Joseph Antoine would have found the twenty-first century as baffling as ballet is to a bulldog. He wouldn't have understood married couples who split up before their wedding flowers wilt or their new woks and washing machines lose their showroom shine. He wouldn't have understood why black marriage, as an institution, began dwindling so drastically after 1940. He wouldn't have understood why black children, who once could count on honorary "aunts" and "uncles" on every plantation, now, in some cases, boil their own oatmeal and tuck themselves into bed. Most of all he wouldn't have understood why, for some men, falling in love became a fatal flaw, the crack in a man's smooth chocolate-ice-cream cool.
For the love of a woman, Joseph Antoine sat in a jail cell, churning out letters that explained how he wound up in the trap baited, set and sprung by his wife's owner.
For the love of a woman, Joseph Antoine stood on an auction block to be sold like a keg of bourbon or a hog.
For the love of a woman, Joseph Antoine signed away his freedom and became an indentured servant, or temporary slave, for seven and a half years. His court petitions and records document his struggle to hold on to his wife, no matter how large or even deadly a price he was required to pay. However, his story of commitment to a slave-era marriage is hardly unique.
But why would a free black man in the early 1800s open his heart so totally to a woman he couldn't legally marry? Wouldn't a man born in one slave society and living in another have learned to keep his emotions on ice, his affections scattered, his love chopped and diced into small, easily swallowed chunks? Some slave owners certainly believed this. In fact, many justified splitting up plantation couples by claiming that slaves felt little pain at losing a mate and cared nothing about lasting relationships. "Not one in a thousand, I suppose, of those poor creatures have any conception whatever of the sanctity of marriage," wrote the wife of an Alabama minister. American-style slavery did indeed promote serial relationships, sex without commitment and the wholesale production of babies for sale. All the same, slave families valued their kin and often longed for the stability of legal relationships and families. In fact, during the Civil War and immediately afterward, freedmen rushed to get married, round up lost relatives and bring their women home from the fields. Between 1890 and 1940, a slightly higher percentage of black adults than whites married.
Still, full-fledged romantic love -- the kind of love Joseph Antoine felt -- could lead to heartbreak, particularly if a man had to stand by and watch his woman insulted, beaten, overworked, raped, starved or sold away. In Louisiana, a slave named Hosea Bidell was separated from his mate after twenty-five years of togetherness, and others could tell similar stories. As a freeman informally married to a Southern slave woman, Joseph Antoine was especially vulnerable, yet he never put any fences around his heart.
He had been born a slave on the hilly green main island of Cuba. It was a land where gold-seeking Spanish conquerors armed with muskets, cannons, armor and steel swords had nearly wiped out the native population with diseases, beatings, torture and harsh work. They then brought in African slaves to work the plantations. Once the sugar cane and tobacco industries based on slave labor took over the island's economy, black Cubans, slave and free, multiplied. However, despite the harshness of life on strength-sapping sugar cane plantations and the deadly punishments for runaway slaves, Cuban blacks made up a large part of both the skilled and unskilled labor pool on the island. By the mid-eighteenth century, free black people, known as negros horros, were most of the island's shoemakers, plumbers, tailors, carpenters and other tradesmen. Moreover, slaves had certain basic rights, including the right to marry, stay with their families, embrace the Catholic Church and receive religious instruction.
In the late 1700s, Joseph Antoine's owner freed him. It's not known why his owner did this or even who his owner was. However, a Cuban slave could be freed for all kinds of reasons, including identifying counterfeiters, exposing treason, denouncing a virgin's rape, avenging his owner's murder or simply because his master wanted to let him go. As a result, 41 percent of Cuba's blacks were free by 1774.
In 1792, Joseph Antoine left Cuba, a land with dry and wet seasons, mahogany, ebony and royal palm forests, and moved to Virginia, which, until at least 1860, was the oldest and largest slave society in North America. Antoine was twenty-seven years old, could read and write and carried papers that proclaimed his freedom. He never explained why he decided to come to America -- perhaps the smell of adventure drew him or perhaps he simply wanted to start his life as a freeman in a place where he had never been branded a slave.
It was the kind of mistake anyone could make.
Like Cuba, Virginia had thick forests, but there were no easily caught hogs or cattle, no wild fruits to pinch from trees and, for someone like Joseph Antoine, little that felt or tasted like freedom. In his native land, slaves had the right to personal safety and the right to marry. In eighteenth-century Virginia, a man could kill his slave without being guilty of a felony, slave marriages had no legal standing and a host of laws squeezed, hemmed in and whittled away at the rights of free blacks. Many whites, in fact, considered free blacks good for nothing except making slaves think too much of themselves or inspiring them to run.
