The house is bigger than the old mansion, she thought. And I thank you Father, for bringing me here to tell my story.
“Did you say something, Grammy?” The young lady helping her out of the carriage said.
“No my child, just wool gathering, that is all.” I looked at her with a tender smile as she continued helping me down the walk to the North Portico of the White House. It was a bright sunny day, a perfect day for storytelling. Looking again at the ornate paper in my hand inviting me to a meeting with the newly elected President McKinley, I still have no idea what to expect.
“Welcome, Mrs. Green. I’m Charles, the head steward. Was your trip satisfactory?” He smiled and bowed.
“It was. But please call me Aunt Green. It’s more comfortable.”
“I understand. Aunt Green, it is.” He nodded. “And your companion?”
He looked at the elegant lady dressed in a yellow tea gown short, wide puff at the shoulder over a long, tight sleeves. Her ebony hair was swept up in the current fashion. I was wearing my best blue dress. Nothing fancy, just lace on the bust and hem. And my kerchief around my now grey hair. “That’s Missy, my granddaughter.”
She curtsied. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Honored.” He said with bow. Behind them, walked up tall gentleman in a gray coat with covered buttons and matching waistcoat, dark trousers, short turnover shirt collar, and floppy bow tie. The steward turned and smiled. “Mr. Green, I presume?”
“You are correct. My apology.”
“No need. Welcome to the White House,” he said with a bow. Mr. Green returned it.
We walked through the Vestibule. It was bedecked with furnishings I had only seen when I was Master Timberlake. The walls were ornate wall paper a beautiful crimson. The steward directed us to the Blue room where we would await the President. I was to tell my story; my journey it was. I was to do to a crowd of twenty and before the new phonograph and its wax cylinders my granddaughter favored so much.
As we walked in, the people all dressed in their Sunday finest stood waiting. All were white men save the President’s wife. A servant girl was arranging chairs to set in a circle. A tall man with a thick salt and pepper mustache and wire rim glasses walked to me and smiled. “Mr. Green, Mrs. Green, welcome. I’m George Cortelyou, President McKinley’s personal secretary.” He extended his hand to Mr. Green who paused a moment and the shook it.
“Please call me Aunt.” I said to Mr. Cortelyou, who nodded.
“The President should be shortly. I understand the story will take about 30 minutes.” He said it such a matter of fact way, I didn’t know what to respond.
“I believe so. I have only told parts of it before. May I inquire why?”
He looked at Mr. Green and frowned. Mr. Green looked at him dispassionately. “The discs are five minutes apiece. We have a total of 12. I allotted 6 for this.” His ‘this’ was quite annoyed. I let it slide. “I am sure it will be enough. Thank you for allowing this.”
Mr. Cortelyou’s face relaxed. “It’s not me who decided. The President insisted.”
And on that notice, he walked in. I instantly recognized him. Not as President for I hadn’t seen him nor did I vote for him. I would have had I known.
He walked to me, a broad smile on his lips. “Welcome. It has been a long time.”
I curtseyed as did my granddaughter. “It has, Mr. President.”
“Who is this fine man accompanying you?” He asked as he extended his hand to Mr. Green.
“Elias Green, Mr. President. It’s an honor.”
“No. The privilege is mine.” He looked to the two men in suits beside the rectangular wooden box with a horn jutting out. It sat on a wooden cart and looked like a bunch of children’s tops and wheels together, all black. Beside it was large clear picture with 2 spikes going into it and one rising from it. A greenish liquid was inside. A rope led from it to the main body of the device which had a fresh brown wax cylinder on it. “Is the phonograph ready?”
“Yes, Mr. President.” They said with assurance.
“Aunt Green,” He said after Mr. Cortelyou whispered into his ear. Everyone began to take seats in the royal blue silk open armchairs made by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. I know because Master has two and they were his delight. Two chairs with enclosed arms remained empty. One was seated beside the extended horn of the phonograph. The other was near the top of the circle and reserved for the President.
I walked to my chair and the servant directed Mr. Green to stand beside me. He did so in silence with a smile. Missy opted to stand as well, her face annoyed until I stared at her. “It will change. It must take time. It will change. Look where we are and be thankful.”
“Please start the machine. And don’t miss anything. We have one chance at this. Only one.” The President’s face was calm. Mr. Cortelyou’s was very serious.
“It all began when I was 14. I was barren and lived on Master Timberlake’s Plantation just outside Charlottesville, Virginia in an area we called Fertile Valley.”
