I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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Tag: enslaved peoples

#62. Fake arrest warrants; slave traders from South Carolina; sabotage; a truth and reconciliation opportunity? Or a story that proves (again) that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it inclines towards justice?

Oliver and I are in the dusty archives of our local paper, using an ancient microfiche reader. It’s our first non-Google research experience and it’s a very physical task: Push levers, pull handles, unroll film or fiche. Before the advent of digital media, microfiche was the only way to preserve newspapers in a format that provided easy storage. But the task has become an emotional one too. We’ve unearthed a story that would work as a Netflix documentary short series for all ages.

I don’t want to appear disrespectful when telling this story, but enslaved people were allowed only a first name, although some were given the name of the enslaver eventually. Our hero is Scipio: not an immigrant, even though he or his parents came from Africa; and not a refugee, even though his home may have been destroyed by war. Scipio was most probably a “spoil of war,” meaning he was the invaders’ property. It is possible that his ancestors were abducted from Dukandarra in West Africa. We deduced this because several other enslaved people near our town came from there in the 1700’s.

When Scipio was eight years old he was bought by a Mrs Abigail Kirk. But when he married Venus without Abigail’s OK, she “sold” the couple to her son, Peter, a minister in town. Scipio was a hard worker: In addition to laboring for free as an enslaved person, he earned and saved money from work other people paid him to do. When the American Revolution started, Minister Kirk’s home was raided and he was threatened with tar and feathering because he sided with the Tories. I love Kings, he yelled as he fled to England, leaving the farm entirely in the trusted hands of Scipio and Venus and their growing family. In the words of his “legal guardian” Elias Henry: Scipio lived in Kirk’s House, and conducted his Business with Prudence until said Kirk’s lands were taken and leased out; at which time said Scipio and his Family were turned off and supported themselves comfortably for about five or six years, without any assistance.

Oliver and I are greatly puzzled when we read about this “getting kicked off the farm” business.

The “legal guardian” says they were evicted even though they had done a great job of operating the farm: raised sheep for wool to barter with, pounded 4 bushels of corn each day for the chickens, carded wool, paid their debts, and helped their neighbors. Oliver underlines these words in our notes: no one in town spoke up for them when they were evicted from the farm and replaced by white tenants. No one.

It seems to Oliver and me that the townspeople were horrible: they let the state oust the family; they didn’t give them any help. Resourceful and impressive in their ability to manage, Scipio and Venus were of the community, but still enslaved; they were no burden to anyone, but not defended. (At least they weren’t lynched, I mutter.)

We stop reading for a few minutes, our eyes smarting from scrolling and squinting at the microfiche images of old newspaper articles. Oliver and I are shocked. This is a racial history story that is not going as we thought. We were anticipating that we’d find examples of enslavement because our state had more enslaved people than was previously thought. Many of our college buildings, for instance, were built by enslaved labor; but Scipio’s story was an actual, factual, local example. We were naive to be disappointed that the “white people didn’t help.” Somehow we’d assumed “our” town would have acted better than other towns.

But, “needs must” (as I like to say I like to say): When they were evicted so that a white family could take the farm, Scipio and Venus squatted. Using the lands right next to the Kirk farm, they supported themselves and continued to give food and a helping hand to those who asked. At the end of the war, they re-occupied the farm when the white tenants abandoned it. The farm was in a terrible state of smash. Working 24/7, Scipio and his family mended fences, repaired buildings, nurtured the soil, husbanded the cattle, and returned the farm to its previously prosperous ways. Did Minister Kirk appreciate their huge effort? The answer is an emphatic no.

From England, Kirk arranged with a South Carolina slave merchant to sell Scipio, Venus, and their eight children “down South” to pay off his considerable debts.

Terrible trouble looms. A gang of heavily armed ruffians charge the farmhouse. The attack came at a bad time for a good outcome: The men and boys of the town had gone to practice their militia moves, so “only” the women and children were around to protest.

