Chapter OneNight Riders in White
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The sky was so black no one could have seen their own hand in front of their face. Everyone in the big house was asleep, and had been for hours. There wasn't a moon.
But the stillness would soon be broken. For murder approached through the night.
The distant thunder of horses' hooves gradually intruded into the senses of the dogs where they lay. Even asleep, their ears turned instinctively toward the sound. Instantly they jumped to their feet. A few barks echoed into the night. They weren't enough to wake anyone inside ... not yet.
But the riders were coming fast. Within a minute or two the dogs were howling at whatever was moving toward them. Uneven flames played against the black horizon ... and the pounding of hooves grew ominous. The dogs saw the strange lights and barked the louder. Five or six sleepers stirred in their beds.
Two minutes later a posse of riders galloped recklessly into the yard. Dust rose in all directions. The dogs flew about in a yowling frenzy at the horses' feet. Chickens in their sheds cackled in an uproar of confusion, and a few cows in the barn began to low restlessly. Lanterns appeared in a couple of the windows. They were hardly needed. The torches of flame held from every rider's hand jumped high in the blackness and cast eerie shadows on the walls of house and barn and lit up the open space between.
"Hey you inside!" called the deep voice of the lead horseman. "You got a nigger in there-we're here for him!"
The band of white-hooded riders around him sat waiting. Their prancing mounts fidgeted with jittery energy after the long ride.
Daring a few glances outside, the women in the house trembled with terror.
After a long minute, at last the door of the house opened. A white man holding a lantern stepped onto the porch. He did not carry a gun. He hoped somehow to deal with this peaceably. Though he was not a man easily cowed, the sight that met his eye was enough to send a chill up his spine. He had spent most of his life talking rather than shooting his way out of trouble. Whether he would be able to do so on this present occasion looked doubtful. In front of him sat twelve riders draped in white sheets and with masked faces.
"We're here for the nigger ... you know why!" said the rider.
"You know who we've got here," replied the white man. "They're none of your concern."
"That young buck made himself our concern yesterday. This is what comes of being too friendly with that little girl of yours. Now he's going to pay! Hand him over or these torches'll be through your windows and that house of yours'll be nothing but cinders come morning."
"He doesn't live here. We've just got a couple of house darkies."
"Word has it he's been out-"
"Hey, Dwight-" interrupted another voice.
"Shut up, you fool," spat the spokesman, turning in his saddle. "-I told you ... no names."
"But I got him ... he was hiding in the barn!"
All eyes turned toward the voice. A tall young man wearing one of the white capes was dragging a young black man, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes, through the barn door into the torchlit night.
"That's him!" cried another of the riders.
Half the saddles emptied. Within seconds a small crowd was viciously kicking and beating the black man into the dirt. A few moans were his only reply.
"That's enough-plenty of time for all that later," yelled the man called Dwight. "We don't want to kill him here. Just get the rope around him and put him up on that horse."
"All right, you boys have had your fun," said the white man, walking toward them from the house. He still hoped to end the incident without bloodshed. "He's done nothing to any of you."
"He forgot what color his skin is-that's enough!" yelled another of the riders. "You seem to have forgotten it too."
"Ain't no good can come to a nigger-lover around here, mister," chided another. "That's something you maybe oughta remember. You and your kind ain't welcome in these parts."
Behind them, the door of the house opened again. Out stepped a white woman, by appearance close to twenty. Terrified at the sight that met her gaze, she drew in a steadying breath. Then she stepped off the porch and came forward with more apparent courage than she felt inside. She knew, in one way, that she was herself the cause of this incident. She hoped she could keep it from becoming still more dangerous.
"He meant nothing by what he did," she said, walking forward and speaking to the lead rider. "It was my fault, not his. I shouldn't have interfered."
"Then he should have known better, miss-and you should have yourself. Now that it's done, he's got to pay."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the black man being shoved onto the back of one of the horses with his hands tied behind his back. One of the other men began forcing a noose around his neck.
"Get it tight!" yelled another with an evil laugh.
"But you can't do this!" she cried in a pleading voice. She ran toward them. "He's done nothing wrong!"
Rude hands restrained her and yanked her back. A surge of fury filled the white man where he stood a few yards away. He took several steps forward. But there was nothing he could do against so many. The young woman ran to his side in desperation.
"Let's go, Dwight," yelled one of the men, "-we got him!"