The memories returned just like yesterday. “Rae child, why are you still sleeping?” Grandma Ruth shook me from the wood and cotton bunk I laid in. It was an hour past dawn. And I was angry.
“What good am I? I can’t be married because I am barren. Doc Severs said so.” I sat up in the small house where the 12 women owned by Bartley Timberlake slept and ate. We did other things too but those were impolite to name. The other 20 men stayed in another house nearby beside the outhouse.
“You know better than that. The Good Lord always has a purpose for us. Regardless, you must get up or suffer a whipping. You want a whipping?” She asked serious. No, I really didn’t as they stung all day. That’s if Beverly did it. If her daughter Claire did it, other things happened and they were unpleasant. That hurt much longer.
So I got up and changed into my smock. Too small to do dishes, too frail to do tobacco and unable to do laundry, I would cut corn stalks again. Only today was different. News of my doctor’s visit reached William, Bartley’s son. He prepared to leave for the war and Lee’s army, who was fighting for our right to stay like this forever.
Claire, with her bright crimson hair and long wide face came to me as I stood in the choppers house, grabbing a bundle of corn stalks. “Drop those. Father wants to speak to you.” She barked, as she usually did, her disgust as radiant as her sheer yellow sun dress and corset. Glaring, she fidgeted with the pink bow in her hair.
“Come now or I shall fetch the whip.” She yelled, trying to tower over me yet she remained as tall as me. Bartley wouldn’t allow her fancy shoes out here, no sir. So I handled the stalks to Harriet and ran over. My face remained flat neutral. I hated whipping. A flat expression assured that unless they just wanted to, I didn’t get one.
Escorted into the main house and up to the greeting parlor, I paused before Bartley Timberlake seated alone, wearing what I learned later was his customary ditto suit with matching black frock coat. The fitted, long-sleeved coat with a center vent at the back covered his hump from working the mill when he was younger before his inheritance.
“You may leave, Claire. No dalliance today. Be productive. How else shall I find a suitor for you?” His annoyance evident as was hers.
“I shall practice my writing,” she said softly with a curtsey.
“I mean it. No being a fancy girl. There’s enough saltiness in you as it is. ”He shook a finger at her.
She nodded, hiding a sigh and vanished. Of course, I had no idea then what he meant. Yet that was the crux of our meeting. He wanted me to be his fancy girl. Only I had no choice. So it was decided to my annoyance that I would move into the house. I would receive a room on the first floor with Monique, Nia and Shana. Neither beautiful like Monique nor as horse looking like Claire, my sad plain face captured my mood. This wasn’t a happy time. Of course, being taught by the tutors he hired for Claire benefited me greatly. Yet Claire remained to lord over me. Only she couldn’t touch me anymore.
I lay with him every night that suited him. I had no time of month, none of that at all. So I remained safe. He felt he could use me. It seemed a fair trade.
I learned to read and write. I learned proper English. I had a daily schedule. In the morning I would eat the same breakfast the chef provided Claire after the family ate. Then I would bathe and go down for the tutoring. As the day progressed they taught me how to be a lady. At night I would await for Master Bartley for his bidding, smelling of aloes and cinnamon. Occasionally, Beverly entered. However, she never stayed for she had the vapors. Finally after he had finished I bathed again and went to my room where Grandma Ruth would sit with me and the others and pray and read the Word.
She would cajole me; remind me vengeance was his. That he would replay for all the aught brought to me. That Jesus loved me. My anger would bubble over but she would remind me that I was blessed. That even the disciples were persecuted. Yet each was rescued. She would quote me Paul and Silas, Peter and John. So I told my day to her and Uncle Tim and Beulah and the others. And whenever a rough day came, for there were many in the beginning as Claire and Beverly still hated me, Grandma Ruth would quote scriptures. Isaiah 45:2-3, 52:10 and 1 John 4:8-10 were among her favorites. But for me she said to hang on to Isaiah 62:11 and Romans 12:19. Romans 12:19 said “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Isaiah 62:11 said “Behold, the LORD hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his recompense is with him, and his work before him.”