Until 1782, Virginia law made it nearly impossible for anyone to free a slave. Once those restrictions fell, the number of free blacks in the state leaped from fewer than three thousand to nearly thirteen thousand by 1790. Slaveholder Joseph Hill was one of those who decided he wanted to free his slaves. In 1783, he wrote a will giving his bondsmen their freedom upon his death because, he said, he felt that freedom was the natural condition of mankind. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, others followed his lead. However, a year after Joseph Antoine's arrival, Virginia began turning off the tap. It passed a whole series of laws that set traps for free blacks and slung nooses around their necks.
In 1793, Virginia prohibited free blacks from moving into the state. In 1800, it made those who were there register. In 1806, newly freed blacks were ordered to leave the state within twelve months or return to slavery. In 1819, the Virginia General Assembly ruled that freedmen and slaves couldn't meet in groups for educational purposes. In 1832, a year after Nat Turner's bloody, Bible-bolstered raiders spread terror across the countryside, the Virginia legislature clamped more restrictions on free blacks, forbidding anyone to teach them to read and write. Black ministers lost their voices, too: they could no longer preach in Virginia or help run a church. Under an 1838 law, any free Negro who left the state to get an education couldn't return to Virginia. Frances Pelham, a free black Virginia wife and mother, once threatened to scald with boiling water an official who came to snatch her family's dog. Under Virginia law, whites and slaves could own dogs, but free blacks couldn't.
These were just a few of the traps and snares waiting for Joseph Antoine when he landed in his new home, sweet Virginia, also known as the Old Dominion. Did he understand at once the hurdles he faced? Or did it take a while for him to size up his situation and realize its scope? Actually, despite Virginia's hostility toward free blacks -- much of it springing from white fears that free blacks and slave laborers were stealing their jobs -- Joseph Antoine still might have led a fairly low-key, friction-free life.
The woman changed everything. Oh yes, she did.
She was a slave owned by a man named Jonathon Purcell, who was born in 1754 in Hampshire, Virginia, now West Virginia. Antoine married her -- or what passed for marriage in American slave societies. Her name is not known, and no pictures of her or Antoine survive. Maybe she was a black beauty with the kind of high-riding hips that could support a bundle or rock a baby, Africa oozing from every pore. Or maybe she was a pale woman with a slant to her eyes and a whisper of silk and cinnamon in her hair. Or perhaps Antoine just looked into eyes the color of morning coffee and saw something that told him that in this far-off place called Virginia he'd managed to find a home.
Joseph Antoine didn't know it, but his love for his enslaved wife put him in all kinds of danger, including the danger of giving her master a button he could push. Around 1796, Jonathon Purcell decided to do just that. He was about to move to the frontier post at Fort Vincennes, Indiana, in the Northwest Territory. In 1787, the U.S. Congress had established the Northwest Territory as free and declared that slavery there "save in punishment for crime" would be prohibited. The territory included land that would later be divided into the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. However, some slavery still lingered in the region in 1796 and even later. In 1830, the village of Vincennes, the oldest town in Indiana, contained 768 white males, 639 white females, 63 free black men, 63 free black females, 12 slave men and 20 slave females. Still, Jonathon Purcell would have been fully aware that moving to free territory would eventually deprive him of the services of Joseph Antoine's wife. So he took out an insurance policy guaranteed to keep her in bondage and make sure she wouldn't run: he appealed to her husband's heart.
Antoine already had decided to accompany his wife to Vincennes. Knowing how much Antoine loved his wife, her owner threatened to sell the woman in Spanish territory unless Antoine, a freeman, signed papers making him an indentured servant for seven and a half years. Purcell also demanded that Antoine's wife sign an identical contract. Indentured servitude was the seventeenth-century solution to America's scarce labor problem. Before sailing to America, immigrants signed contracts that spelled out the terms of their service and their freedom dues. Skilled workers rarely served more than three years, and others agreed to four or five. Seven was usually the maximum number of years served. Typically, at the end of his term, an indentured servant received freedom dues that might include tools, clothes, a gun and, in the first half of the seventeenth century, fifty acres of land. The earliest blacks who came to America were indentured servants, not slaves, pledging to work free for a specific period of time to cover the cost of their transportation to this country. They were treated more or less like poor whites bound by the same contracts and received money at the end of their service. There is no record that Antoine and his wife were promised freedom dues, land or any other compensation besides the right to stay together.
At first, Antoine refused to sign the indenture papers. Purcell forced the couple into a room and locked the door. He promised that both Antoine and his wife would be free at the end of their service. Finally, the couple agreed to sign the papers and accompany Purcell to Vincennes, in the Indiana Territory, on the east bank of the Wabash River among vineyards and peach, cherry and apple trees. Purcell's brothers, William and Edward, and their families came along, too, all of them Revolutionary War veterans. Purcell became a prominent man in the Indiana Territory: in 1800, he was appointed a justice of the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for Knox County, Indiana, and a justice of the Court of Common Pleas.
