This personal account of my life and escape from Slavery is grounded in fact, not imagination, but though I have tried to depict the truth of my previous bondage as best as I am able, I know that this subject could be better portrayed in more adequate hands. I am just a simple woman with simple words; however, I know that I must not stand quietly by while my brothers and sisters still suffer in chains.
To share my story is to share the truth. To stay silent is to be complicit in the heinous crimes that are protected under that peculiar institution . Therefore, though my words be weak, may the readers of the North be aroused by the dark truth embedded within them.
I was born on a cotton plantation not far from the city of Memphis in the state of Tennessee. According to my mother, my father had been sold at the Great Negro Mart before I was even born. As a child, I could not understand why my parents had to be separated nor why I had to be deprived of a loving father.
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As the years passed and my eyes grew accustomed to the cruelty of Slavery, I knew it was because the Negro slave was simply regarded as chattel.
My mother worked as one of the household cooks, and by the time I could walk, I was carrying pails of water and small bags of flour to the kitchens. Whenever I wanted to play, I played not with store-bought toys but with the work of chasing the birds away from the garden and competing with the other children to collect the most weeds that littered the ground. It was ability, not age, that defines the life of an enslaved child.
The first time I saw my mother beaten was when I was eight years old. I had been carrying firewood to the kitchen for one of the cooks when the mistress of the house walked in unannounced followed by a man with a whip. I heard the crack before I saw my mother fall.
Vaguely, I remember strong arms holding me back and a flour-covered hand preventing me from crying out. Though I was still too naïve to understand, the older slaves around me knew that in that moment, my mother was not my mother. She was only a slave to be beaten.
“You would do well to remember that he is my husband, not yours,” Mrs. Smith remarked coldly. Thirty cracks had now gone by. My mother, barely conscious, was lying on the ground.
A few weeks later, she was found to be in the family way , and after several months passed by, I became the older sister of a fair-skinned baby boy. Though I was still young, I could perceive the truth, and all I felt was fear. I was certain Mrs. Smith would kill my mother!
“Don’t you worry about me, Zola,” my mother had said, holding my little brother to her chest. “Mr. Smith won’t let his wife destroy his property.”
Three days later, I learned just how right she was. Mr. Smith did not allow my mother to die; instead, through the jealous urgings of the mistress, he brought my mother and newborn brother to the same auction block he had sold my father at nearly ten years prior.
At nine years old, I was alone. I was grieving. At too young of an age did I start to fully understand how the heavy hand of Slavery left no room for morality. To break apart entire families, especially as a simple exercise of one’s power, is an injustice that no one in the Union should tolerate.
When the news broke out concerning the auction of my family, one of the cooks whom we all called Aunty took me in, but nothing could truly replace what Slavery had taken from me. Having lost my mother and brother, all that was left within me was a desire to be free.
As this desire grew, my suffering also intensified. Reader, how desperately I wish that my hand may skip over this truth, but the horrors of Slavery will not be overcome by ignorance. Since I was three years old, my master’s son, who was six years my senior, often asked for me to be brought into his room at night so that he could use me to warm his feet while he slept.
When I reached the age of sixteen, this request that once merely demeaned me was now transformed into consummate shame and degradation. I could not escape the sin. Every night, it lied in wait for me.
Soon, I was in the family way, and my desire for freedom reached its peak. I refused to bear my child in a society that only sought to shackle it. My only source of fear was a law that the federal government had passed five years prior: the Fugitive Slave Law . Nevertheless, the growth of the baby within me encouraged me to continue making plans for an escape.
Weeks of passionate praying and planning went by until God sent a blessing in the form of a tragedy. Slave catchers had brought back a man named Chike who had escaped slavery several years ago, and they immediately put him in a pronged collar with bells at the tips. Though my heart broke for him, I knew I could not waste an opportunity to talk to him. That night, once my master’s son had fallen asleep, I quietly snuck out and carefully moved towards Chike’s quarters.
After pleading desperately for his help, Chike revealed to me that he had been inspired by the actions of Robert Pelham and had willfully been caught so that he could aid in the escape of more slaves from his former plantation. Though he would not tell me how we were to escape, he showed me a quilt with a pattern of tumbling blocks sewed onto it.
“When this here quilt is hanging up on the clothesline,” said Chike, “you’ll know that it’s time. Prepare, and once the moon is on top of us, meet me back here.”
Five days later, the quilt was raised. With only the light of the moon to guide me, I made out two other figures standing next to Chike, who was stuffing cotton into the bells of his collar to silence them. The pair was a slave couple who had jumped the broom this past year. Immediately after I arrived, Chike began leading us towards the house of an abolitionist on the outskirts of Memphis, creating a zig-zag path instead of moving directly there.
Though weary from walking, the sight of the lawn jockey’s lantern next to the magnolia trees in front of the house instilled within me an indescribable joy and lightheartedness. Moving aside some breakaway bricks, Chike created a hole large enough for us to crawl underneath the house, and slowly but surely, we squeezed through a small hole and arrived in the cellar of John Burkle’s estate. Overcome with the greatest of joys, I began to weep.
The cellar was cold and damp and extremely confined, but for the first time in my life, I felt freedom. I felt safe. I felt hope. In that moment, we all began to pray and to thank the Lord for His overwhelming goodness and blessed protection.
The four of us stayed at the Burkle estate for another week, taking turns to go outside and accompany John Burkle as his “slaves.” When the vessel that would bring us North arrived, each of us hid in cargo boxes that were atop the deck. Though painfully uncomfortable, the mere thought of freedom made me giddy. Reader, to think of those dark days of Slavery brings me to tears, but the sweetness of freedom always returns me to the sweetest peace.
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