Soon I received Claire’s old dresses and clothes so I would be presentable when visitors came. Many did, mostly soldiers using the nearby rail tunnel under the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As the months passed and trust grew; for I held my peace about my situation, I accompanied Claire into town. She had changed and grown from her anger into apathy for her life. Yet she showed it to no one save me. And in time she quit molesting me altogether. Yet everyone still feared her. In time, they feared me too. All except us four and Grandma Ruth. And that was the way it went. Beverly hated both of us, because of the vapors and my comfort and transformation into the semblance of a proper lady. And one night after she whipped me for daring to be friendly with Claire and the soldiers. I overheard Bartley give her a furious dressing down. After that, she went to him no more and I went every night. She regularly whipped Nia or Monique out of spite after that. Little did I know that Grandma Ruth was praying constantly as was Uncle Jim, Ben, Cletus and Eustis
Then came 1863. The war between the states was going poorly for the Confederacy. That’s what both the Richmond Dispatch and the Washington Star said. It announced in large, bold print that second day that Lincoln, President of the Union declared the slaves all free. I took it as a sign, but was unsure how to react. However, being I was the only slave other than Grandma Ruth who could read, I had to wait until the night to share. When I did we all prayed. I prayed for strength. My anger has subsided as I accepted that while I was owned by Bartley Timberlake, I was free in Jesus. I looked at it that Claire Timberlake was owned by him as well yet she was less free because she only believed in her Father. It was still hard to see it sometimes but the beatings and whippings had almost ceased.
Grandma Ruth prayed for wisdom and the others direction. Word spread. And on that Saturday while the snow fell, she broached the subject since I had to remain indoors and entertain Stonewall Jackson and a regiment of his Calvary that evening.
I was surprised when she said only eight wanted to flee. The others had given up inside. She said that Ben standing for a group of Tobacco harvesters said, “Funny thing these chains. First you hate em’… then you get used to em’… after a while you start to depend on them. That’s what it means to be a slave. Slavery is our way. And we will stay until the end.”
So I prepared to help the eight escape through the tunnel. First I asked if I could assist with General Jackson’s troops as he needed a touch of help through the tunnel. Master Timberlake trusted me enough at this point to allow me this provided I was ridden back. So I learned the layout of the tunnel, its length and even got a map from the tunnel from the negro private that took me back. He himself was surprised what Lincoln had done but saw no hope in it.
A week later, I, under the cover of night, snuck them out. They escaped unnoticed. Over the course of the next six months more came and escaped. It was always at night and always groups of 3 to 6. In December, William, now a Calvary Lieutenant with Jeb Stuart’s Horse Artillery Battalion camped nearby. He himself came home. At first, he was ok with my position in the household. His mother was bedridden now. I had gotten Grandma Ruth to take care of her so she could be inside with me.
Yet, fear gripped me so I had wanted to wait until the regiment left. However as the winter drug on, I discovered I couldn’t. I had to act. The night of February 27, 1864. I assisted five slaves into the tunnel only to meet William when he returned.
“You do realize, I have the right to kill you where you stay for this?” He said with a low tone. “You will return with me now!” He commanded and I obeyed. I was deeply afraid but not angry. For the study of the Word of the Lord and my Grandmas teachings showed me love and the Lord gave me favor with everyone. I was the favorite of my master. The dress I wore was new as were my shoes.
As he took me up to the house he said nothing. I began to pray, for favor, for strength but not my life. I said, “Lord you have given me so much, if I must leave now then I know I will be with you and serve you forever.”
William thrust open the doors to the house and dragged me by the collar up the stairs. He pounded on his father’s door. “Father, your slave has been assisting others in running. She’s a traitor and I’m going to kill her.”
The door flung open and he stood fierce anger in his eyes. “You will do no such thing. This is my house and she is mine.”
He stood back stunned. “I have you know who I am!”
“I know who you are. You are my son and you will show respect in my house. Those bars mean nothing to me. You will not kill her, you will not touch her. So help me you do I will beat you like I did when you were five.”
Fury rolled across his face as he dragged me down the stairs to the whipping post. Lashing me to it, he went to grab a whip. As he did, my master came down, his merchant’s portly body struggling with the weight of his 50 years. He held the whip Beverly had used on Nia and Monique until the vapors took her to the bed.
The commotion awoke everyone, including my grandma who began to pray as she watched from the slave’s room. I turned as best I could to see. William approached fierceness in his countenance. He halted and unfurled the whip. It snapped across my side with a fierceness my flesh had almost forgotten. Suddenly, I heard another snap. William yelped in pain.
“I warned you, boy. I don’t care what you saw. I don’t know what you believe she did. She is mine and I will not broker your insubordination.” He held the whip in his hand as William cradled his arm.
