Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 10

_Life in Baltimore_


Once in Baltimore, with hard brick pavements under my feet, which
almost raised blisters, by their very heat, for it was in the
height of summer; walled in on all sides by towering brick
buildings; with troops of hostile boys ready to pounce upon me at
every street corner; with new and strange objects glaring upon me
at every step, and with startling sounds reaching my ears from
all directions, I for a time thought that, after all, the home
plantation was a more desirable place of residence than my home
on Alliciana street, in Baltimore. My country eyes and ears were
confused and bewildered here; but the boys were my chief trouble.
They chased me, and called me _"Eastern Shore man,"_ till really
I almost wished myself back on the Eastern Shore. I had to
undergo a sort of moral acclimation, and when that was over, I
did much better. My new mistress happily proved to be all she
_seemed_ to be, when, with her husband, she met me at <111
KINDNESS OF MY NEW MISTRESS>the door, with a most beaming,
benignant countenance. She was, naturally, of an excellent
disposition, kind, gentle and cheerful. The supercilious
contempt for the rights and feelings of the slave, and the
petulance and bad humor which generally characterize slaveholding
ladies, were all quite absent from kind "Miss" Sophia's manner
and bearing toward me. She had, in truth, never been a
slaveholder, but had--a thing quite unusual in the south--
depended almost entirely upon her own industry for a living. To
this fact the dear lady, no doubt, owed the excellent
preservation of her natural goodness of heart, for slavery can
change a saint into a sinner, and an angel into a demon. I
hardly knew how to behave toward "Miss Sopha," as I used to call
Mrs. Hugh Auld. I had been treated as a _pig_ on the plantation;
I was treated as a _child_ now. I could not even approach her as
I had formerly approached Mrs. Thomas Auld. How could I hang
down my head, and speak with bated breath, when there was no
pride to scorn me, no coldness to repel me, and no hatred to
inspire me with fear? I therefore soon learned to regard her as
something more akin to a mother, than a slaveholding mistress.
The crouching servility of a slave, usually so acceptable a
quality to the haughty slaveholder, was not understood nor
desired by this gentle woman. So far from deeming it impudent in
a slave to look her straight in the face, as some slaveholding
ladies do, she seemed ever to say, "look up, child; don't be
afraid; see, I am full of kindness and good will toward you."
The hands belonging to Col. Lloyd's sloop, esteemed it a great
privilege to be the bearers of parcels or messages to my new
mistress; for whenever they came, they were sure of a most kind
and pleasant reception. If little Thomas was her son, and her
most dearly beloved child, she, for a time, at least, made me
something like his half-brother in her affections. If dear Tommy
was exalted to a place on his mother's knee, "Feddy" was honored
by a place at his mother's side. Nor did he lack the caressing
strokes of her gentle hand, to convince him that, though
_motherless_, he was not _friendless_. Mrs. Auld <112>was not
only a kind-hearted woman, but she was remarkably pious; frequent
in her attendance of public worship, much given to reading the
bible, and to chanting hymns of praise, when alone. Mr. Hugh
Auld was altogether a different character. He cared very little
about religion, knew more of the world, and was more of the
world, than his wife. He set out, doubtless to be--as the world
goes--a respectable man, and to get on by becoming a successful
ship builder, in that city of ship building. This was his
ambition, and it fully occupied him. I was, of course, of very
little consequence to him, compared with what I was to good Mrs.
Auld; and, when he smiled upon me, as he sometimes did, the smile
was borrowed from his lovely wife, and, like all borrowed light,
was transient, and vanished with the source whence it was
derived. While I must characterize Master Hugh as being a very
sour man, and of forbidding appearance, it is due to him to
acknowledge, that he was never very cruel to me, according to the
notion of cruelty in Maryland. The first year or two which I
spent in his house, he left me almost exclusively to the
management of his wife. She was my law-giver. In hands so
tender as hers, and in the absence of the cruelties of the
plantation, I became, both physically and mentally, much more
sensitive to good and ill treatment; and, perhaps, suffered more
from a frown from my mistress, than I formerly did from a cuff at
the hands of Aunt Katy. Instead of the cold, damp floor of my
old master's kitchen, I found myself on carpets; for the corn bag
in winter, I now had a good straw bed, well furnished with
covers; for the coarse corn-meal in the morning, I now had good
bread, and mush occasionally; for my poor tow-lien shirt,
reaching to my knees, I had good, clean clothes. I was really
well off. My employment was to run errands, and to take care of
Tommy; to prevent his getting in the way of carriages, and to
keep him out of harm's way generally. Tommy, and I, and his
mother, got on swimmingly together, for a time. I say _for a
time_, because the fatal poison of irresponsible power, and the
natural influence <113 LEARNING TO READ>of slavery customs, were
not long in making a suitable impression on the gentle and loving
disposition of my excellent mistress. At first, Mrs. Auld
evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child;
she had not come to regard me as _property_. This latter thought
was a thing of conventional growth. The first was natural and
spontaneous. A noble nature, like hers, could not, instantly, be
wholly perverted; and it took several years to change the natural
sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. In her worst
estate, however, there were, during the first seven years I lived
with her, occasional returns of her former kindly disposition.

