Chapter 12: Benji Ross
1833 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
I was born a slave, but my pa says I’ll die a free man. My mama says don’t get my hopes up, she’s distrustful when it comes to white folks. She says even though the massa says he’s gonna free us, don’t mean he will. I’mma hopin’ my daddy’s right. I’ve been a house slave since I can remember. As far as negroes go, it’s the best work you can have. If I do good, I’mma hoping to avoid ever bein’ out in the fields.
The place where we live is near Chesapeake Bay on the eastern shore. It’s called Tidewater ‘cause the tide comes up in our streams and leaves the fresh water tastin’ like salt. The actual town is called Buck Town. There’s a main street with a post office, a general store where we get dry goods, and a saloon. It’s about the same as every other town.
My pa’s name is Benjamin and that’s where I got my name. I’m Ben too, or folks call me Benji. My pa’s super smart. He can tell when it’s gonna rain or freeze or when we’re gonna have a long dry spell. He knows just how to read the weather and clouds. For a slave, he’s got a reputation for honesty and his reputation is known all around the area. Our massa swears no matter what, if Old Ben said it, it must be true.
Most the time, he’s out fellin’ trees. There’s this ax he uses every day, sometimes it seems an extension of his arm. To hear him talk, you’d think that ax did the work all by itself. Pa’s a big man, tall and strong. Most days, he’s in charge of the timber and the timber slaves; they all respect him too. It makes me proud he’s my daddy.
Our massa is Edwards Brodess. He’s a good man as far as slave owners go. I mean, we’d all rather be free, don’t get me wrong, but Massa Brodess don’t whup up on us like other slave owners do. Oh, he will if you try ‘n run but what I can tell, if you just do your work and mind your manners, he’ll leave ya’ alone. He’s got an overseer that does his dirty work when it comes to us black folk. Now that is one mean man, we don’t even know his name, but I think he likes it that way, so we don’t get too familiar. I don’t mind Brodess, but as soon as his overseer rolls up on this big horse of his, I’m walkin’ fast and feelin’ scared.
Our pa is managed by Brodess’ step-daddy, Massa Thompson. That’s how our folks met. Our mama came with Brodess’ missus, Mary, and Thompson had Pa as his head slave over the lumber for years.
They said it was love at first sight. Since the farms share a borderline, it ain’t hard to get from one place to another. ’Bout an hour’s stroll from quarter to quarter. Some nights, Pa stays with us, some nights, Ma goes over to his place on the Thompson flat and Ouma or Linah takes care of us young ’uns.
The Brodess place is just like every other place in this area. There’s a big garden for vegetables, an oyster bed, duckin’ blind, and a fishin’ bar. Away from the big house is where the slave quarter is. There’s a line of shacks with no windows, just a chimney and a door. They’re made with the left-over timber that isn’t quite straight or a bit rotten. The good wood is sold, it’s a big money business. So, the slave houses were built with the remnants. Since my pa’s Thompson’s lead timber man, he was able to haul the best of the worst wood for our place.
Mud and sap is stuffed into the cracks and crevices to keep the wind and winter out. There’s a fire pit on the floor; if the wind blows too hard the smoke comes back in, so all the walls are black, and it always smells like burnt wood. That’s what home smells like to me, burnt wood with a hint of sweat.
In the middle of the floor is a big board. Under the board is a hidey hole for our potatoes and beets. Rations are smaller in the winter than summer, so my pa dug out this storage to make sure we always have enough. He cuts them and shows me where they have ‘eyes’ and when we open back up after the winter, the eyes have turned into roots. Ma and Mariah plant ’em on the south side of our shack. Pa and Robert dug a water trough that makes sure they stay moist.
Each year, the massa gives my mama a little piglet. He always gives her the runt. She raises it behind our cabin near the garden. We use its poop for fertilizer and when Christmas time comes it’s ready for eatin’. We feed it with the scraps from the big house. They are usually wrapped in the paper that Massa brings home on Sunday.