But protest they did. Unlike earlier when they’d allowed the family to be evicted, the women sabotaged the harnesses of the slavers’ wagon. They harassed them and screamed in their faces despite having swords brandished at them. One eye witness says, The slaver held a Drawn Sword in his hand and as I attempted to go into the house from whence the Negroes was taken, he shook the Sword over my head and Charged me with great anger in his countenance not to go in upon my perrel.

Tiny digression here: We found several “firsthand” accounts written in dip pen and stored at the state library website. (Less dusty than the newspaper archives.) The writing is that spidery style? It looks like the tip of the pen is perpendicular to the paper and pressing only minimally so the letters extend above and below the “line.” I mean, sometimes it was so hard to decipher Oliver joked that it was really Old English grimoire—that being a type of text which has no meaning but looks perfect. (BTW this is the only joke we came up with during our research.)

Back to the drama: The men forcibly enter the house and confront Venus who’s nursing her new baby. They tie Scipio and the older kids to the back of the wagon. The “foreman” waves his power of attorney documentation and deed of sale in one hand while yanking Venus and her infant into the wagon with the other. The neighbor ladies and kids try to grab the papers. To no avail: With some of the family in the wagon and the rest leashed behind, the slave traders rumble out of town. Scipio scooped up heavy stones and deposited them in the wagon in an effort to slow it down when the gang was looking the other way.

But finally! The town rallied. The women sent messages to the militia drillers, we must save our neighbors! Immediately the men galloped toward the pier, concocting a plan as they thundered along. The Tall Tale They Concocted: The local tailor has filed a formal complaint that the family left without paying for some clothing: one Blue Broadcloth Coat with White Mettle Buttons worth Six Shillings, corduroy britches partly worn,for a total debt of eighteen shillings. So a warrant was issued for their “arrest.” (The “warrant” and “complaint” were tucked in a saddle bag.) The posse let out all the stops to overtake the abductors.

The warrant for their arrest uses wording still used today: Fail not but due service and Return make according to the law.

Some of the family was already aboard and in chains when the posse presented their warrant and took the family into “custody.” Scipio’s salt tears were frozen on his face” as he saw his fellow townsfolk coming to the rescue. That night there was a huge celebration in the tavern, with Scipio and Venus partying along with the rest of townspeople. We found a bill with the amounts of beer and ale and food that was drunk and eaten. Refreshments for ourselves and prisoners, 7 Breakfasts plus 8 Negro Breakfasts plus Bitters, at a cost of 16 shillings.(The town paid all the bills except for the bowls of toddy, brandy, and cherry rum!) The amount of alcohol consumed that night indicates that other residents of town joined in to celebrate the return.

But still the agents of Peter Kirk tried to capture, sell, and split up the family. To thwart these efforts, the theft subterfuge had to be pursued and a two year “sentence” was imposed: Two years of “service” supervised by one of Scipio’s good friends.

All was resolved when the state’s General Assembly reviewed the many petitions and depositions filed to free Scipio and his family from slavery. I have been a neighbor of Scipio and Venus for 15 years during which time I have observ’d but few if any of the common Vices of Mankind in them.

No other enslaved person has received as many depositions from local residents in support of a particular request; also, the testimony was overwhelming as to the cruelty of their seizure by the gang of men.

They were emancipated from slavery and forever free in 1789.

Know all whom it may concern that we the Town Selectmen well acquainted with Scipio, Servant to the Peter Kirk, and cannot say anything respecting his Morrels but that they are good, and that he has the Character of being a sober, honest, industrious fellow.

Why didn’t Scipio run to Canada? Get on the Underground Railroad? Did he feel an obligation to tend the farm? Kirk had said nice things about them; perhaps he promised freedom? Was their family just too large to lug around? And what motivated the townspeople to finally help them in a public way? Was it that the popular thinking was transformed in regard to race, slavery, and liberty during the Revolution?

This is one of those stories that show that we humans will do the right thing, but only after trying all the wrong things, or ignoring the problem all together. (I think this is a variation of something Winston Churchill said, but I’ve appropriated it.)

And does this help us deal with the bigotry and race hatred of today? Oliver says, probably not, but, wow, what a good story.