The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the bible for she
often read aloud when her husband was absent soon awakened my
curiosity in respect to this _mystery_ of reading, and roused in
me the desire to learn. Having no fear of my kind mistress
before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear,) I
frankly asked her to teach me to read; and, without hesitation,
the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance,
I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three or
four letters. My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress,
as if I had been her own child; and, supposing that her husband
would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was
doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of
her pupil, of her intention to persevere in teaching me, and of
the duty which she felt it to teach me, at least to read _the
bible_. Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore prospects,
the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts.

Master Hugh was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and,
probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true
philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be
observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their
human chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade continuance of her
instruction; telling her, in the first place, that the thing
itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead
to mischief. To use <114>his own words, further, he said, "if
you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;" "he should know
nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it." "if
you teach that nigger--speaking of myself--how to read the bible,
there will be no keeping him;" "it would forever unfit him for
the duties of a slave;" and "as to himself, learning would do him
no good, but probably, a great deal of harm--making him
disconsolate and unhappy." "If you learn him now to read, he'll
want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be
running away with himself." Such was the tenor of Master Hugh's
oracular exposition of the true philosophy of training a human
chattel; and it must be confessed that he very clearly
comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of
master and slave. His discourse was the first decidedly anti-
slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen. Mrs. Auld
evidently felt the force of his remarks; and, like an obedient
wife, began to shape her course in the direction indicated by her
husband. The effect of his words, _on me_, was neither slight
nor transitory. His iron sentences--cold and harsh--sunk deep
into my heart, and stirred up not only my feelings into a sort of
rebellion, but awakened within me a slumbering train of vital
thought. It was a new and special revelation, dispelling a
painful mystery, against which my youthful understanding had
struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit: the _white_ man's power
to perpetuate the enslavement of the _black_ man. "Very well,"
thought I; "knowledge unfits a child to be a slave." I
instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment I
understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. This was
just what I needed; and I got it at a time, and from a source,
whence I least expected it. I was saddened at the thought of
losing the assistance of my kind mistress; but the information,
so instantly derived, to some extent compensated me for the loss
I had sustained in this direction. Wise as Mr. Auld was, he
evidently underrated my comprehension, and had little idea of the
use to which I was capable of putting <115 CITY SLAVES AND
COUNTRYSLAVES>the impressive lesson he was giving to his wife.
_He_ wanted me to be _a slave;_ I had already voted against that
on the home plantation of Col. Lloyd. That which he most loved I
most hated; and the very determination which he expressed to keep
me in ignorance, only rendered me the more resolute in seeking
intelligence. In learning to read, therefore, I am not sure that
I do not owe quite as much to the opposition of my master, as to
the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress. I acknowledge the
benefit rendered me by the one, and by the other; believing, that
but for my mistress, I might have grown up in ignorance.