Meanwhile, for seven years, Joseph Antoine and his wife labored on the Indiana frontier, dreaming of a free future. Around 1803, as the couple neared the end of their service, Antoine reminded Purcell of his promise. That's when Purcell informed the Antoines that they had misunderstood the agreement. Their term of service was for fifteen years each, not seven and a half.
Before Antoine could absorb this shock, he heard a rumor that Purcell planned to sell him and his wife to Manuel Lacey, a slave trader from St. Louis. The rumor hardened into fact. Lacey took Antoine and his wife straight to the slave market in New Orleans and sold them as slaves for life. Antoine managed to obtain an audience with Manuel Juan de Salcedo, the last Spanish governor of Louisiana, who served until the territory was transferred to France on November 30, 1803. After Antoine showed the governor his freedom papers from Cuba, the governor, usually portrayed as a corrupt official who tried to squeeze profits from his post, did the right thing. He released Joseph Antoine and his wife from the sale. However, they feared that, under the law, Antoine's wife would remain a slave until the two of them had served out the full fifteen-year terms of their indenture.
A legal noose still encircled their necks and they couldn't seem to shake it off. Lacey assured the couple he would treat them kindly while they served out the final years of their contract. However, on the trip to St. Louis, they quickly saw that they had, once again, stumbled into a trap. Lacey treated them so badly that the couple decided they had only one move left -- they would run. In 1804, they fled into Kentucky, Antoine taking the name Ben. No doubt they hoped to reach Ohio or some other free territory. However, Antoine's wife, drained and exhausted, collapsed by the roadside. While cradled in the arms of the man she loved, she died.
Despite what must have been profound grief, Antoine continued on to Louisville but was soon captured by Davis Floyd, a slave driver hired by Lacey. After trying unsuccessfully to sell Antoine, Floyd threw him into the Louisville jail. On September 19, 1804, Antoine presented the first of a series of petitions to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, spelling out his troubles and pleading for help.
In his petitions he referred to himself as "Yr orator." He told the court that he had strong reasons to believe that Davis Floyd planned to strip him of his liberty. He declared that he was a freeman and could "establish this fact to the satisfaction of this...Court." He said he worried that Floyd would take him back to St. Louis and turn him over to Lacey, who would turn him into a lifelong slave. He informed the court that he could prove he deserved freedom and that people had conspired to steal it. Finally, in June 1805, the court released Joseph Antoine, then forty. Yet there was no way he could ever shed the image of his wife, the woman he loved more than his freedom, dying in his arms.
Joseph Antoine's story doesn't stand alone. Many black husbands risked their liberty and lives for enslaved wives. They considered freedom a dubious gift, a counterfeit coin, if they couldn't spend it on the people they loved.
After the Virginia legislature decided in 1806 that newly freed blacks must leave the state within a year or be reenslaved, other black Virginia husbands and wives -- like Joseph Antoine -- prepared themselves to do the unthinkable. They offered to return to slavery rather than leave without their wives or husbands. Told to leave Virginia, a black man named Walker declared that he never would have purchased himself if he'd known he'd have to leave behind his wife and five children. He had bought his freedom from Edward Holladay on August 5, 1833. Robin was another black man who discovered he didn't like the taste of solo freedom. Freed by Benjamin Ferguson, he left for Ohio in 1836 but returned to Culpeper County, Virginia: there, he hoped to spend the rest of his life with his wife. Twenty-four people who knew Robin signed his petition to stay in the state. A former Giles County slave named Dilly also pleaded with the Virginia General Assembly to let her stay with her husband, a slave of Abram Nisewander. Former slave Nelly McIntosh wanted to remain with her relatives and friends, too. So did Armistead Johns, a freedman from Fauquier County, who preferred slavery to separation from his wife.
The records don't show what became of families whose petitions the General Assembly rejected. Free Virginia blacks, however, had another way of keeping their families together, but it was even more controversial than returning to slavery. If they had been freed before 1806, they could stay on in Virginia, buy their own relatives and friends and become slave owners themselves. Some did just that.
Over the years, Samuel Johnson of Fauquier County filed several petitions asking the Commonwealth of Virginia to let his wife, two children and three grandchildren remain in the state. Johnson owned his wife and two children. Peyton Shelton of Fluvanna County purchased and married a slave named Anna and then asked that Anna be allowed to stay in the state. Carter Armistead, forty-five, was freed in September 1844 by Lucinda Armistead, presumably his wife. She had purchased him in 1842 from John Alsop of Spotsylvania. George DeBaptiste of Fredericksburg owned his wife, Maria, whom he set free on March 12, 1823. His son, also named George, would become an Underground Railroad conductor in Cincinnati, Ohio; Madison, Indiana; and Detroit, Michigan.
