On February 12, 1909, The Los Angeles Times published a front page article written by Jefferson Edmonds, a newspaper editor and political activist. How Freedom’s Word Found the Bondman is Jefferson’s first-hand account of Emancipation; he was born into slavery in Mississippi.
Jefferson's opening sentence, “When in 1619 that old Dutch kidnapper sold twenty negroes as slaves to the Virginians, only a god could have foreseen the tremendous, far-reaching results that that little transaction was to produce.” is a prescient foreshadowing of the historical reckoning elevated by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, 110 years later.
And his words, “If we erase from American history the pages that the negro’s presence caused to be written, it would be a short, uninteresting story.” are as timely in 2020, as we consider Black History Month critically - isn’t Black History, American History? - as it was when Jefferson wrote his account.
On this anniversary date of the original publication, we share the full text of Jefferson’s article below. Want more?
- Jefferson’s testimony to the Congressional Committee in 1875 can be found in Facing History and Ourselves’ guide for teaching The Reconstruction Era.
- Learn more about the JL Edmonds Project, and its founder, Arianne Edmonds, here.
- Register to join us for a teacher workshop on The Reconstruction Era, including a special session with Arianne.
How Freedom’s Word Found the Bondman
By J.L. Edmonds of Sawtelle, A Former Slave
When in 1619 that old Dutch kidnapper sold twenty negroes as slaves to the Virginians, only a god could have foreseen the tremendous, far-reaching results that that little transaction was to produce. It was, perhaps, God’s way to bring two heterogeneous peoples into sympathetic touch for the civilization and development of two dark continents. The Christianization of negro savages captured in the jungles of Africa and their elevation to the priceless boon of American citizenship, is the greatest missionary achievement in the annals of the last half-dozen centuries. And yet, the parties engaged in the scheme were actuated by the most sordid motives that ever degraded the human soul. As I follow the negro’s struggle upward from barbarism through slavery to civilization, and witness the return of negro missionaries with their lamps all trimmed and burning with the fire of Christian enlightenment, to light up the dark places of their ancestral home, I cannot but exclaim:
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.”
What effect has the negro’s presence in this country had upon its history? Let’s see: If we erase from American history the pages that the negro’s presence caused to be written, it would be a short, uninteresting story. Remove from the American political stage the illustrious actors placed there by the negro’s presence, and the curtain would fall upon the departure of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. If the negroes had not visited this country as slaves the battles of our great Civil War would never have been fought. The unflinching courage displayed by the blue and the gray, in their charge and counter-charge on Cemetery Hill, the battle above the clouds and the bloody struggle of the Wilderness would not “go sounding down the ages.” As proof of American civil and military genius, Lincoln, John Brown, Garrison, Phillips, Sumner, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lovejoy and Grant, and Lee, and their illustrious lieutenants, would have taken their
“Chambers in the silent halls of death,”
and our own Frederick Douglass would not have been.
Mr. Lincoln regarded the presence of the negro soldiers in the Union army as being so indispensable, that he said: “If the 150,000 negro soldiers now in the army were taken therefrom and placed in the Confederate army or in the Confederate cornfield, the cause of the Union would not survive six weeks.” But I must hurry along to Freedom’s day.
One day, Nelse, the errand boy, said “Jeff,” speaking to me, “do you know we is gwine to be free?”
“What is that?” I asked.
“We’ll be like marster’s children; have nothing to do but play and go to school, and go where you please. Mr. Lincum, a big man up in the norf is gwine to make us free.”
Nothing more was said, but I began to do what I had never done before - to think. Throwing aside the things that had before engaged my childish mind, I gave myself up to thinking of freedom, of being like “marster’s children,” of going to school and going where I pleased. How all this was to be brought about next engaged my thoughts. After going over the whole matter, I concluded that there was no man or men big enough to break marster’s power, and make me free as his children. However, Nelse had created a new world for me; I now saw things as I had never seen them before, and was seized with “A nameless longing
For something better than I had known.”
Finally, night brought my mother home from the field and, looking thoughtfully into the blazing fire while she was preparing the evening meal, which consisted of cornpone and bacon, I said, “Mamma, Nelse says, Mr. Lincum is gwine to make us free; is it true?”
With a look of horror and surprise she seized me and gave me a violent shake, saying as she did so: “You had better never say that again. If the white folks hear that they’ll hang you and Nelse both.”
This violent turn of affairs frightened me severely and spoiled my usually good appetite. From my mother’s actions I was convinced that there was something in the wind. Thenceforward I was a changed boy, for, with the knowledge of freedom and its opportunities, came also the full meaning of slavery. Though I had awakened to my undone condition, the belief that I would some day be free made life as free from care as before. For what a panacea for present ills is a steadfast, absorbing belief in the coming of a brighter day.