And good stories sustain, even Winnie the Pooh knew enough to ask for a story such as would help him during his time of tightness. He’d eaten so much of Rabbit’s honey, he couldn’t get out the burrow doorway.

Our People think we should put this story into play form and present it to the community. It could be an example of what it looks like when the hidden racial history of the town is revealed. Perhaps because it’s not a lynching, we could get past the indignation and denial stage of reconciliation faster.

#60. Murmuration: wherein a flock of birds suddenly fly as a shape. Likewise, I suddenly see our race problem that’s always been there but hadn’t murmurated for me yet.

I haven’t mentioned race before because, well, because so far I’ve concentrated on murder and revenge and chickens and Sir Isaac and coffee shoppe drinks and explicit sexual lyrics and courts and Mom, Dad, me, Sam, Clyde, Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Oliver. Hmmmm. Quite a hot mess of narrative threads, but that’s life: tangled. 

I bring up race now because saying nothing about racism is the same as being a racist.

In my opinion.

Our town has 4,325 people. Most of them seem to have a similar genetic background as Mom, Dad, Mimi, and Pop. I’m veering on racist with that “most of them”  statement, but stay with me here, ok?

My grownups gave each other 23AndMe vials and mail-back boxes for presents last year, and the results were as we expected, with a few surprises: Pop is Scottish and Scandanavian (Swedish); Mimi is Croatian (Southern Europe); Dad was a combination of Pop and Mimi; Mom was British (Guernsey Islander) and Ashkenazi Jewish—not a country or region, but Ashkenazis have their own reference population because they’re so genetically distinct; though not distinct to ME, this being the first I’ve heard of this part of my ancestry! All four have a speck of Neanderthal in them too. That’s fun. 

So, pretty European in origins, right? But, our town is lucky also to have a lot of non-Europeans.  Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Mr Grim gave me background on families that I’ve met since moving here. 

Oliver and I are friends with the Jefferson kids. Their families run the the pharmacy, the gas station and the foreign car repair shop. An older daughter is training to be a neurosurgeon and came to speak in Mr Grim’s class this week. (Mr Grim is short for I don’t remember what and he comes from Ukraine.) Back to the Jeffersons. They are descendants of enslaved people and came north during the Great Migration. Barack Jefferson is in Oliver’s class. He wants all his relatives to change their name to a Nigerian one, since who wants to be named after a white slave owner he says, even if he was the President. Gee, if you put it that way, I’d say, do it!

Mrs Nguyen is our Superintendant of Schools. She was one of 120,000 Boat People who fled Vietnam by cramming into boats and ships when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. The boats were good for sailing near shore but not the open seas. It was a humanitarian crisis. The Unitarian Church in our town sponsored the Nguyens, the Hoangs, and the Daos. We have several generations living here now. 

Dr Moon is Korean and Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) and he is our pediatrician. His family came from Korea to Hawaii in 1903. That’s where his grandfather met his grandmother. By the time our Dr Moon was born and educated, Hawaii was a state. 

The Freijes have owned and operated our grocery store for 50 years. They came from Syria. “Freijes Food” has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range chickens and beef or lamb, canned goods, grains, bread, and of course daily specials of Mahshi—veggies stuffed with rice or meat—and kibbeh—think: deep fried, torpedo-shaped, filled with meat. Yum. The Freijes donate food all the time; they have a huge community outreach. 

The Razooks are Lebanese. They are candy makers. I met them at the end of this summer when Pop brought me to their store to watch them make the filling that’s in many of their desserts. It’s called Kashta.  Mrs Razook boiled milk with rose and orange blossom water and extracted the clotted cream at the top. She hugged me.  Mr Razook gave us sample dishes of Znoud El Sit, a fried crispy roll stuffed with Kashta and topped with nuts. Even though I was sad sad sad (it was only a few days after Mom and Dad were murdered), the surprise sweetness of Znoud El Sit tickled my throat and tricked me into laughing. I couldn’t help it.

