"THE OVERSEER...SENT MY MOTHER AWAY...TO A RETIRED SPOT"
Nothing aroused greater fury within the slave community than the sexual abuse
of slave women. Josiah Henson describes his father's reaction to an
overseer's attempt to molest his mother.
I was born June 15th, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm
belonging to Mr. Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother
was a slave of Dr. Josiah McPherson, but hired to the Mr. Newman to whom my
father belonged. The only incident I can remembered which occurred while my
mother continued on Mr. Newman's farm, was the appearance one day of my father
with his head bloody and his back lacerated. He was beside himself with
mingled rage and suffering. The explanation I picked up from the conversation
of others only partially explained the matter to my mind; but as I grew older
I understood it all. It seemed the overseer had sent my mother away from the
other field hands to a retired place, and after trying persuasion in vain, had
resorted to force to accomplish a brutal purpose. Her screams aroused my
father at his distant work, and running up, he found his wife struggling with
the man. Furious at the sight, he sprung upon him like a tiger. In a moment
the overseer was down, and, mastered by rage, my father would have killed him
but for the entreaties of my mother, and the overseer's own promise that
nothing should ever be said of the matter. The promise was kept-
most promises of the cowardly and debased-
long as the danger lasted.
The laws of state states provide means and opportunities for revenge so
ample, that miscreants like him never fail to improve them. "A nigger has
struck a white man;" that is enough to set a whole county on fire; no question
is asked about the provocation. The authorities were soon in pursuit of my
father. The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand against the sacred
temple of a white man's body...this was all it was necessary to establish.
And the penalty followed: one hundred lashes on the bare back, and to have the
right ear nailed to the whipping-
and then severed from the body. For a time my father kept out of the way,
hiding in the woods, and at night venturing into some cabin in search of food.
But at length the strict watch set baffled all his efforts. His supplies cut
off, he was fairly starved out, and compelled by hunger to come back and give
The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed. The Negroes from
the neighboring plantations were summoned, for their moral improvement, to
witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes.
Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile,
and then a pause ensued. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable
property he must not be damaged. Judicious men felt his pulse. Oh! he could
stand the whole. Again and again the thong fell on his lacerated back. His
cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to
his final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear
fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member
was left sticking to the place. Then came a hurrah from the degraded crowd,
and the exclamation, "That's what he's got for striking a white man." A few
said, "it's a damned shame;" but the majority regarded it as but a proper
tribute to their offended majesty....
Previous to this affair my father, from all I can learn, had been a good-
man, the ringleader in all fun at corn-
huskings and Christmas buffoonery. His banjo was the life of the farm, and
all night long at a merry-
would he play on it while the other Negroes danced. But from this hour he
became utterly changed. Sullen, morose, and dogged, nothing could be done
with him. The milk of human kindness in his heart was turned to gall. He
brooded over his wrongs. No fear or threats of being sold to the far south-
greatest of all terrors to the Maryland slave-
render him tractable. So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his fate
neither my mother nor I have ever learned....
For two or three years my mother and her young family of six children had
resided on [Dr. McPherson's] estate; and we had been in the main very
Our term of happy union as one family was now, alas! at an end. Mournful
as was the Doctor's death to his friends it was a far greater calamity to us.
The estate and the slaves must be sold and the proceeds divided among the
heirs. We were but property-
a mother, and the children God had given her.
Common as are slave-
in the southern states, and naturally as a slave may look forward to the time
when he will be put upon the block, still the full misery of the event-
the scenes which precede and succeed it-
never understood till the actual experience comes. The first sad announcement
that the sale is to be; the knowledge that all ties of the past are to be
sundered; the frantic terror at the idea of being "sent south;" the almost
certainty that one member of a family will be torn from another; the anxious
scanning of purchasers' faces; the agony at parting, often forever, with
husband, wife, child-
must be seen and felt to be fully understood. Young as I was then, the iron
entered into my soul. The remembrance of breaking up of McPherson's estate is
photographed in its minutest features in my mind. The crowd collected around
the stand, the huddling group of Negroes, the examination of muscle, teeth,
the exhibition of agility, the look of the autioneer, the agony of my mother-
can shut my eyes and see them all.
My brothers and sisters were bid off first, and one by one, while my
mother, paralyzed by grief, held me by the hand. her turn came, and she was
bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery County. Then I was offered to the
assembled purchasers. My mother, half distracted by the thought of parting
forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd, while the bidding for
me was going on, to the spot where Riley was standing. She fell at his feet
and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother only could
command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one, at least of
her little ones. Will it, can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to,
was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of
disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks, as to reduce
her to the necessity of creeping out of his reach, and mingling the groan of
bodily suffering with the sob of a breaking heart? As she crawled away from
the brutal man I heard her sob out, "Oh, Lord Jesus, how long, how long shall
I suffer this way!" I must have been then between five and six years old. I
seem to see and hear my poor weeping mother now. This was one of my earliest
observations of men; an experience which I only shared with thousands of my
race, the bitterness of which to any individual who suffers it cannot be
diminished by the frequency of its recurrence, while it is dark enough to
overshadow the whole after-
with something blacker than a funeral pall.
Source: Josiah Henson, Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of
the Rev. Josiah Henson (London, 1877).