Others simply left Virginia. This group included Frances Pelham, the free black woman whose dog officials had tried to take, and her husband, Robert, a farmer, mechanic, bricklayer and a "successful contractor in masonry construction."
One of her descendants described Frances as a woman with "an independent and aggressive nature," which "caused a restlessness in the Pelham household which was eventually to cause an upheaval of the family life. This incident of the dog has been given at various times as the principal factor which caused Robert and Frances Pelham to come North. This however was only one incident. In and around Petersburg, the Pelhams had many loyal friends among the liberal minded whites who were urging them to seek some place where there was less race friction and where the explosive nature of Mrs. Pelham was less likely to cause trouble."
The Pelhams left Virginia in 1859, moving first to Columbus, Ohio, where they never unpacked, then on to Philadelphia and, finally, to Detroit, where they settled because the schools seemed superior. Other free black Virginians who joined the exodus to Detroit included a shoemaker and clarinet player named Major Cook; his wife, Priscilla; and their five children, who arrived in 1848; Alexander D. Moore, a barber and musician whose band played for dances on the steamer Hope; and John Richards and his sister, Fannie, who became the first black schoolteacher in Detroit.
There are many other stories like this, stories about black men and women who, even during the slavery era, cared as much about the welfare of their mates as they did about their own. Henry Bibb, a Kentucky slave, ran away because he couldn't endure watching his wife and daughter insulted and abused without being able to step in and stop it. However, he couldn't bear the separation and returned to Kentucky again and again, trying four times to take his slave wife, Malinda, with him. Though he eventually married another woman in Canada, where he became a leader in the antislavery movement, a newspaper publisher and Underground Railroad supporter, it's not likely Henry Bibb ever forgot his first love.
Dangerfield Newby, quite literally, died for love. The free black Virginian had raised enough money to buy his wife out of slavery, but her master either pushed up the price or turned him down. Meanwhile, Newby, a blacksmith with a smoldering temper, had received a letter from his wife, Harriet, begging him to rescue her before she was sold. The letter was no passive slip of paper. It spoke to Dangerfield, sang to him, pleaded with him and poked him in all of the places where he hurt. Spurred by that letter and other "Dear Dangerfield" letters from Harriet, Newby joined John Brown in the doomed raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now Harpers Ferry, West Virginia), where two mighty rivers, the Potomac and the Shenandoah, rush into each other's arms and flow together to the sea. Like John Brown, he believed the raid would trigger a black uprising. He also hoped it would be the first step in his rescue of Harriet and his children. "Newby joined John Brown out of desperation," according to Ronald Palmer, who may be a descendant of Harriet Newby's parents. One of five black raiders, Dangerfield Newby became the first of the Harper's Ferry attackers to die. He was gunned down on October 17, 1859, about noon while trying to escape from local militia coming across the Potomac River Bridge. It was not an easy dying, a gentle swooning into darkness. A spike from a gun tore open his throat, people stabbed his corpse, souvenir hunters ran off with his ears and hogs partially ate his body. But some say Newby's ghost still prowls the area, roaming the grounds in baggy pants and an old slouch hat, the gash across his throat as bloody as ever. Nothing can comfort him, goes the story, because he failed to rescue Harriet and their children.
Joseph Antoine would have understood Dangerfield Newby's and Henry Bibb's desperate attempts to rescue their wives and children. He probably wouldn't have understood why, between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of black women married by age twenty-four plunged from 56 percent to 23 percent as more black men shambled into prisons, died young or found it difficult to imagine making enough money to support a family. Joseph Antoine's largely forgotten story survives only in his barely legible petitions to Kentucky's Jefferson County Court, but it is a powerful reminder of how far some black men and women once went to determine who and how they would love.
Copyright © 2005 by Betty DeRamus
Love Stories from the Underground Railroad
Love Stories from the Underground Railroad
Here you'll meet, among other extraordinary characters, a fugitive slave from Virginia who spends seventeen years searching for his wife. A Georgia slave couple that sails for England with federal troops trailing behind. A white woman who falls in love with her deceased husband's slave. A young slave girl who is delivered to her fiancé inside a wooden chest.
Acclaimed journalist Betty DeRamus gleaned these anecdotes from descendants of runaway slave couples, unpublished memoirs, Civil War records, census data, magazines, and dozens of previously untapped sources. This is a book about people pursuing love and achievement in a time of hate and severely limited opportunities. Though not all of the stories in Forbidden Fruit end in triumph, they all celebrate hope, passion, courage, and triumph of the human spirit.
- Atria Books |
- 288 pages |
- ISBN 9780743482646 |
- December 2005