Charles W. Chesnutt.

The Marrow of Tradition online

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before finished a term in the penitentiary, to which he had been
sentenced for stealing. Miller knew that he could have bought all the
man owned for fifty dollars, and his soul for as much more.

A few rods farther on, he came near running over the body of a wounded
man who lay groaning by the wayside. Every professional instinct urged
him to stop and offer aid to the sufferer; but the uncertainty
concerning his wife and child proved a stronger motive and urged him
resistlessly forward. Here and there the ominous sound of firearms was
audible. He might have thought this merely a part of the show, like the
"powder play" of the Arabs, but for the bloody confirmation of its
earnestness which had already assailed his vision. Somewhere in this
seething caldron of unrestrained passions were his wife and child, and
he must hurry on.

His progress was painfully slow. Three times he was stopped and
searched. More than once his way was barred, and he was ordered to turn
back, each such occasion requiring a detour which consumed many minutes.
The man who last stopped him was a well-known Jewish merchant. A
Jew - God of Moses! - had so far forgotten twenty centuries of history as
to join in the persecution of another oppressed race! When almost
reduced to despair by these innumerable delays, he perceived, coming
toward him, Mr. Ellis, the sub-editor of the Morning Chronicle. Miller
had just been stopped and questioned again, and Ellis came up as he was
starting once more upon his endless ride.

"Dr. Miller," said Ellis kindly, "it is dangerous for you on the
streets. Why tempt the danger?"

"I am looking for my wife and child," returned Miller in desperation.
"They are somewhere in this town, - I don't know where, - and I must find

Ellis had been horror-stricken by the tragedy of the afternoon, the
wholly superfluous slaughter of a harmless people, whom a show of force
would have been quite sufficient to overawe. Elaborate explanations were
afterwards given for these murders, which were said, perhaps truthfully,
not to have been premeditated, and many regrets were expressed. The
young man had been surprised, quite as much as the negroes themselves,
at the ferocity displayed. His own thoughts and feelings were attuned to
anything but slaughter. Only that morning he had received a perfumed
note, calling his attention to what the writer described as a very noble
deed of his, and requesting him to call that evening and receive the
writer's thanks. Had he known that Miss Pemberton, several weeks after
their visit to the Sound, had driven out again to the hotel and made
some inquiries among the servants, he might have understood better the
meaning of this missive. When Miller spoke of his wife and child, some
subtle thread of suggestion coupled the note with Miller's plight.
"I'll go with you, Dr. Miller," he said, "if you'll permit me. In my
company you will not be disturbed."

He took a seat in Miller's buggy, after which it was not molested.

Neither of them spoke. Miller was sick at heart; he could have wept with
grief, even had the welfare of his own dear ones not been involved in
this regrettable affair. With prophetic instinct he foresaw the hatreds
to which this day would give birth; the long years of constraint and
distrust which would still further widen the breach between two peoples
whom fate had thrown together in one community.

There was nothing for Ellis to say. In his heart he could not defend the
deeds of this day. The petty annoyances which the whites had felt at the
spectacle of a few negroes in office; the not unnatural resentment of a
proud people at what had seemed to them a presumptuous freedom of speech
and lack of deference on the part of their inferiors, - these things,
which he knew were to be made the excuse for overturning the city
government, he realized full well were no sort of justification for the
wholesale murder or other horrors which might well ensue before the day
was done. He could not approve the acts of his own people; neither could
he, to a negro, condemn them. Hence he was silent.

"Thank you, Mr. Ellis," exclaimed Miller, when they had reached the
house where he expected to find his wife. "This is the place where I was
going. I am - under a great obligation to you."

"Not at all, Dr. Miller. I need not tell you how much I regret this
deplorable affair."

Ellis went back down the street. Fastening his horse to the fence,
Miller sprang forward to find his wife and child. They would certainly
be there, for no colored woman would be foolhardy enough to venture on
the streets after the riot had broken out.

As he drew nearer, he felt a sudden apprehension. The house seemed
strangely silent and deserted. The doors were closed, and the Venetian
blinds shut tightly. Even a dog which had appeared slunk timidly back
under the house, instead of barking vociferously according to the usual
habit of his kind.