William lashed me again and he received the same. After the fourth lash, he had enough. He drew his service revolver and said. “Old man, I renounce you. You are not my father. You are a traitor to the confederacy. He fired a shot that appeared to miss. Yet it was enough to summon Claire out who had been giving secret horizontal refreshment to Capt. Marcellus Moorman. The man from his position in the barn fired a shot that struck William in the boot causing him to crumple to the ground. Bartley grabbed the whip and revolver from him. “You will depart. This is not yours and if I catch you here again, you will be shot on sight, Army Lieutenant or no.”
William snarled a curse then fled to his horse, galloping back to the encampment. My master untied me and joked, “I will have to buy you a new dress now, as he ruined this one.”
“No, he didn’t. Thank you.” For the only time in his life he looked at me with shining eyes. “I can’t let you be hurt. What would I do without you?” However, as he stood, he began to bleed from his side. It appeared the bullet had hit him after all. I caught him and as I struggled to get him to the house, Claire ran up and assisted.
The next day, he passed from the fever and blood. Beverly upon hearing that he has passed threw herself out the window. Grandma Ruth, I and Claire buried them together out by the oak tree near the edge. We nailed a simple sign and carved a TB on the tree to mark the place. Claire was filled with rage and distraught with sorrow. Yet I had peace. I wasn’t afraid that William would return. The Lord was with me. How did I know that the scrimmage of the 29th , William would one of the few shot dead by Gen George Custer in his raid?
Nor would we have left had we known that a group of his men had found the house and announced to the slaves that they were free. When they refused, they grew angry and torched the fields and the main house. Claire and I returned to discover that Grandma Ruth has rescued our clothes putting them in a carriage. All she said was. “It’s time to go. There is another life awaiting us.” Claire looked at us all and said. “You were always more free than me. At first I hated it. How could a slave, mere property, be free?” You tolerated my father’s lust and yielded yourself to him. He fell for you. I saw the day when you took my mother’s place in his heart. He had never intended that. He only wanted satisfaction. You yielding changed him. His kindness changed me.”
“Thank you. I only fulfilled my master’s request.”
“No you did far more. Go with my blessing. You are free. Rejoice in your freedom.”
With that, and the main house gone and fields gone, the five of us left. The others scattered to unknown parts. I never saw them again. We settled in Charleston for a time and on to Harper’s Ferry after the war ended. It wasn’t until 1870 that I heard from Claire. We met back in Charlottesville.
“You look well,” I said.
“I am. I wanted to give this to you, my father’s will. After you left, I stayed with the encampment until they left. Then I returned to see what was left. I found this in a fireproof box.”
The paper said in bold letters: ‘The last will and testament of Bartley Timberlake. I, Bartley being of sound mind and body, do disown my son William for his grievances. He did me much evil of which I cannot forgive. I possess no aire, I free my slaves. They are henceforth and forever free. To my daughter Claire I give the sum of $120,000. I love her so and hope she finds her mate.
To my precious Rae who gave to me first, I give the remainder of my possessions. If there is doubt of this in legality, see the other note.”
It was signed by him. She handed me the other paper. It was a fake birth certificate swearing that I was his daughter as well and that Doc Severs said I was cream toned white. I laughed. Claire looked at me. “I had it checked. Jeb says it’s legal. So the land is yours. I want to rebuild. Would you like to return and live with me?”
I nodded. “Yes, but this paper is a lie.”
“Indeed it is. But only you and me now this. Otherwise you couldn’t have the land. You know they are still fighting your people’s rights. This way you can still help.”
“I will agree for your sake and to not embarrass him. When you pass, I will tell the truth.”
“Then it’s settled.”
The next year saw the building of the new house and hands hired soon after. I have been there ever since. Claire past last year. I fear I will so pass myself.” She looked at The President. “I thank you for allowing me to tell my story.”
The gentlemen beside the phonograph looked relieved. He was on the last cylinder.
“What you didn’t know was I was there with Claire that night. I was delivering a message to him when I saw the commotion. I alerted them.”
“No. You got your recompense.”
“Yes, I did. My struggle actually prophesied the provision of my faith. Nothing could stop my destiny but me. I discovered that early on. It sustained me.”
“I must depart now. Thank you again, Aunt Green.”
“You are welcome, Mr. President.”
I rose and was followed out by my granddaughter and my husband. “She asked one question as we got in. “Why?”
“Because a lie is a lie. And the Lord always provided. And he did. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”