It's the ragged source of memory, a tarpaper-shingled bungalow whose floors tilt toward the porch, whose back yard ends abruptly in a weedy ravine. Nothing special: a chain of three bedrooms and a long side porch turned parlor where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked every evening over the news, a long sunny kitchen where Annie, his wife, measured cornmeal, dreaming through the window across the ravine and up to Shelby Hill where she had borne their spirited, high-yellow brood. In the middle bedroom's hard, high antique double bed, the ghost of Aunt Jane, the laundress who bought the house in 1872, though I call with all my voices, does not appear. Nor does Pomp's ghost, with whom one of my cousins believes she once had a long and intimate unspoken midnight talk. He told her, though they'd never met, that he loved her; promised her raw widowhood would heal without leaving a scar. The conveniences in an enclosed corner of the slant-floored back side porch were the first indoor plumbing in town. Aunt Jane put them in, incurring the wrath of the woman who lived in the big house next door. Aunt Jane left the house to Annie, whose mother she had known as a slave on the plantation, so Annie and Pomp could move their children into town, down off Shelby Hill. My grandmother, her brother, and five sisters watched their faces change slowly in the oval mirror on the wall outside the door into teachers' faces, golden with respect. Here Geneva, the randy sister, damned their colleges, daubing her quicksilver breasts with gifts of perfume. As much as love, as much as a visit to the grave of a known ancestor, the homeplace moves me not to silence but the righteous, praise Jesus song: Oh, catfish and turnip greens, hot-water cornbread and grits. Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles; generations lost to be found, to be found.
Miracle in the Collection Plate
Rev. Christopher Rush, 1850
Brothers and sisters, we know why we’re here
this evening. The sad news has traveled fast
of Brother James’s capture. For three years
he lived amongst us, tasting happiness.
His wife and child are here with us tonight.
God bless you, Sister. Without a goodbye,
James was handcuffed, and shoved on a steamboat
to Baltimore, to be sold—legally!
Neighbors, we know that upright, decent man:
James Hamlet: a loving husband, father, friend.
Many of us would gladly risk the fine
or prison sentence, if we could help him.
My friends, all is not lost! It’s not too late!
We are told that Brother James may be redeemed!
His buyer will sell him! But we cannot wait:
we need eight hundred dollars to free him.
Eight hundred. I know every penny counts,
living from widow’s mite to widow’s mite.
But with God’s help, we can raise that enormous amount!
Let’s make a miracle in the collection plate!
In 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. This law led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery, as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations. James Hamlet was the first fugitive arrested under the new law. His African American and Abolitionist friends raised the money necessary to purchase his freedom.