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‘The Situation’
William Wells Brown: ‘Virginia Play’, ‘Soul-Driving’, and Other Horrors
William was born in 1804 in Lexington Kentucky. His mother was a black slave named Elizabeth and his father was George Higgins, a white man, a cousin to Elizabeth’s owner, who pimped her out to friends and relatives. None of her seven children were by the same father.
William’s master, Benjamin Young, moved to the Missouri River, about 40 miles above Saint Charles, in 1816, when William was 12. Master Young was a doctor who also had a farm worked by 25 slaves, including William’s mother. When he was a baby his mother had been whipped for breast feeding him. As a 12 year old domestic William used to lay indoors and listen to the crack of slaves being whipped and screaming. Any slave who did not get to the fields at 4:30 in the morning received 10 lashes. The ‘negro-whip’ had a 3-foot handle weighted with lead at the butt. The cowhide lash was 7-feet long, and the tip was plated with wire. When whipped a slave would typically cry, “Oh! Pray—oh! Pray—oh! Pray.” A horse whip was not platted with wire.
‘Virginia Play’
William’s mother was hired to Major Freeland, a drunk who had a house full of slaves he did not really need, just so he would have someone to throw bottles and chairs at. William lived with Major Freeland for five or six months before he ran away. Upon being captured by Major Benjamin O’Fallon and his hounds, he was taken to the Saint Louis Jail. Upon being redeemed [this was a great expense for the slave owner] by Major Freeland, William was tied up in the smoke house and severely whipped. After the whipping the Major’s son Robert was sent out to give William ‘Virginia Play’ which was the way the major had treated his slaves back in Virginia, by lighting a fire of tobacco stems beneath him until he was ‘well smoked’ having been driven to fits of coughing and sneezing.
‘The Situation’
William was hired to Elijah P. Lovejoy, editor of the St. Louis Observer. William owed Elijah a debt into his old age, for the abolitionist set him on the road to being a prolific author in later years. Unfortunately, while delivering type to another Newspaper’s office William was attacked by a gang of slave-owner’s sons and beaten badly. He fought some, but had to drop the type and run. After recovering the type Elijah informed William that the father of one of the boys meant to whip him for hitting his boy. Elijah escaped into the street but was caught by the enraged Mister McKinney and beaten severely over the head with a ‘large cane’. William was incapacitated for 5 weeks due to this beating and ‘lost the situation’ with Mister Lovejoy, who, years later, was killed by proslavery militants.
‘Soul-Driving’
For a time William was hired to Captain Otis Reynolds, ‘a good man’, who employed him as a waiter on board a Mississippi steamer. On the steamer William heard much about Canada, a place where a slave might be free. As with other slaves such as Solomon Northup, and Moses Roper, sailors turned out to be the slave’s best friend. He received news and advice from these travelling men, who spent much time in places where slavery was not the law of the land. Soon though, his steamer experience was to get him hired to a dreadful man.
Mister Walker, a ‘soul-driver’ as the slaves called him, and a ‘slave-trader’ as the whites called him, asked to purchase William for a large sum. The man’s reputation and business were such that, Benjamin Young, ‘a near relative’ of William, would not sell him ‘down to Orleans’, from where slaves rarely returned. He did hire William out. It was now William’s task to ready slaves for market. He saw a woman jump overboard and drowned rather than be sold ‘down the river’.
One particular group of slaves was all older, being sold down the river to die under the harshest conditions, having outlived their usefulness in the North. It was William’s job to pluck out their gray hairs and apply shoe polish to their beards and hair with a brush.
Down South in Natchez William discovered that autonomous slave catching patrols captured runaways and then billed the owner a steep price, whereas in the North the law pursued escapes slaves at the owner’s request. Seeing his fellow men bought and sold and locked up in slave pens, deeply scarred William, and made him determined to escape someday.
‘A Note’ and ‘A Dollar’
In Vicksburg, Mister Walker, as usual, set up at the best hotel to meet with buyers, with plenty of wine on hand. Although he had threatened William often he had never beaten a slave himself. William poured the wine glasses too full, resulting in some spillage. After the men left Mister Walker took him to task, gave him a note and a dollar, and directed him to deliver these to the jailer at the jail. Being suspicious of his master’s intentions, yet unable to read, William went down to the docks and asked a sailor to read the note for him. The sailor warned him that “They are going to give you hell!”
William waited for a free black man to appear, and offered to pay him the dollar to deliver the note to the jail. The man did so and William skulked around the jail listening to the terrible whipping. When the man came out bearing a note to Mister Walker, William offered him 50 cents he had saved for the note. He then took the note to a stranger who read it for him. Now knowing what to say to Mister Walker, he returned to the soul-driver with the jailer’s note.
William decried how ‘slavery makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it afterwards reproaches them, and uses them as arguments to prove that they deserve no better fate.’
‘A Land of Oppression’
When Benjamin decided to sell off William and his family to separate buyers William attempted to flee with his Mother. Although he was aided by the fact that Benjamin had given him the latitude to ‘find you a good master’ he was naïve concerning the duplicity of strangers. He describes America as being the land of ‘Democratic whips and Republican chains’. His mother was sold down the river. His sister was sold to a sex fiend along with 4 other girls ‘for his own uses’. William was sold twice more, and eventually escaped. He was rescued by an Ohio Quaker by the name of Wells Brown, and took the good man’s name. William Wells Brown settled in Cleveland Ohio, from where he worked to ship escaped slaves over to Canada. William wrote numerous books and lived to the age of eighty.
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