Miller knocked at the door. There was no response. He went round to the
rear of the house. The dog had slunk behind the woodpile. Miller knocked
again, at the back door, and, receiving no reply, called aloud.

"Mrs. Butler! It is I, Dr. Miller. Is my wife here?"

The slats of a near-by blind opened cautiously.

"Is it really you, Dr. Miller?"

"Yes, Mrs. Butler. I am looking for my wife and child, - are they here?"

"No, sir; she became alarmed about you, soon after the shooting
commenced, and I could not keep her. She left for home half an hour ago.
It is coming on dusk, and she and the child are so near white that she
did not expect to be molested."

"Which way did she go?"

"She meant to go by the main street. She thought it would be less
dangerous than the back streets. I tried to get her to stay here, but
she was frantic about you, and nothing I could say would keep her. Is
the riot almost over, Dr. Miller? Do you think they will murder us all,
and burn down our houses?"

"God knows," replied Miller, with a groan. "But I must find her, if I
lose my own life in the attempt."

Surely, he thought, Janet would be safe. The white people of Wellington
were not savages; or at least their temporary reversion to savagery
would not go as far as to include violence to delicate women and
children. Then there flashed into his mind Josh Green's story of his
"silly" mother, who for twenty years had walked the earth as a child, as
the result of one night's terror, and his heart sank within him.

Miller realized that his buggy, by attracting attention, had been a
hindrance rather than a help in his progress across the city. In order
to follow his wife, he must practically retrace his steps over the very
route he had come. Night was falling. It would be easier to cross the
town on foot. In the dusk his own color, slight in the daytime, would
not attract attention, and by dodging in the shadows he might avoid
those who might wish to intercept him. But he must reach Janet and the
boy at any risk. He had not been willing to throw his life away
hopelessly, but he would cheerfully have sacrificed it for those whom he

He had gone but a short distance, and had not yet reached the centre of
mob activity, when he intercepted a band of negro laborers from the
cotton compress, with big Josh Green at their head.

"Hello, doctuh!" cried Josh, "does you wan' ter jine us?"

"I'm looking for my wife and child, Josh. They're somewhere in this
den of murderers. Have any of you seen them?"

No one had seen them.

"You men are running a great risk," said Miller. "You are rushing on to
certain death."

"Well, suh, maybe we is; but we're gwine ter die fightin'. Dey say de
w'ite folks is gwine ter bu'n all de cullud schools an' chu'ches, an'
kill all de niggers dey kin ketch. Dey're gwine ter bu'n yo' new
hospittle, ef somebody don' stop 'em."

"Josh - men - you are throwing your lives away. It is a fever; it will
wear off to-morrow, or to-night. They'll not burn the schoolhouses, nor
the hospital - they are not such fools, for they benefit the community;
and they'll only kill the colored people who resist them. Every one of
you with a gun or a pistol carries his death warrant in his own hand.
I'd rather see the hospital burn than have one of you lose his life.
Resistance only makes the matter worse, - the odds against you are too

"Things can't be any wuss, doctuh," replied one of the crowd sturdily.
"A gun is mo' dange'ous ter de man in front of it dan ter de man behin'
it. Dey're gwine ter kill us anyhow; an' we're tired, - we read de
newspapers, - an' we're tired er bein' shot down like dogs, widout jedge
er jury. We'd ruther die fightin' dan be stuck like pigs in a pen!"

"God help you!" said Miller. "As for me, I must find my wife and child."

"Good-by, doctuh," cried Josh, brandishing a huge knife. "'Member 'bout
de ole 'oman, ef you lives thoo dis. Don' fergit de headbo'd an' de
footbo'd, an' a silver plate on de coffin, ef dere's money ernuff."

They went their way, and Miller hurried on. They might resist attack; he
thought it extremely unlikely that they would begin it; but he knew
perfectly well that the mere knowledge that some of the negroes
contemplated resistance would only further inflame the infuriated
whites. The colored men might win a momentary victory, though it was
extremely doubtful; and they would as surely reap the harvest later on.
The qualities which in a white man would win the applause of the world
would in a negro be taken as the marks of savagery. So thoroughly
diseased was public opinion in matters of race that the negro who died
for the common rights of humanity might look for no meed of admiration
or glory. At such a time, in the white man's eyes, a negro's courage
would be mere desperation; his love of liberty, a mere animal dislike of
restraint. Every finer human instinct would be interpreted in terms of
savagery. Or, if forced to admire, they would none the less repress.
They would applaud his courage while they stretched his neck, or carried
off the fragments of his mangled body as souvenirs, in much the same way
that savages preserve the scalps or eat the hearts of their enemies.