The Amars own and operate our hardware store. Their daughters are our lawyers. For a long time they thought they were descendants of enslaved people from Africa. Then 23andMe showed their lineage here began with a man named “Tony” from East India. He was captured and carried to the early Virginia colony by a Captain George Menefie who traded Tony for a “headright” entitling him to 50 acres of land. The Amars have been here since BEFORE the Mayflower hit Plymouth in 1620!

One of my classmates is Atika; she is from Somalia. She loves hip-hop, wears a jaunty hijab, and is trilingual—her first language being Kinyamulenge which she learned as a tiny kid in a refugee camp. She and her mother Maryan belong to the Somali American Farmer’s Association and are experts on raising goats and sheep (but, alas,no camels) and fresh vegetables. Atika gave a report to our class recently where she described how the Somalis and several land owners are working together to make sure everyone has access to fresh and organic produce and meats. She explained that to jumpstart their efforts, land owners had donated parcels of land and put it in trust for the Somalis. This gave her people a cushion of security so they could, in turn,give food security to others.

Several years ago our town had a refugee influx from the Bosnian War. Because she speaks Croatian, Mimi worked with Mr Grim who had several refugee kids in his classroom. She noticed right away that all the kids didn’t speak Croatian and that they were not best buddies with each other. At the end of the first day, a terrible fight broke out between two of the kids. Turns out their families were on opposite sides of the conflict! Mimi was shocked by the hate in the kids’ faces as they slugged each other. Mr Grim called the families in and Mimi translated, ENOUGH ALREADY!  She decided to use picture dictionaries to teach the kids to read, speak, and write English. Mr Grim asked his sister who runs a chimney sweep company to help out; she added two work crews and hired several of the adults. The situation is defused, as they say. 

I know I don’t have all the groups, but now I must focus on Oliver and what happened to him.

While Zia is all Italian, her nephew married a woman from China—Oliver’s mother. Her family had immigrated to San Francisco, but then a shoe factory owner from North Adams, Massachusetts hired them to work as strike-breakers at his factory. Talk about a surefire recipe for super-charging a race and labor battle! This was 1870. Eventually, Oliver’s mother’s family made their way to Boston’s Chinatown where they thrived. 

What does Oliver look like you might be thinking? Well, he’s cute, I have to say. Tall, jet black hair, wide cheekbones, and no crease around the top of his eyelids—I noticed this last detail because he sits across from me after school in the breakfast nook and, hmmm, I like to look at him. To tell you the truth since I knew Zia was Italian, I assumed he was Italian-American. Shows how much I don’t know. 

So the other day he and I were walking past the courthouse; the twins—thank goodness—had been picked up earlier to go to Dr Moon for a checkup. We’d gone to the coffee shop to chat with Belle and were sharing a giant chocolate chip cookie as we walked home.  All of a sudden a bunch of older kids pour down the court steps, high-fiving each other, and lighting cigarettes. Probably got off with a hand slap mutters Oliver with a scowl. He glances at them and then looks away, but I think he may have caught their attention, based on what happened next. (Not that I noticed what happened next WHEN it was happening.)

My mind registers that they’re talking louder than usual, but I’m so engrossed in telling Oliver about the twins run away attempt, I don’t attend to the scrum behind us. In fact I’m miffed that Oliver does not laugh at the funny parts of my story. 

Suddenly Oliver stops and rounds on the loud kids behind us. He  shakes his fist. 

I do NOT eat bats. I am not your slave. I will not give you an N-pass. This IS my home. My family came to this country in 1870. And it wasn’t the China Virus. That’s crazy talk.

The gang stops too. Everyone’s fists are clenched. 

I’m gob-smacked. First, I’ve never seen Oliver lose his cool. Second, I hadn’t computed the jumble of words behind me; I was so enthralled with my own story. But the slurs and taunts hit the bullseye—Oliver, loud and clear. 

For a split second I wonder if this will be my first rumble.

Instead the kids spit, say F-U Asians, sneer, fist-bump, and cross to the other side of the street towards the station, giving us the finger as they climb aboard a bus. 

To be continued in #61–Isabel Scheherazade 


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