In the mid eighteen fifties, near the grand columns of Arlington House in Virgina, about seventy of us stand before our master George Parke Custis and feel great joy as he says, “When I pass from this earth, you shall all be free.”
“Did Master write his instructions so his heirs would understand?” I stun myself by asking the adopted son of George Washington.
“I have, indeed, Wesley Norris. I believe it’s God’s will. Now, return to your duties.”
We comply, and in a little while a friend says, “I wonder how long he’ll live.”
“He’s too fat and old to bother our women anymore. I expect we’ll soon be free.”
In October of eighteen fifty-seven, at age seventy-six, George Parke Custis stops breathing, and in the privacy of our shacks we dance and sing. A few weeks later his son-in-law, Colonel Robert E. Lee, husband of Mr. Custis’ only surviving child, rides in from Texas and dismounts his fine stallion. An aide orders us to assemble. Colonel Lee, wearing a beautiful blue uniform, looks quite serious as he announces, “My duties here at the plantation are such that I must leave my command and devote myself to reorganizing this unproductive and debt-ridden enterprise. I therefore demand that all of you follow orders and improve yourselves as I bring profitability back to this splendid estate.”
“We’re supposed to be free now,” someone shouts.
“That’s right,” adds another.
“It’s what Master Custis wanted,” I say.
“Quiet,” says Colonel Lee. “If I read you his will you’d understand your master decreed that only after his debts are paid can you be freed. Don’t worry. He stipulated this process take no longer than five years.”
We’re quite unhappy, since we’ve already been slaves all our lives, and after about a year and a half, in eighteen fifty-nine, I tell my sister and cousin we’ll never be free unless we escape which we do by running and hiding and horseback riding until we’re almost to Pennsylvania when they capture us.
“We’ll get paid a lot for this,” says one of the slave catchers, smiling at me.
After getting little food, water, or sleep for two weeks in jail, we’re tied up and sent back to Arlington House. When we arrive, the overseer runs inside, and Colonel Lee soon marches out.
“Why have you betrayed me?” he asks.
“We should be free,” says my sister.
“We’re already free,” I say.
“It’s God’s will,” says my cousin.
“Don’t speak to me of God. You’re property, and that I’ll teach you in a manner impossible to forget.”
Colonel Lee turns to his overseer and orders, “Take them to the barn, remove their filthy shirts, and bind each of them to a post.”
The overseer and his helpers tie our hands tightly. Colonel Lee stands close to observe, and then hands a whip to the overseer and says, “Lay on fifty lashes each.”
“Even the woman?”
“Twenty will suffice for her.”
“I’m sorry, Colonel, but I can’t do this. Maybe you could do it.”
“That’s beneath me. Get the constable.”
Robert E. Lee retires to his mansion while we wait. It’s a long wait and I envision them ripping our flesh. When the constable arrives, Lee returns to duty and says, “Get started.”
The constable begins with me, and after several lacerations Lee shouts, “Harder.”
Afterward, unbound, I slump to the dirt floor of the barn and two men drag me to the side. My cousin’s next and Lee continues to demand the hardest lashing. He’s quiet while my sister gets her twenty.
“Bring out the brine,” says Lee.
The following day we’re sent away to work, my cousin and I one place, and my sister another. A couple of years later, in eighteen sixty-one, I’m not surprised that Lee joins the Confederacy and in fact becomes leader of its army. At the Battle of Gettysburg he orders free black farmers kidnapped and sold into slavery. When I escape to the north I try to avoid anywhere he might be. After the war I’d have expected a traitor like him to be punished. Instead, he becomes president of a university and opposes political rights for former slaves. I know he was a good general who looked great in a uniform on his horse, but I don’t see how anyone can call him an honorable man. Will General John Kelly please explain that to me?