But concern for the fate of Josh and his friends occupied only a
secondary place in Miller's mind for the moment. His wife and child were
somewhere ahead of him. He pushed on. He had covered about a quarter of
a mile more, and far down the street could see the signs of greater
animation, when he came upon the body of a woman lying upon the
sidewalk. In the dusk he had almost stumbled over it, and his heart came
up in his mouth. A second glance revealed that it could not be his wife.
It was a fearful portent, however, of what her fate might be. The "war"
had reached the women and children. Yielding to a professional instinct,
he stooped, and saw that the prostrate form was that of old Aunt Jane
Letlow. She was not yet quite dead, and as Miller, with a tender touch,
placed her head in a more comfortable position, her lips moved with a
last lingering flicker of consciousness: -

"Comin', missis, comin'!"

Mammy Jane had gone to join the old mistress upon whose memory her
heart was fixed; and yet not all her reverence for her old mistress, nor
all her deference to the whites, nor all their friendship for her, had
been able to save her from this raging devil of race hatred which
momentarily possessed the town.

Perceiving that he could do no good, Miller hastened onward, sick at
heart. Whenever he saw a party of white men approaching, - these brave
reformers never went singly, - he sought concealment in the shadow of a
tree or the shrubbery in some yard until they had passed. He had covered
about two thirds of the distance homeward, when his eyes fell upon a
group beneath a lamp-post, at sight of which he turned pale with horror,
and rushed forward with a terrible cry.



The proceedings of the day - planned originally as a "demonstration,"
dignified subsequently as a "revolution," under any name the culmination
of the conspiracy formed by Carteret and his colleagues - had by seven
o'clock in the afternoon developed into a murderous riot. Crowds of
white men and half-grown boys, drunk with whiskey or with license, raged
through the streets, beating, chasing, or killing any negro so
unfortunate as to fall into their hands. Why any particular negro was
assailed, no one stopped to inquire; it was merely a white mob thirsting
for black blood, with no more conscience or discrimination than would be
exercised by a wolf in a sheepfold. It was race against race, the whites
against the negroes; and it was a one-sided affair, for until Josh Green
got together his body of armed men, no effective resistance had been
made by any colored person, and the individuals who had been killed had
so far left no marks upon the enemy by which they might be remembered.

"Kill the niggers!" rang out now and then through the dusk, and far down
the street and along the intersecting thoroughfares distant voices took
up the ominous refrain, - "Kill the niggers! Kill the damned niggers!"
Now, not a dark face had been seen on the street for half an hour,
until the group of men headed by Josh made their appearance in the negro
quarter. Armed with guns and axes, they presented quite a formidable
appearance as they made their way toward the new hospital, near which
stood a schoolhouse and a large church, both used by the colored people.
They did not reach their destination without having met a number of
white men, singly or in twos or threes; and the rumor spread with
incredible swiftness that the negroes in turn were up in arms,
determined to massacre all the whites and burn the town. Some of the
whites became alarmed, and recognizing the power of the negroes, if
armed and conscious of their strength, were impressed by the immediate
necessity of overpowering and overawing them. Others, with appetites
already whetted by slaughter, saw a chance, welcome rather than not, of
shedding more black blood. Spontaneously the white mob flocked toward
the hospital, where rumor had it that a large body of desperate negroes,
breathing threats of blood and fire, had taken a determined stand.

It had been Josh's plan merely to remain quietly and peaceably in the
neighborhood of the little group of public institutions, molesting no
one, unless first attacked, and merely letting the white people see that
they meant to protect their own; but so rapidly did the rumor spread,
and so promptly did the white people act, that by the time Josh and his
supporters had reached the top of the rising ground where the hospital
stood, a crowd of white men much more numerous than their own party were
following them at a short distance.