Nelse’s duty as errand boy was to carry supplies from the plantation to Master’s residence in Crawford, an aristocratic village ten miles distant, and to take messages from place to place and do odd jobs. The position was a very desirable one and meant not only a trip or more to town each week, with many side trips thrown in, but the holder was the recipient of many presents at the big house for faithful performance of duties. The errand boy was regarded as a person of distinction: being half free, his word was authority. His frequent visits to town made him a sort of purchasing agent for the slaves who bestowed upon him their sincere blessings. Nelse was a big-hearted, intelligent boy, possibly 16, who had a kind word for every person he met.
The next good tidings he brought me was the information that I was to take his place as errand boy. After giving me the necessary introductions about the duties of my new position he took charge of a plow team and became the plow manager’s favorite. As errand boy I received my first lessons in personal responsibility. With a one-horse wagonload of supplies I made my first trip to Crawford. If, with your mind’s eye, you take a peep at the long rows of one and two -room log cabins occupied by Master’s slaves, the largest and most commodious dwellings I had ever seen, you can imagine my feelings as I stood on the main street of that cultured village with its wilderness of splendid, attractive residences, two to three stories high and as white as snow. And for my life I could not figure out why so many people thronged the streets in their Sunday clothes. When I started to town the woman who had charge of the dairy and whose duty it was to prepare butter, eggs, and poultry for the big house, said: “Take care of Buckra,” meaning the overseer’s boy, who was accompanying me to town to show me the way. With a knowing look she said: “A still tongue makes a wise head. It won’t do to talk about all you see and hear.”
On my return the entire black population of little folks turned out to hear the news. It was then that I discovered that the admonition given me by the good dairy woman was unnecessary. had seen wonders, but for want of words my tongue was still. I couldn’t tell anything. I was face to face with a kind of poverty that is hard to describe. Although the white boy had made several trips to town I found him to be as poverty-stricken in the matter of words as I was. Among themselves the slaves always referred to the overseer and members of their families as “buckra,” denoting contempt. As errand boy I lived in a new atmosphere. I saw slavery and much of the country as I had not seen them before. In going from farm to farm in the performance of my duties, I soon realized that “slavery was the sum of all villainies,” a curse with few, if any, mitigations. I saw many of the scenes described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin enacted in real life. But in the dust of oblivion lies the slave and his unfortunate tormentor: here let them rest.
A GREAT SLAVE PLANTATION
Dr. J.L. Edmonds, my master, was kind and indulgent to his slaves. He and his wife were Virginians of noble blood. My mother and grandmother and all of the older slaves were also Virginians from near Culpeper Courthouse that had been handed down from father to son for so many generations that the ties of friendship between them were more like those of family than of master and slave. Kindness and culture were traits of the Edmonds family that radiated from master to slave, from the great house to the plantation, blessing all with whom they came in contact.
The system in vogue in the management of the plantation was perfect, the labor being divided into several departments each under separate foremen. The hoe hands were made up of old men, boys, women and children. Then there were the plow hands and the departments of carpentry and blacksmithing. One man with assistants looked after the horses and cattle. A man and wife and assistants had charge of dairying, poultrying, and fruit drying. Each foreman was responsible for the management of his department. The overseer was a … of general superintendent and … of difficulties - sometimes creating them - and to give passes to slaves desiring to visit distant friends and relatives. These foremen, besides conferring with the overseer in all matters relative to their departments, made full and complete reports to master on his periodical visits to the plantation. The central idea of the system was to increase individual efficiency and at the same time reduce the possibility of friction to a minimum. It was a system based upon personal integrity and worked so well that, if the law had not required the presence of a white man on each plantation occupied by slaves, master would have dispensed with the overseer altogether.
The space occupied by the slave quarters covered more than a half section, each family was given an allotment of land for truck gardening, the amount depending on the size of the family. Each cabin was fenced to itself surrounded by fruit and ornamental trees as individual tastes suggested. Many of the slaves added to their allotments by clearing wood land. By working at night by moonlight or torch light and on their weekly half holidays the slaves produced thousands of dollars’ worth of cotton, tobacco and potatoes annually which found a ready market at good prices. As a means of encouragement master would buy most of their products, paying cash. And strange as it may seem, he owned several wealthy slaves who purchased forty-acre farms in 1887, paying for it in gold and silver.
