill of sale!"  Those words struck me like a blow.  So I was sold at last!  A human being sold in the free city of New York!  The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the ninteenth century of the Christian religion.  It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States.  I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not look upon it.  I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the  miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.

     I had objected to having my freedom bought, yet I must confess that when it was done I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from my weary shoulders.  When I rode home in the cars I was no longer afraid to unveil my face and look at people as they passed.  I should have been glad to have met Daniel Dodge himself; to have had him seen me and known me, that he might have mourned over the untoward circumstances which compelled him to sell me for three hundred dollars...

     Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage.  I and my children are now free!  We are as free from the power of slaveholders as the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition.  The dream of my life is not yet realized.  I do not sit with my children in a home of my own.  I still yearn for a hearthstone of my own, however humble.  I wish it for my children's sake far more than for my own.  But God so orders circumstances as to keep me with my friend Mrs. Bruce.  Love, duty, gratitude, also bind me to her side.  It is a privilege to serve her who pities my oppressed people, and who has bestowed the inestimable boon of freedom on me and my children.

     It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.  I would gladly forget them if I could.  Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea. 

       

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