Written by: Arlene Baker
“How much you take…?” I gestured to the cowering Negro, standing knee deep in a flooded rice field. “For the young buck?”
“What’cha wanting with a Negro, Negro?” The slave’s overseer sneered. “Y’all better have papers fer bein’ out’chere or I’ll be a using this here lash on you.”
“I be a freedman.” I kept my voice calm, careful not to look directly in his eyes. “Here are my papers.”
“Talkin’ kinda uppity fer a darky, you are.” He snatched the paper from my hand with a growl – followed by a grunt of disappointment. “They be all in order. Still ain’t answered my question. What’cha wantin’ with a useless darky? An’ why y’all out’chere anyhow?”
“Sir, I be building a new church for my folk and I be needin’ more hands. How much for the darky?”
“He ain’t worth the food we give him.” The overseer spat between the slave’s knees.
“How much?” I persisted.
“For you …” He looked me up and down. Contempt shone in darkened eyes. “It’s gonna cost you $360. Not a penny less.”
I swallowed a gasp. Twenty dollars above the going price. I studied the slave, pretending to gauge his value. “Cain’t give you but $350.”
The overseer threw back his head with an ugly howl. “Y’all ain’t got that kind of cash.”
“No sir,” I agreed. “Not on me. But, if you will wait ’til tomorrow, I be havin’ payment in full. I promise.”
“Who you stealing from to have that kind of money.” His eyes narrowed. “Ain’t no darky got that legitimately.”
“I earned it myself, sir. I can bring proof.”
The overseer snorted. “Y’all can take him. He’s useless to me.”
The next day, transaction complete, I escorted my newly-acquired slave to my home. His bare feet dragged through the Georgian sand while he maintained a sullen silence. “Mrs. Bryan,” I called as we entered the door. “We have us a new laborer.”
“Sit down, chile and tell us yer name.” My wife busied herself about the fireplace, where a pot of stew burbled.
“Name’s Caesar.” He shuffled to the nearest chair. “Why you be doin’ this? Ain’t you ’shamed of owning another?”
I slid across from him and studied his face until the challenge faded from his wary eyes. “Got my reasons,” I stated.
“Make you feel good to be ownin’ me?” Contempt returned.
“No, Caesar. Let me tell you my own history.” I leaned forward, forcing eye contact. “I was blessed to be the slave of a good man. He never beat me. He always treated me right. Even allowed me to use his barn for preaching to our folks.”
“So, you like bein’ a slave?” A sneer touched Caesar’s mouth.
“No. No I did not. But, I allay been thankful for what I had – a good master. When he dies, his son be owning me. His son allowed me to buy my freedom. My church folk helped me buy my wife’s freedom. Now, when we see a person like you, beaten and abused, we buy them if we have the funds.”
“I’s still a slave, now slave to a darky like me.” Caesar pushed out his lower lip. “Ain’t much difference, what I can see.”
“The difference, Caesar, is this. I have bought many slaves. I put them to work. When they have earned their purchase price, I set them free. Would you like to be free?”
“Free?” he choked as his eyes widened. “Really, truly free?”
“As free as I am.” I paused as Mrs. Bryan set down three bowls of stew and joined us. After blessing the food, I continued.
“I paid full price for you, Caesar. How soon you earn your freedom depends on you. Get lazy or offer sloppy work, you make no money. Work hard and I will pay the going rate. I promise I will never take a whip to you. However, we shall learn quickly how motivated you truly are. You understandin'?”
“Yes suh. I does. I makes you proud, Mr. Bryan, suh, dat I promises you. I makes you proud.”