RELIGION AMONG THE SLAVES
The slaves were by nature religious and master encouraged this sentiment among them in every way possible. He had a church erected in the center of their quarters and hired a white minister to preach to them twice a month. Local negro preachers were ordained who conducted religious services in his absence. This produced a high standard of morality among them. The slaves composed their own songs, some of them the most soul-stirring I ever heard, every song a plea to God for deliverance from slavery. How often have I heard those plaintive notes by which the slaves laid their grievances at the throne of God. In spite of master’s solicitude for the welfare of his slaves, they were often victims of outrageous treatment by brutal overseers. Then, too, it is impossible to treat a slave kind enough to make him love slavery better than freedom. Kind treatment increases one’s intelligence and intelligence and slavery cannot dwell happily together in the same soul.
While the religious sentiment of the slaves was diligently cultivated, singing, dancing and innocent sports were also encouraged. A good dancer was about as popular as a good preacher. While I have the utmost confidence in the sincerity and genuineness of the religion of the master’s family, I must confess that although I never saw them at a plantation prayer meeting they often dignified the plantation dance by their presence. I understand it now. Fifty slave men and women engaged in a cotillion presented a scene of animation that baffles description. Seated on a raised platform with his head nodding to every movement of his bow, the fiddler was the motive power for the whole entrancing scene, with every fiber of his body in motion, and the dancers going through their graceful rapid evolutions, he would break in:
“Shoo my honey, shoo my love,
“Shoo my pretty little turtle dove.”
Again after a short interval:
“Let it rain, let it snow,
My little wife’s in Baltimore.”
Standing by him next in power is the stalwart fellow who calls the figures, with his body swaying from side to side like a bush in a gale, he is generator of animation.
Sometimes, even now, I see in imagination the pine torch lighting up the old dance cabin, long since fallen to decay: the fiddler, the dancers and the spectators and everything as I knew it in the days of yore.
THE WAR BREAKS OUT
The beating of drums, the tramping of steeds, the tread of marching feet broke the monotony of slave life, and proclaimed the news that the call to war had been sounded. They expected it. They had heard of the Lincoln-Douglass debates, and the Sumner-Brooks encounter. Then the daily passing of long files of men in martial array told them that the day of deliverance from slavery was at hand. It was the breaking of the day aftter their long night of bondage; they had at last reached the shores of slavery’s Red Sea. If the overseer did not discover a change in the demeanor of the slaves, I cannot see why. The plaintive note in their songs changed to one of joy; the prophecy of freedom beyond the grave that had previously been the burden of their songs, now told of freedom here below. Thus:
“After the day of jubilee,
There’ll be no more cuttin’ and slashin’.”
This and many similar rude stanzas were sung both day and night. Everybody was light-hearted and gay as they went on performing their daily tasks.
Accompanied by his two sons, Nevel and Jefferson, “Old Marster” came to see them bid farewell to the slaves before leaving for the war. At the noon hour all of the slaves were summoned to the overseer’s house. Master made a speech, telling us that war had broken out, that times were going to be hard, but said it would all be over in ninety days, and expressed his confidence in each of us doing our duty on the farm as his two noble sons would do on the battle field. And we did, without a single exception. It was a pathetic scene - nearly a thousand people in tears. The two young men, splendid pictures of nobility, looking so grand and gay in their faultless uniforms, stood for quite a while in the embrace of two black women - their nurses. Aunt Dolly, with her face bathed in tears, embraced Master Nevel, and my mother embraced Master Jefferson. The leave-taking of those two black women was as affectionate as it could possibly be.
The news of great battles soon began to pour in, and white men grew scarcer and scarcer, until not a man able to bear arms was left. My father, who was manager of the hoe hands, was put in charge of the plantation. The slaves were kept well informed as to the progress of the war. Their sources of information were the house servants, several of whom could read and write. The poor white women who depended upon the slaves to keep them from starving while their husbands were at the front, and a wealthy Union man named Harvey, who refused to fight against the Union, killed a Confederate conscripting officer and took refuge on our farm and in adjacent swamps till the war closed.
THE GREAT NEWS COMES
It was a lovely day in May, 1865. The forest surrounding our plantation on every side was arrayed in its spring dress and nature wore a smile such as she wears only in our sea-girt Southland. The public road, fenced in, ran east and west through our farm. The hoe hands, several hundred in number, were hoeing corn near the road. While singing merrily a horseman was seen hurrying westward down the lane. The rider, as black as the charger on which he rode, proved to be the coachman, my grandmother’s brother. There was something unusual about his movements. We had seen him come along that road several times before riding slowly, the bearer of sad tidings - some member of master’s family had passed away and he came to summon everybody to the funeral. On one occasion, with tear-wet face, he summoned us to the funeral of Master Nevel, who had been killed at Antietam; next he summoned us to old master’s funeral - the hardest blow of all. He had died of a broken heart, caused by the death of a noble son.