I had resided but a short time in Baltimore, before I observed a
marked difference in the manner of treating slaves, generally,
from which I had witnessed in that isolated and out-of-the-way
part of the country where I began life. A city slave is almost a
free citizen, in Baltimore, compared with a slave on Col. Lloyd's
plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, is less dejected
in his appearance, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to
the whip-driven slave on the plantation. Slavery dislikes a
dense population, in which there is a majority of non-
slaveholders. The general sense of decency that must pervade
such a population, does much to check and prevent those outbreaks
of atrocious cruelty, and those dark crimes without a name,
almost openly perpetrated on the plantation. He is a desperate
slaveholder who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding
neighbors, by the cries of the lacerated slaves; and very few in
the city are willing to incur the odium of being cruel masters.
I found, in Baltimore, that no man was more odious to the white,
as well as to the colored people, than he, who had the reputation
of starving his slaves. Work them, flog them, if need be, but
don't starve them. These are, however, some painful exceptions
to this rule. While it is quite true that most of the
slaveholders in Baltimore feed and clothe their slaves well,
there are others who keep up their country cruelties in the city.

An instance of this sort is furnished in the case of a family
<116>who lived directly opposite to our house, and were named
Hamilton. Mrs. Hamilton owned two slaves. Their names were
Henrietta and Mary. They had always been house slaves. One was
aged about twenty-two, and the other about fourteen. They were a
fragile couple by nature, and the treatment they received was
enough to break down the constitution of a horse. Of all the
dejected, emaciated, mangled and excoriated creatures I ever saw,
those two girls--in the refined, church going and Christian city
of Baltimore were the most deplorable. Of stone must that heart
be made, that could look upon Henrietta and Mary, without being
sickened to the core with sadness. Especially was Mary a heart-
sickening object. Her head, neck and shoulders, were literally
cut to pieces. I have frequently felt her head, and found it
nearly covered over with festering sores, caused by the lash of
her cruel mistress. I do not know that her master ever whipped
her, but I have often been an eye witness of the revolting and
brutal inflictions by Mrs. Hamilton; and what lends a deeper
shade to this woman's conduct, is the fact, that, almost in the
very moments of her shocking outrages of humanity and decency,
she would charm you by the sweetness of her voice and her seeming
piety. She used to sit in a large rocking chair, near the middle
of the room, with a heavy cowskin, such as I have elsewhere
described; and I speak within the truth when I say, that these
girls seldom passed that chair, during the day, without a blow
from that cowskin, either upon their bare arms, or upon their
shoulders. As they passed her, she would draw her cowskin and
give them a blow, saying, _"move faster, you black jip!"_ and,
again, _"take that, you black jip!"_ continuing, _"if you don't
move faster, I will give you more."_ Then the lady would go on,
singing her sweet hymns, as though her _righteous_ soul were
sighing for the holy realms of paradise.

Added to the cruel lashings to which these poor slave-girls were
subjected--enough in themselves to crush the spirit of men--they
were, really, kept nearly half starved; they seldom knew <117
MRS. HAMILTON'S CRUELTY TO HER SLAVES>what it was to eat a full
meal, except when they got it in the kitchens of neighbors, less
mean and stingy than the psalm-singing Mrs. Hamilton. I have
seen poor Mary contending for the offal, with the pigs in the
street. So much was the poor girl pinched, kicked, cut and
pecked to pieces, that the boys in the street knew her only by
the name of _"pecked,"_ a name derived from the scars and
blotches on her neck, head and shoulders.

It is some relief to this picture of slavery in Baltimore, to
say--what is but the simple truth--that Mrs. Hamilton's treatment
of her slaves was generally condemned, as disgraceful and
shocking; but while I say this, it must also be remembered, that
the very parties who censured the cruelty of Mrs. Hamilton, would
have condemned and promptly punished any attempt to interfere
with Mrs. Hamilton's _right_ to cut and slash her slaves to
pieces. There must be no force between the slave and the
slaveholder, to restrain the power of the one, and protect the
weakness of the other; and the cruelty of Mrs. Hamilton is as
justly chargeable to the upholders of the slave system, as
drunkenness is chargeable on those who, by precept and example,
or by indifference, uphold the drinking system.

Frederick Douglass

Sorry, no summary available yet.