Episode 7. Ups and Downs of Family Life
Another family mystery: Bob. Bob is a black man whom I meet occasionally around the house or in the garden. I have tried several times to talk with him, but he barely answers me and soon walks away. I'd really like to be friendly but I don't know how. Sometimes he goes to the market with Aunt Sally and carries back the baskets, and sometimes he goes by himself. Back home, he peels and washes the vegetables, and leaves them beside the sink, neatly stacked. He never eats with us and I think he sleeps in a little shack at the end of the garden.
— "Is Bob a slave?" I ask Aunt Sally. She turns red, she is flustered.
— "What a crude way to put it," she says. "I would rather say that Bob is a part of our extended family. He helps with the heavy work, inside and out. I don't know what I would do without Bob, running after the children as I do ..."
Uncle Richard interrupts: "In other words, Temple, Bob is an unpaid servant who is not supposed to run away. That's how we like to see the situation, here in Pennsylvania. We don't like to think of ourselves as owning other people. So we avoid both the word and the subject, as your aunt is doing." (Uncle Richard is often sarcastic these days; I think it is because Aunt Jane gets on his nerves, but he does not dare criticize her, given Grandfather's affection for his sister, so he takes out his ill humor on his wife.)
— "We don't have slaves in Massachusetts," declares Aunt Jane.
— "I beg your pardon, Aunt Jane, but you do," replies Uncle Richard carefully. "Just last year, the legislature tried to abolish slavery, but your governor refused to sign the bill into law."
— "Well, I don't know anybody who owns slaves."
Uncle Richard shrugs his shoulders and turns to me: "Like Massachusetts, slavery seems to be on its way out in Pennsylvania. But in the southern colonies, the situation is much more brutal. Without tightly controlled and exploited slaves, the planters could never grow the cotton, the tobacco, and the rice on which their fortunes and splendid mansions depend. I don't see how that system could break down in the foreseeable future."
And then, my inevitable question: "How does Grandfather view all this? He advised me to talk to George Fox about slavery, but I would like to be better informed before I do. For instance, did Grandfather and Deborah ever own slaves?"
— "Oh yes, they did," says Uncle Richard. "First of all, your grandfather made some money by advertising the sale of slaves in his Pennsylvania Gazette. Then ..."
It is Aunt Sally's turn to interrupt: "Richard, you were not even in the country at the time you are talking about. Yes, they employed Negroes, a married couple, George and Jemima. Father was uneasy with them, he doubted their honesty. Mother, on the contrary, saw them as human beings and had emotional links with them. She loved their little boy, Othello, almost as if he were her own child. She wanted him to receive a good education because she believed that, given a chance, black children could do just as well as the white ones. Your Grandfather was away in London at the time and Mother was so glad when she heard that her husband had accepted to advise a group called The Associates of Dr. Bray. These good people were trying, against heavy opposition, to open schools for Negro children. Eventually — I think it was in the mid-1750s — your grandfather wrote up a detailed proposal on how to finance such a school in Philadelphia in the hope that the idea might spread to the other colonies.
— "Did it spread?"
"Other black schools did open, in Williamsburg, Newport, and New York, each with his help and advice. When he visited one of them after his return to America, he was pleasantly surprised and conceived, he said, a higher opinion of the capacities of the black race than he had ever before entertained.
"Unfortunately, poor little Othello died too soon for his education to begin, and Mother could not stop crying."
Aunt Sally, at this point, seems on the verge of tears herself and Uncle Richard seizes his chance:
— "You know how much I admire and respect your grandfather, Temple, but we must face the fact that on the question of slavery, he behaved exactly like the majority of his contemporaries. Not only did he advertise the sale of slaves, as the other newspapers did, but he also advertised, like the others, the description of runaways.
"When he sailed to England with your father, they each brought along a slave to take care of their personal needs. Your father's slave, King, ran away while there, and was taken under the wing of a lady who had him learn to read and write, and even play the violin. Your grandfather's slave, Peter, stayed with Dr. Franklin and William. He accompanied them on their trips and scrubbed moss off the gravestones of the Franklin ancestors in northern England, while your father copied the inscriptions."
Uncle Richard is going on, but I've lost him. I'm thinking about that African, pelted by the cold wind and cold rain of northern England, scrubbing the tombstones of someone's English ancestors, while dreaming perhaps of his own ancestors' tombstones (do they have tombstones in Africa?) baking in the sun, so far away.
And now, about to go to bed, I'm upset.
Why didn't Grandfather, some years ago, do something to stop that awful slavery? The man who could persuade Philadelphians to light up their streets at night and to have someone sweep those streets, following London's example, who could talk them into providing insurance for widows, organize fire brigades, open a free public library, build a hospital, create Benny's Academy and my College, why didn't that man do anything to rid Pennsylvania of slaves, even in the sweetened version that Aunt Sally, always keen to put the family in a good light, presented to us?
Today, I know, he is haunted by the fear of a British-provoked slave insurrection, but then? He would have had the Quakers on his side. That reminds me that I must talk to George Fox, as Grandfather advised. I'll ask Aunt Sally to invite him.