Josh, with the eye of a general, perceived that some of his party were
becoming a little nervous, and decided that they would feel safer behind

"I reckon we better go inside de hospittle, boys," he exclaimed. "Den
we'll be behind brick walls, an' dem other fellows 'll be outside, an' ef
dere's any fightin', we'll have de bes' show. We ain' gwine ter do no
shootin' till we're pestered, an' dey'll be less likely ter pester us
ef dey can't git at us widout runnin' some resk. Come along in! Be men!
De gov'ner er de President is gwine ter sen' soldiers ter stop dese
gwines-on, an' meantime we kin keep dem white devils f'm bu'nin' down
our hospittles an' chu'ch-houses. Wen dey comes an' fin's out dat we
jes' means ter pertect ou' prope'ty, dey'll go 'long 'bout deir own
business. Er, ef dey wants a scrap, dey kin have it! Come erlong, boys!"

Jerry Letlow, who had kept out of sight during the day, had started out,
after night had set in, to find Major Carteret. Jerry was very much
afraid. The events of the day had filled him with terror. Whatever the
limitations of Jerry's mind or character may have been, Jerry had a keen
appreciation of the danger to the negroes when they came in conflict
with the whites, and he had no desire to imperil his own skin. He valued
his life for his own sake, and not for any altruistic theory that it
might be of service to others. In other words, Jerry was something of a
coward. He had kept in hiding all day, but finding, toward evening, that
the riot did not abate, and fearing, from the rumors which came to his
ears, that all the negroes would be exterminated, he had set out,
somewhat desperately, to try to find his white patron and protector. He
had been cautious to avoid meeting any white men, and, anticipating no
danger from those of his own race, went toward the party which he saw
approaching, whose path would cross his own. When they were only a few
yards apart, Josh took a step forward and caught Jerry by the arm.

"Come along, Jerry, we need you! Here's another man, boys. Come on now,
and fight fer yo' race!"

In vain Jerry protested. "I don' wan' ter fight," he howled. "De w'ite
folks ain' gwine ter pester me; dey're my frien's. Tu'n me loose, - tu'n
me loose, er we all gwine ter git killed!"

The party paid no attention to Jerry's protestations. Indeed, with the
crowd of whites following behind, they were simply considering the
question of a position from which they could most effectively defend
themselves and the building which they imagined to be threatened. If
Josh had released his grip of Jerry, that worthy could easily have
escaped from the crowd; but Josh maintained his hold almost
mechanically, and, in the confusion, Jerry found himself swept with the
rest into the hospital, the doors of which were promptly barricaded with
the heavier pieces of furniture, and the windows manned by several men
each, Josh, with the instinct of a born commander, posting his forces so
that they could cover with their guns all the approaches to the
building. Jerry still continuing to make himself troublesome, Josh, in a
moment of impatience, gave him a terrific box on the ear, which
stretched him out upon the floor unconscious.

"Shet up," he said; "ef you can't stan' up like a man, keep still, and
don't interfere wid men w'at will fight!" The hospital, when Josh and
his men took possession, had been found deserted. Fortunately there were
no patients for that day, except one or two convalescents, and these,
with the attendants, had joined the exodus of the colored people from
the town.

A white man advanced from the crowd without toward the main entrance to
the hospital. Big Josh, looking out from a window, grasped his gun more
firmly, as his eyes fell upon the man who had murdered his father and
darkened his mother's life. Mechanically he raised his rifle, but
lowered it as the white man lifted up his hand as a sign that he wished
to speak.

"You niggers," called Captain McBane loudly, - it was that worthy, - "you
niggers are courtin' death, an' you won't have to court her but a minute
er two mo' befo' she'll have you. If you surrender and give up your
arms, you'll be dealt with leniently, - you may get off with the
chain-gang or the penitentiary. If you resist, you'll be shot like

"Dat's no news, Mr. White Man," replied Josh, appearing boldly at the
window. "We're use' ter bein' treated like dogs by men like you. If you
w'ite people will go 'long an' ten' ter yo' own business an' let us
alone, we'll ten' ter ou'n. You've got guns, an' we've got jest as
much right ter carry 'em as you have. Lay down yo'n, an' we'll lay down
ou'n, - we didn' take 'em up fust; but we ain' gwine ter let you bu'n
down ou' chu'ches an' school'ouses, er dis hospittle, an' we ain' comin'
out er dis house, where we ain' disturbin' nobody, fer you ter shoot us
down er sen' us ter jail. You hear me!"

