The Good Woman of the Toll Gate – Fugitive Blacksmith
The resolution of which I informed the reader at the close of the last chapter, being put into practice, I continued my flight on the public road; and a little after the sun rose, I came in sight of a toll gate again. For a moment all the events which followed my passing a toll gate on Wednesday morning, came fresh to my recollection, and produced some hesitation; but at all events, said I, I will try again.
On arriving at the gate, I found it attended by an elderly woman, whom I afterwards learned was a widow, and an excellent Christian woman. I asked her if I was in Pennsylvania. On being informed that I was, I asked her if she knew where I could get employ? She said she did not; but advised me to go to W.W., a Quaker, who lived about three miles from her, whom I would find to take an interest in me. She gave me directions which way to take; I thanked her, and bade her good morning, and was very careful to follow her directions.
In about half an hour I stood trembling at the door of W.W. After knocking, the door opened upon a comfortably spread table; the sight of which seemed at once to increase my hunger sevenfold. Not daring to enter, I said I had been sent to him in search of employ. “Well,” said he, “Come in and take thy breakfast, and get warm, and we will talk about it; thee must be cold without any coat.” “Come in and take thy breakfast, and get warm!” These words spoken by a stranger, but with such an air of simple sincerity and fatherly kindness, made an overwhelming impression upon my mind. They made me feel, spite of all my fear and timidity, that I had, in the providence of God, found a friend and a home. He at once gained my confidence; and I felt that I might confide to him a fact which I had, as yet, confided to no one.
From that day to this, whenever I discover the least disposition in my heart to disregard the wretched condition of any poor or distressed persons with whom I meet, I call to mind these words, “Come in and take thy breakfast, and get warm.” They invariably remind me of what I was at that time; my condition was as wretched as that of any human being can possibly be, with the exception of the loss of health or reason. I had but four pieces of clothing about my person, having left all the rest in the hands of my captors. I was a starving fugitive, without home or friends a reward offered for my person in the public papers pursued by cruel man hunters, and no claim upon him to whose door I went. Had he turned me away, I must have perished. Nay, he took me in, and gave me of his food, and shared with me his own garments. Such treatment I had never before received at the hands of any white man.
A few such men in slaveholding America, have stood, and even now stand, like Abrahams and Lots, to stay its forthcoming and well-earned and just judgment.
The limits of this work compel me to pass over many interesting incidents which occurred during my six months’ concealment in that family. I must confine myself only to those which will show the striking providence of God, in directing my steps to the door of W.W., and how great an influence the incidents of that six months has had upon all my subsequent history. My friend kindly gave me employ to saw and split a number of cords of wood, then lying in his yard, for which he agreed with me for liberal pay and board. This inspired me with great encouragement. The idea of beginning to earn something was very pleasant. Next; we confidentially agreed upon the way and means of avoiding surprise, in case any one should come to the house as a spy, or with intention to arrest me. This afforded still further relief, as it convinced me that the whole family would now be on the look out for such persons.
The next theme of conversation was with reference to my education.
“Can thee read or write any, James?” was the question put to me the morning after my arrival, by W.W.
“No, sir, I cannot; my duties as a blacksmith have made me acquainted with the figures on the common mechanics’ square. There was a day book kept in the shop, in which the overseer usually charged the smith work we did for the neighbors. I have spent entire Sabbaths looking over the pages of that book; knowing the names of persons to whom certain pieces of work were charged, together with their prices, I strove anxiously to learn to write in this way. I got paper, and picked up feathers about the yard, and made ink of berries. My quills being too soft, and my skill in making a pen so poor, that I undertook some years ago to make a steel pen. A In this way I have learnt to make a few of the letters, but I cannot write my own name, nor do I know the letters of the alphabet.”
A This attempt was as early as 1822.
W.W., (handing a slate and pencil.)”Let me see how thee makes letters; try such as thou hast been able to make easily.”
P.W., (wife of W.W.)”Why, those are better than I can make.”
W.W.”Oh, we can soon get thee in the way, James.”
Arithmetic and astronomy became my favorite studies. W.W. was an accomplished scholar; he had been a teacher for some years, and was cultivating a small farm on account of ill health, which had compelled him to leave teaching. He is one of the most far sighted and practical men I ever met with. He taught me by familiar conversations, illustrating his themes by diagrams on the slate, so that I caught his ideas with ease and rapidity.
I now began to see, for the first time, the extent of the mischief slavery had done to me. Twenty-one years of my life were gone, never again to return, and I was as profoundly ignorant, comparatively, as a child five years old. This was painful, annoying, and humiliating in the extreme. Up to this time, I recollected to have seen one copy of the New Testament, but the entire Bible I had never seen, and had never heard of the Patriarchs, or of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recollected to have heard two sermons, but had heard no mention in them of Christ, or the way of life by Him. It is quite easy to imagine, then, what was the state of my mind, having been reared in total moral midnight; it was a sad picture of mental and spiritual darkness.
As my friend poured light into my mind, I saw the darkness; it amazed and grieved me beyond description. Sometimes I sank down under the load, and became discouraged, and dared not hope that I could ever succeed in acquiring knowledge enough, to make me happy, or useful to my fellow-beings.
