Friday, November 4, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Thomas Auld's Gift
 
Frederick and his companions’ plan to escape to Pennsylvania on Easter Saturday had been divulged.  Constables had arrested the five slaves that morning and taken them to St. Michael's to be questioned.
 
.When they reached town, they were interrogated in Thomas Auld’s store.  Frederick was wryly amused (and pleased) that his master doubted the allegation that the men had engaged in a conspiracy.  He probably was also perplexed by the game his master was playing.  Auld knew that his hysterical neighbors could easily elevate the escape plot into a slave insurrection, led by his slave.  And if they did so, torture and death lay ahead for Frederick.  To quiet the rising excitement, Auld acknowledged only a partial belief in Frederick’s guilt and insisted that he and the others be given a hearing.  As owner of the chief conspirator, Auld had charge of the interrogation (McFeely 54).
 
We all denied that we ever intended to run away.  We did this more to bring out the evidence against us, than from any hope of getting clear of being sold; for, as I have said, we were ready for that.  … Our greatest concern was about separation.  We dreaded that more than any thing this side of death.  We found the evidence against us to be the testimony of one person; our master would not tell who it was; but we came to a unanimous decision amoung ourselves as to who their informant was (Douglass 97).  They believed him to be Sandy Jenkins.
 
The questioning over, Auld contended that only if the slaves had murdered someone would the evidence have justified instant hanging.  Instead, they should be sent to jail and tried.  The five were dragged behind horses, stumbling, for fifteen miles, to Easton.  There the sheriff put Frederick and the two Harrises in one jail cell and Roberts and Bailey in another.  At least for the moment, their owners had gotten their valuable property safely away from would-be lynchers.  But a new enemy appeared: “A swarm of imps, in human shape-the slave-traders, deputy slave-traders, and agents of slave-traders—that gather in every country town of the state, watching for chances to buy human flesh (as buzzards to eat carrion), flocked in upon us, to ascertain if our masters had put us in jail to be sold (McFeely 55).
 
They laughed and grinned over us, saying, “Ah, my boys!  We have got you, haven’t we?”  And after taunting us in various ways, they one by one went into an examination of us, with intent to ascertain our value.  They would impudently ask us it we would not like to have them for our masters.  We would make them no answer, and leave them to find out as best they could.  Then they would curse and swear at us, telling us that they could take the devil out of us in a very little while, if we were only in their hands (Douglass 98).
 
At their cell window, Frederick and the Harrises tried, without luck, to get the attention of the black waiters “flitting about in their white jackets” in front of the hotel across the street.  The prisoners were hoping that these expert gleaners of gossip might have picked up word of their fate, but they got no help from that quarter.  Alone in their surprisingly well fitted out white man’s cell, Frederick, John, and Henry were in great suspense: “Every step on the stairway was listened to” with apprehension.  They knew a sale south was likely for slaves undisciplined enough to plot an escape (McFeely 55).
 
Immediately after the holidays were over, contrary to all our expectations, Mr. Hambleton and Mr. Freeland came up to Easton, and took Charles, the two Henrys, and John, out of jail, and carried them home, leaving me alone.  I regarded this separation as a final one.  … I was ready for any thing rather than separation.  I supposed that they had consulted together, and had decided that, as I was the whole cause of the intention of the others to run away, it was hard to make the innocent suffer with the guilty; and that they had, therefore, concluded to take the others home, and see me, as a warning to the others that remained.  It is due to the noble Henry [Harris] to say, he seemed almost as reluctant at leaving the prison as at leaving home to come to the prison (Douglass 98-99).
 
Henry was taken away by William Freeland.  “Not until this final separation,” Douglass wrote twenty years later, “had I touched those profounder depths of desolation, which it is the lot of slaves often to reach.  I was solitary in the world, and alone within the walls of a stone prison, left to a fate of life-long misery.”  He was anticipating the “ever dreaded slave life in Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama,” from which he could not escape.  He was also mourning the loss of friendship and even the loss, in some sense, of his humanity.  In his “loneliness,” he felt that the “possibility of ever becoming anything but an abject slave, a mere machine in the hands of an owner, had now fled.”
 
Thomas Auld had a problem.  His slave was known to be dangerous.  Mrs. Freeland regarded him as one who could stir to insurrection slaves she insisted on believing were loyal; Hambleton threatened to shoot the troublemaker if his son-in-law did not get him out of the county.  Rowena [Auld] knew that she and Thomas could get the price of a new house for a slave who had been nothing but trouble since his arrival in St. Michael’s.  If Frederick were to escape, as he had already tried to do, the money he was worth would go with him.  Auld was under severe pressure to sell his slave, but he could not bring himself to do so.  Frederick’s seaman cousin, Tom, who had an excellent ear for news, reported that Auld “walked the floor nearly all night” before going to the jail to release Frederick.
 
Whatever the tortured bond between the two, … Auld could not doom the boy, now grown to be a man-a person-about whom in his clumsy, tormented way he cared immensely.  Telling both his neighbors and Frederick that he was going to sell him to a friend in Alabama, Auld brought his slave home after he had been alone in the jail for a week.  Frederick knew that Auld had no friend in Alabama and uneasily sensed that he was wavering.  When the two were alone, in what must have been a moment of great intensity, Thomas told him he was sending him back to Baltimore, to Hugh, to learn to be a skilled laborer.  With a trade, Frederick could be hired out at a profit, or so Auld must have told his wife.  And-as he probably did not tell her-he promised Fredrick that if he worked diligently at a trade (and stayed out of trouble) he would set him free when he became twenty-five.  As he raised the young man’s hopes, Auld must have known that he would now lose Frederick-not into endless labor in a cotton field in the Deep South, but to the risks of Baltimore.
 
The escape attempt had taught Thomas Auld how likely it was that the resolute, stubborn, strong, and bright young men would either get into fatal trouble in the city or escape into freedom in the North.  Either way, he would be lost to him.  Quietly, Thomas put Frederick on a boat for Fells Point.
 
Freedom would come for Frederick Bailey.  Frederick knew he would not wait until the far-off age of twenty-five to test the reliability of Auld’s promise; he would free himself somehow.  But when that great goal was attained, he would be a debtor … For his freedom-for his life-he would for the rest of that life be beholden to a white man whom he had loved and whom he now had to remember to loathe (McFeely 55-57).
 
So it was in his first book, Narration of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that Frederick, about their separation, denied his master appreciative words.  As much an indictment of slavery as it is an account of his own escape from bondage, the book could not contain self-defeating words of praise.  Instead, Frederick concluded this chapter of his life with the following paragraph.
 
Thus, after an absence of three years and one month, I was once more permitted to return to my old home in Baltimore.  My master sent me away, because there existed against me a very great prejudice in the community, and he feared I might be killed (Douglass 99).
 
 
Works cited:
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.