But on this occasion, hat in hand, his black charger, white with foam, on he came. Everybody stopped. A breathless silence prevailed. Halting his horse in front of the people, he waved his hat above his head, exclaining at the top of his voice:
“Everybody is free! Everybody is free!”
This was the signal for one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever witnessed. In an instant every hoe was dropped, the people being seized with a wild frenzy. Some wept aloud for joy. Men and women embraced each other. Others rolled over and over in the dust. Staid old men, screaming as if mad, ran hither and thither. While this wild medley of capers were being enacted, some one yelled:
“Go and tell the plow hands!”
TORE DOWN THE FENCE
In less time than it takes to write it a dozen willing hands tore down the fence, and the foaming horse that had been rearing upon its hind feet and prancing as if he, too, was enjoying the scene, dashed headlong with his rider to the plow gang a half mile distant. Hearing the noise made by the hoe hands, every plow man had stopped. Rushing madly among them, Uncle Henry in a dramatic way told the news. As if by magic, every horse was unharnessed and mounted. And, like a troop of cavalry, with yells and amid clouds of dust, many of them bareheaded, they dashed among the hoe hands. They rode round and round, up and down the lane. Some exclaiming as they rode: “I am free! I am free, and I don’t care who knows it!” Nelse was shouting: “I told you so! I told you so!” Now Uncle Henry made a dash for the quarters to carry the news to the old and decrepit and such as were confined to their homes by sickness or misfortune, the mixed army of horsemen and pedestrians following him. On reaching the quarters, the wild scenes were reenacted. The sick, the lame and the halt joined in the festivities, and for the time being the old were young again, the lame could run and the sick were well. Women, weeping, seized their children, pressed them to their bosoms, saying: “You is mine! You is mine! There’ll be no more sellin’ and buyin’.”
Yelling like mad, the plow men rode all over the quarters, yelling freedom at every cabin door.
BACK TO WORK
It was a great day. The prayers of many generations had been answered. Standing still, performing their duties well, they had seen the salvation of God. After two days spent in thanksgiving and prayer and fiddling and dancing, my father called together the head men and it was decided that everybody should return to work. At the blowing of the horn on the third day, work was resumed as usual, only a few young men being absent, who returned some days later. Several days or weeks later, Master James came over and announced that all who signed a contract and remained would receive a part of the crops as wages, stating that all were as free as he. He read the contract, and every man, woman and child who worked was requested to come up and make his or her mark. The people, both old and young, responded promptly. When it came my time I swung back, thinking that I might be signing away my freedom. While I had received the news of it in silence and sadness as I thought of future separations from early friends and scenes that freedom must entail, I was not willing to sign it away. After considerable persuasion, I finally made my mark. Thinking in after years how it must have humiliated Master James, it has been to me a source of sincere regret. In the early ‘70s when I was struggling for the rudiments of an education, in order to assist me he made me special deputy and bailiff in his court. He, his brother Jefferson, and Mrs. Turner, their sister, were among the best friends of my youth.
One remarkable thing in connection with the reception of the news of freedom by the slaves is the fact that the runaway slaves heard the news in time to come in and take part in the celebration. Runaway slaves that had been in the woods five years were celebrating on our place the next day. Two negroes, the property of Doctors Foster and Scales, who had enjoyed the freedom of the woods five years each, fat and sleek, were in to celebrate with the rest.
Before closing this article I must state that, owing to Master’s kind manner of dealing with his slaves, no bloodhounds were allowed to be kept on the plantation. He regarded the chasing of slaves in that way as inhuman. When the overseer would attempt to show his superiority by wantonly picking a row with a slave, the latter would take to the woods till Master came, knowing that he would get the benefit of the doubt in Master’s court. On that account our people were contemptuously referred to as “Edmond’s free niggers.” But the chasing of slaves with bloodhounds was an everyday occurrence in the swamps around our place until the war took the negro hunters in the front. I have witnessed many a thrilling chase, and sometimes a brutal capture. To tell of the means used by runaway slaves to fool the dogs would make this paper too long.
Since taking leave of my former master’s family and my old fellow slaves I have had the honor to enjoy the personal acquaintance and confidence of Governors, United States Senators, Congressmen, and distinguished men and women in less-exalted walks of life: but I have never met nobler men and women than those composing the family that formerly owned me, and the slaves with whom I spent my early days.
To take from me the hope of meeting these dear old friends again in that blessed country where breathes no slave, is to deprive me of life’s sweetest aspiration.