My dear friend, W.W., however, had a happy tact to inspire me with confidence; and he, perceiving my state of mind, exerted himself, not without success, to encourage me. He cited to me various instances of colored persons, of whom I had not heard before, and who had distinguished themselves for learning, such as Bannicker, Wheatley, and Francis Williams.
How often have I regretted that the six months I spent in the family of W.W., could not have been six years. The danger of recapture, however, rendered it utterly imprudent that I should remain longer; and early in the month of March, while the ground was covered with the winter’s snow, I left the bosom of this excellent family, and went forth once more to try my fortune among strangers.
My dear reader, if I could describe to you the emotions I felt when I left the threshold of W.W.’s door, you could not fail to see how deplorable is the condition of the fugitive slave, often for months and years after he has escaped the immediate grasp of the tyrant. When I left my parents, the trial was great, but I had now to leave a friend who had done more for me than parents could have done as slaves; and hence I felt an endearment to that friend which was heightened by a sense of the important relief he had afforded me in the greatest need, and hours of pleasant and highly profitable intercourse.
About a month previous to leaving the house of W.W., a small circumstance occurred one evening, which I only name to shew the harassing fears and dread in which I lived during most of the time I was there. He had a brother-in-law living some ten miles distanthe was a friend to the slave; he often came unexpectedly and spent a few hours sometimes a day and a night. I had not, however, ever known him to come at night. One night about nine o’clock, after I had gone to bed, (my lodging being just over the room in which W.W. and his wife were sitting,) I heard the door open and a voice ask, “Where is the boy?” The voice sounded to me like the voice of my master; I was sure it must be his. I sprang and listened for a moment, it seemed to be silent; I heard nothing, and then it seemed to me there was a confusion. There was a window at the head of my bed, which I could reach without getting upon the floor: it was a single sash and opened upon hinges. I quickly opened this window and waited in a perfect tremor of dread for further development. There was a door at the foot of the stairs; as I heard that door open, I sprang for the window, and my head was just out, when the gentle voice of my friend W.W. said, “James?” B“Here,” said I, “ has come, and he would like to have thee put up his horse.” I drew a breath of relief, but my strength and presence of mind did not return for some hours, I slept none that night; for a moment I could doze away, but the voice would sound in my ears, “Where is that boy?” and it would seem to me it must be the tyrant in quest of his weary prey, and would find myself starting again.
B If W.W. had ascended the stairs without calling, I should certainly have jumped out of the window.
From that time the agitation of my mind became so great that I could not feel myself safe. Every day seemed to increase my fear, till I was unfit for work, study or rest. My friend endeavored, but in vain, to get me to stay a week longer.
The events of the spring proved that I had not left too soon. As soon as the season for traveling fairly opened, active search was made, and my master was seen in a town, twenty miles in advance of where I had spent my six months.
The following curious fact also came out. That same brother-in-law who frightened me, was putting up one evening at a hotel some miles off, and while sitting quietly by himself in one part of the room, he overheard a conversation between a traveling peddler and several gossipers of the neighborhood, who were lounging away the evening at the hotel.
Pedler. “Do you know one W.W. somewhere about here?”
Gossiper. “Yes, he lives miles off.”
Ped. “I understand he had a black boy with him last winter, I wonder if he is there yet?”
Gos. “I don’t know, he most always has a runaway nigger with him.”
Ped. “I should like to find out whether that fellow is there yet.”
Brother-In-Law, (turning about.)”What does thee know about that boy?”
Ped. “Well he is a runaway.”
Brother-In-Law. “Who did he run away from?”
Ped. “From Col in .”
Brother-In-Law. “How did thee find out that fact?”
Ped. “Well, I have been over there peddling.”
Brother-In-Law. “Where art thou from?”
Ped. “I belong in Conn.”
Brother-In-Law. “Did thee see the boy’s master?”
Brother-In-Law. “What did he offer thee to find the boy?”
Ped. “I agreed to find out where he was, and let him know, and if he got him, I was to receive .”
Brother-In-Law. “How didst thou hear the boy had been with W.W.”
Ped. “Oh, he is known to be a notorious rascal for enticing away, and concealing slaves; he’ll get himself into trouble yet, the slaveholders are on the look out for him.”
Brother-In-Law. “W.W. is my brother-in-law; the boy of whom thou speakest is not with him, and to save thee the trouble of abusing him, I can moreover say, he is no rascal.”
Ped. “He may not be there now, but it is because he has sent him off. His master heard of him, and from the description, he is sure it must have been his boy. He could tell me pretty nigh where he was; he said he was a fine healthy boy, twenty-one, a first rate blacksmith; he would not have taken a thousand dollars for him.”
Brother-In-Law. “I know not where the boy is, but I have no doubt he is worth more to himself than he ever was to his master, high as he fixes the price on him; and I have no doubt thee will do better to pursue thy peddling honestly, than to neglect it for the sake of serving negro hunters at a venture.”
All this happened within a month or two after I left my friend. One fact which makes this part of the story deeply interesting to my own mind, is, that some years elapsed before it came to my knowledge.