#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.