The last of the riders remounted. The rest began to swing their horses around.
Out of the house now flew another woman, this one black. She ran straight for the captive. Before the riders could stop her she threw herself against the horse where he was bound and clung to one of his legs. He looked down and tried to reassure her with a smile. The light from the surrounding torches danced in her eyes, wet with tears of terror that she would never see him again.
The eyes of the two former slaves met but for a moment. Though the noose had already begun to choke his neck, the young man tried to speak.
"I love ... we'll-" he began.
A rude slap across the mouth from the nearest of the horsemen silenced him. At the same instant, a booted foot from another shoved the girl away.
"Get away from him, nigger girl!" he yelled as she stumbled back and fell to the ground. "Otherwise we'll string you up beside him! We got plenty of rope for the two of you."
A few shouts and slashes from whips and reins, and the mob galloped away. On the ground, the girl picked herself up and ran a few steps toward them.
"No!" she wailed. The forlorn cry was lost in the night. Her horrified protests soon gave way to sobs. She hardly felt the arms of the man and her friend as they approached and tried to comfort her. Slowly they led her back to the house.
"But why ... why?" was all she could whimper in her grief. Neither of the other two had an answer. There was no "why" to hatred.
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For the first time in my brief life as a free colored girl, I almost wished we were slaves again. Had Mr. Lincoln never set us free, a whipping and a beating might take place on a night like this. But at least the man I loved would be left with his life. But times had changed. I knew that. Living in the South after the War Between the States was different than before. I had been glad of that ... before now. But now coloreds like me no longer had value as slaves. Before 1862, our very slavery, though our curse, had also been our protection. Whites may have looked down on us, and whipped us, even despised us. But not too many hated us. In the white man's eyes, we weren't worth hating. I hadn't liked it. None of us had. But it's how things were. But the war changed everything. Once we were free, hatred came to the South. A new kind of hatred. An evil hatred. Slaves had always been beaten. But blacks were now being hung. And now the young man I had come to love was about to become one of them! I wept as I watched the torches disappear into the night. Dread filled my heart. I knew I would probably never see him again. What good was the freedom we had been given if we couldn't live long enough to enjoy it? No, I did not want to go back. Not even now. Freedom was better than anything. But hatred created invisible bonds of its own just as bad as slavery. I had changed so much, we all had, in such a short period of time. But was it worth it? The nation called the United States of America was supposed to be one of liberty and opportunity for all, or so I had heard. It did not seem so to me at that moment. As a result of our newfound freedom, many black people might possibly rise up and prosper in this land that had long been our home. But on this night it seemed clear that many would also die....
Chapter TwoSlave Boy
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Life was simpler back when Negroes were slaves.
White masters controlled life. Every bit of it. There was nothing to do, nothing to think, nothing to plan, nothing to hope for ... nothing to do anything about except do what you were told.
But was freedom from such drudgery worth life itself?
That was the question on the mind of the young black man now riding through the darkness with a noose of death around his neck. He was terrified-that was for sure. But even more than his own fate, his sickened heart was filled with the wail of love that had sounded behind him as he had been taken away. It was a dreadful sound. He would never forget it.
As he jostled along in the saddle, his past life flitted through his memory. He recalled where he had come from. It had been a long search that had brought him here three years before. Now it seemed the quest hadn't been such a good idea after all.
He had found family. He had discovered love. But what would either matter if his life ended tonight with his body dangling from the end of a white man's rope?
All he could think was that he should never have left Alabama, where he was born.
Back then as long as he obeyed his white master and kept his eyes to the ground, all went on day by day in relative peace.
That hadn't prevented the whippings. But at least the simplicity of life had kept him alive.
Alive ... but angry.
He had hoped the smoldering demon of anger had left him for good. But the white man hated soft-spoken free Negroes no less than brash and belligerent slaves. What made him think life would ever be different?
What did any of it matter now?
A quiet anger had been his silent companion almost longer than he could remember. Perhaps it was destined to be a curse that accompanied the newfound freedom of his race.
The day he first felt it rise up within him was also the day his own whippings had begun. Years later, by the age of fourteen when the Emancipation Proclamation had come, he had countless scars on his back. The marks of the whip were plain enough evidence that keeping his mouth shut hadn't been easy.