"All right," responded McBane. "You've had fair warning. Your blood be
on your" - His speech was interrupted by a shot from the crowd, which
splintered the window-casing close to Josh's head. This was followed by
half a dozen other shots, which were replied to, almost simultaneously,
by a volley from within, by which one of the attacking party was killed
and another wounded.

This roused the mob to frenzy.

"Vengeance! vengeance!" they yelled. "Kill the niggers!"

A negro had killed a white man, - the unpardonable sin, admitting neither
excuse, justification, nor extenuation. From time immemorial it had been
bred in the Southern white consciousness, and in the negro consciousness
also, for that matter, that the person of a white man was sacred from
the touch of a negro, no matter what the provocation. A dozen colored
men lay dead in the streets of Wellington, inoffensive people, slain in
cold blood because they had been bold enough to question the authority
of those who had assailed them, or frightened enough to flee when they
had been ordered to stand still; but their lives counted nothing against
that of a riotous white man, who had courted death by attacking a body
of armed men.

The crowd, too, surrounding the hospital, had changed somewhat in
character. The men who had acted as leaders in the early afternoon,
having accomplished their purpose of overturning the local
administration and establishing a provisional government of their own,
had withdrawn from active participation in the rioting, deeming the
negroes already sufficiently overawed to render unlikely any further
trouble from that source. Several of the ringleaders had indeed begun to
exert themselves to prevent further disorder, or any loss of property,
the possibility of which had become apparent; but those who set in
motion the forces of evil cannot always control them afterwards. The
baser element of the white population, recruited from the wharves and
the saloons, was now predominant.

Captain McBane was the only one of the revolutionary committee who had
remained with the mob, not with any purpose to restore or preserve
order, but because he found the company and the occasion entirely
congenial. He had had no opportunity, at least no tenable excuse, to
kill or maim a negro since the termination of his contract with the
state for convicts, and this occasion had awakened a dormant appetite
for these diversions. We are all puppets in the hands of Fate, and
seldom see the strings that move us. McBane had lived a life of violence
and cruelty. As a man sows, so shall he reap. In works of fiction, such
men are sometimes converted. More often, in real life, they do not
change their natures until they are converted into dust. One does well
to distrust a tamed tiger.

On the outskirts of the crowd a few of the better class, or at least of
the better clad, were looking on. The double volley described had
already been fired, when the number of these was augmented by the
arrival of Major Carteret and Mr. Ellis, who had just come from the
Chronicle office, where the next day's paper had been in hasty
preparation. They pushed their way towards the front of the crowd.

"This must be stopped, Ellis," said Carteret. "They are burning houses
and killing women and children. Old Jane, good old Mammy Jane, who
nursed my wife at her bosom, and has waited on her and my child within
a few weeks, was killed only a few rods from my house, to which she was
evidently fleeing for protection. It must have been by accident, - I
cannot believe that any white man in town would be dastard enough to
commit such a deed intentionally! I would have defended her with my own
life! We must try to stop this thing!"

"Easier said than done," returned Ellis. "It is in the fever stage, and
must burn itself out. We shall be lucky if it does not burn the town
out. Suppose the negroes should also take a hand at the burning? We have
advised the people to put the negroes down, and they are doing the job

"My God!" replied the other, with a gesture of impatience, as he
continued to elbow his way through the crowd; "I meant to keep them in
their places, - I did not intend wholesale murder and arson."

Carteret, having reached the front of the mob, made an effort to gain
their attention.

"Gentlemen!" he cried in his loudest tones. His voice, unfortunately,
was neither loud nor piercing.

"Kill the niggers!" clamored the mob.

"Gentlemen, I implore you" -

The crash of a dozen windows, broken by stones and pistol shots, drowned
his voice.

"Gentlemen!" he shouted; "this is murder, it is madness; it is a
disgrace to our city, to our state, to our civilization!"

"That's right!" replied several voices. The mob had recognized the
speaker. "It _is_ a disgrace, and we'll not put up with it a moment
longer. Burn 'em out! Hurrah for Major Carteret, the champion of 'white
supremacy'! Three cheers for the Morning Chronicle and 'no nigger

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Online LibraryCharles W. ChesnuttThe Marrow of Tradition → online text (page 19 of 21)