Once I empty the food scraps, I smooth out the paper and take it to my ouma. Sometimes she reads to us what’s going on in the world outside of Buck Town, Maryland.
We ain’t got no beds or tables or chairs, just a bunch of old blankets. Every slave gets a blanket once a year, so over the years, my folks and siblings ’cumulated a bunch. During the day, we keep them rolled up and stacked in the corner farthest from the fireplace. That keeps them a bit cleaner, least that’s what my mama says. When they’re all rolled up, we can make them into a place to sit for Ouma mostly. It’s like a blanket throne.
We all live at the quarter on the Brodess tobacco farm. The oldest is Ouma, which is my mom’s mom. Of course, there’s my pa and mama and then I got six siblings. I got one older brother, Robert, and then there’s four sisters, all older than me, and baby Rachel who won’t be the baby much longer. Mama’s expectin’ another one any day now. I suspect it will be another girl but Ouma says it’s a boy. I don’t dare get my hopes up. Mama says Ouma can tell when a woman’s expectin’ what the baby will be. Ma says she’s never wrong and has already picked the name Moses from the Bible. Pa says he likes the name Harry because it sounds regal and Afrikan. We’ll soon see.
My mama tells us stories from the Bible most nights when she tucks us in. She tells us about the children of Israel and how, even though the children were afraid on their long journey to the promised land, they made it to freedom. We say our prayers and plead to God each night we will live long enough to be free. Mama teaches us songs, too; hymns that praise God and others that promise freedom. There’s a few we have to sing soft to ourselves as so the overseer or Massa don’t hear. The lyrics sing, “let my people go” and sound like thunder when we all sing it together. The overseer told Massa Brodess he didn’t like the looks of our folk when they said those words, so now we have to sing it quiet or not at all.
Once a month or so, we get rations. It’s a special day called Issue Day. I get to take the cart and horse to the big house and get a couple pounds of pickled pork, cornmeal, and salt. Then we gotta make that work for the month. We eat everything from our garden. For a long time, I thought the tops of the beets were what you’re supposed to eat since Mama cooks them up with a little bacon fat from the big house. It’s a treat to eat them greens.
Couple times a year, we get new clothes, too. The littles just get a burlap shift. Once you’re old enough to get hired out, you get a set of pants and two shirts. The girls get a dress called a shift. Ouma and Linah are experts at keepin’ their shifts lookin’ clean and neat. Ouma stitched deep pockets in hers and is always collecting stuff like roots and herbs.
Since I’m a house slave, I get shoes. To me that don’t make much sense since the slaves outside would probably benefit from shoes more than me. Minty ain’t never wore a pair of shoes in her whole life and she’s always out and about. White folk got this shoe thing all backwards.
The oldest of my mama’s babies is Linah. She’s more like my mama’s sister than mine. They look and act a lot alike. Sometimes folk think they’re sisters but my mama says she just started young. Linah’s also a house slave. In fact, I’m her helper which is how I became a house slave when I was only four. When Linah got a baby inside her, she needed the help gettin’ on ladders to clean the candelabras and oil lamps. I was big enough, so I became the littlest house slave. Her baby, Calvin, is just barely a year now, just a year and a half younger than our baby, Rachel.
Mariah is next. She’s tall like our pa and has a gap in her teeth like him. Then there’s Sophie. She looks just like my ma and ouma, sometimes I see them as the same woman but in different times. It reminds me my ouma probably was pretty once even though now she’s scary looking like a witch from a nightmare. Then of course there’s Robert, my older brother who’s just like my pa. Brodess always teases him he’s got the best of Ben in Rob.
My favorite sister is Araminta, but no one calls her that. Most of us call her Minty, sometimes Mama or Ouma call her Minta. She looks just like our pa but she’s a little like Ma and Ouma. Sometimes I forget she’s a girl ’cause she’s strong. Really, really strong. She’s my best friend but now I think she’s gonna die.