And all the while a silent rage seethed inside him to accompany the scars. It was not an anger directed merely at his white master or his men, but also against the man who had given him life. Scars on his back were not in themselves a burden. No scar could keep a man from becoming anything he wanted to be. But anger like his was a different thing. It could keep a man in an unseen bondage from which no one else could free him. Or a woman too, though women weren't quite so prone to it as men. Not even Abraham Lincoln could free the young man called Jake from the anger in his own heart. He would have to fight his own personal war to win that freedom.
The battle would not be an easy one.
Jake's youngest years playing with the other slave children and the master's son hadn't been so bad. There had been enough to eat. Though the work for grown-up slaves was hard, life had pattern and predictability. He came from a people who took happiness where they could find it. Laughter and song were never far away, ready to brighten any day when the master's whip was silent.
But Master Clarkson was a shrewd one. He knew how to control his slaves with more than just the whip. He instilled fear early in life. He didn't want his black youngsters growing up too comfortable.
Jake never forgot the day the master came out and gathered all the slave children, then looked at them sternly. Jake was probably four or five, but there were some as young as three in the little group.
"Just look here," said the master, nodding toward the dog beside him. He was holding it by a leash as it strained and growled to get at the children. "This here's what's called a nigger dog," he said. "I got it to ketch niggers when they run away."
He looked around, making sure his eyes probed straight into every child's face. He wanted them to understand that he was talking to each one of them.
"He's a mighty strong dog," said Clarkson. "He can run faster'n any man alive. Look at them teeth-they'd just snap a nigger's leg right off. This dog likes the taste of nigger blood, he does. He's just waiting every day, hoping I'll say the word and send him after some nigger trying to run away. Might be your daddy, might be your mama ... it might even be you, 'cause this dog don't care if it's a grown-up or what. He likes nigger blood wherever it comes from."
Again he stopped and stared every little boy and girl in the eyes. Most of them, just like young Jake's, were by this time wide as round white saucers in the middle of their black faces. If Master Clarkson wanted them to be afraid, he had already succeeded. But he wasn't done yet.
"Just look how strong his jaws are," he went on. "When a nigger don't behave, all I got to do is just say the word and this here dog'll grab hold of him and pull him to the ground and then he'll just snap a nigger's head right off as easy as I'd whack off a chicken's head with an ax. He likes the taste of nigger young'uns best."
By the time the master was finished, Jake and all the other children were scared to death. The master's speech had exactly the effect he wanted. Fear of disobedience was the earliest and most important lesson he wanted to teach every slave. And white masters like Massa Clarkson had a thousand ways to teach it.
The very thought of escape always brought to the minds of boys and girls like Jake reminders of the fangs of "Massa's houn' dog." None of them had ever seen a dog take off a man's leg, much less a head. But most had seen enough to know that a dog's teeth could draw blood and leave a vicious scar on the calf. Half the men on the Clarkson plantation could pull up a ragged trouser leg to show proof of it.
For generations before that time, since their ancestors had first been brought as captives from their African homeland, not too many slaves ever thought about trying to escape. A thousand men like Master Clarkson, with five thousand overseers and ten thousand whips and more ornery "nigger dogs" than you could count, had seen to that.
But young Jake was growing up in the turbulent 1850s. Times were changing. Even in the Deep South of Alabama.
Sounds of freedom were in the air.
Those sounds of freedom took many forms. The white masters learned to recognize them and tried to stamp them out whenever they saw signs of them. But that wasn't so easy. Once a people who have been oppressed get a notion of what freedom is like, they want it more and more. That's how it was for the black slaves in America's South. They started thinking about Moses and the children of Israel in their slavery in Egypt. They realized that they might someday have a Moses to deliver them too, or lots of Moseses working together. And they started talking and singing about their own promised land, and the day when they'd be free just like the Israelites.
Though the white masters and their white families all went to their white churches all prim and proper every Sunday, when their Negro slaves started talking and singing about Israel and Moses and the Promised Land, they started to get nervous. They didn't like their slaves getting too familiar with the white man's religion because that could lead to only one thing-talk of freedom. That's what salvation was, after all-freedom from sin ... and maybe other kinds of freedom too.
So it was outlawed throughout the South for Negroes to preach to other Negroes. Black churches had white preachers who preached to them about obedience and submission and the sin of rebellion. The most quoted verses of Scripture in those black churches were Ephesians 6:5-Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters-and Colossians 13:22-Servants, obey in all things your masters.