It was the year of 1822 and the Oaks Plantation, also known as “the Big House,” named for the oak grove surrounding it, was being prepared for the festive holiday gathering. The big house and others enslaved belonging to relatives of the owner, Richard Hallum, sat on 900 acres of land in upstate Pickens County, SC. In the early dawn, on the porch of the manor, supposedly thinking at this hour no one’s watching, the young house servant, Benson, momentarily laid his broom down to give his body a much needed stretch and yawn. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a family of deer grazing, and a lone rabbit hopping through the fading grass of the season as the winter sky grayed, forecasting an early snow.
Benson was always amazed at the abundance of assorted wildlife living there—moreover their overall freedom. It wasn’t hard to imagine being able to run, play, sleep and wander at will where he wanted to go— except when he thought of the enemies the animals had and that they were hunted as prey, caught and killed, just as he would be if he had that kind of freedom. Mentally he’d think, ‘run little ones, run deer, run rabbit, don’t let them catch you.’ Shaking off his thoughts, knowing it would be worse if he was caught daydreaming, he picked up his broom to begin sweeping again. He stopped once more to see if the deer were still there. An unexpected visitor creeped up behind him. Quickly jumping, he turned, head down as he thought it may have been the mistress, or even worse, the master of the house. Instead, he saw it was one of the young house slaves.
“Boy, is it gon’ take you all moanin’ to sweep dis poach?”
The voice came from Phibe, a young girl about a year younger than Benson.
“You know who is looking for you and if you don’t hurry up, I’s gon’ tell her you messing round out here daydreaming. Too bad you ain’t daydreaming ‘bout me. ‘cause I already knows how pretty I is. ‘Cause jes about everybody tells me so. You thank so too Benson, I’s know you do.”
Benson, always liking to tease, looked back at Phibe and smiled.
“I sees you smiling at me Benson. ‘Go ‘head, jus tell me how much you like me.”
Phibe moved in, circling him in a slow walk. She stopped just in front of him, lips tooted up and pushed out for a hoped-for kiss. Becoming uncomfortable, Benson grabbed her by the shoulders and gently pushed her away.
“Phibe ain’t nothin’ wrong wid yo looks. I think in another two years, you gon’ be even prettier. And you gon’ have so many beaus after you, you gon’ be fighting ‘em off. Jus know I is gon’ always protect you, but we is never gon’ be courting just cause we’s real good friends, and I sees myself as yo protector. Ain’t that enough girl?”
“Humph! You better not let me catch you daydreaming out here no mo’, and not doin’ yo’ work since it ain’t me you thinkin ‘bout; since you jus my protector. I don’t need no protector. I’s big enough to protect mysef. One day somebody gon’ take me away from here and den you gon’ wish you had me.”
Poor girl had an eye for handsome Benson. She’d been watching him for a while. Always trying to be in the same room as he; dusting stuff here and there, over and over again. She was attractive, but Benson looked at her more as a sister than anything.
“Phibe, if you don’t git outta here, you gon’ git both us hides whupped. Now git! I’s coming. I was just making sho’ everything looked pretty out here when marse Richard’s family arrives.”
“I’s going fo now, but boy one’s des days, yo gon’ be all mine. You jus wait en see.”
I ain’t never gon’ be yo’s Phibe, now git!
Insulted, Phibe swiftly turned away and walked back inside the house.
The air was cool, fresh, and felt good against Benson’s skin. Once more he stopped for a moment to take it all in. It was a special time of year for both slaves and slave owners. A cloud of dust rising in the far distance showed signs of incoming guests, most likely family as neighboring guest always came after the family arrived.
Quickly, Benson hurried inside, stopping in the grand entry room to inspect the flower arrangements on one of the window tables. This time peering out of the window, his eyes narrowed as he watched intently at the three wagons pulling up around the circular driveway to the gate of the white picket fence. There was something there he just couldn’t tear his gaze from.
Benson remembered how he’d rushed to get dressed that morning because this was a great occasion, a time of celebration. He pulled down on his tan vest so that it fit just right over the white buttoned balloon sleeved shirt he wore. The house seamstress made his knee length pants which were of denim cotton, not of the best material but better than his everyday clothes. He also had on a pair of plaid knee-high stockings that kept his legs warm and made him look a bit fancy. His whole outfit was set off by a handed down pair of colonial shoes to be worn only at special times, courtesy of marse Hallum. As it was, on momentous occasions, all slaves whether young or old had to put on what was their best attire.
Benson stood tall at the age of 13 with a height of 5’6”. His dark red curly hair, blue/gray eyes, light complexion, and deep dimples set off a smile that would capture any woman’s heart. However, even with that height he was no match for Aunt Lucy. His gaze was interrupted by a slap against the back of his head.
“Boy, if you don’t git yo’ eyeballs out that window and git to yo’chores in this kitchen, you gonna git it! Not just from me neither. Cause if you git caught, it’s yo’s and my tail what’s gonna git the whip, all cause I’m in charge of you. “I’s in charge of all of you,” she boasted.
“Yesim, I’s coming.” Benson answered.
Raring back with hands on her now large curvy hips, she smartly said,
“Benson, if you don’t come now, that’s gonna be two beatings for you cause I’m comin’ for yah! Jus caus’ you dressed up pretty like a peacock don’t make you free. You knows yo’ place boy, and I needs you to git ready to help serve. Now git yo’sef in here. I’s tryin’ to train you for a place of dignity so’s you stay a house slave ‘cause the next Maser might now be as kind as Maser Richard and put your light skinned butt in the field, take some of dat white blood outta you. Now mind me boy and git in here.”
It was Christmas, the most important holiday on the plantation’s calendar and it was decorated in Yuletide splendor. Breathtaking was the ornate beauty of Magnolia leaves tied together with garland, and the sweet smell of flowers and poinsettia blooms that lined the horizontal rails on both top and bottom porticos that wrapped around both sides of the Victorian styled manor. Inside the double doors were 16 arched facing windows adorned with pleated grey panels that hung from rings on a rod just to sill level.
The feel of holiday cheer was heavy in the air. The house slaves and Old Lucy had outdone themselves. The smell of mince pie made with apples, raisins, beef suet, and spices was loved by all as it was a traditional holiday favorite. Country ham, greens, potatoes, and the aroma of roasted pig, rabbit and deer added to the expected meal. Sweet tea would be served with dinner for some and the finest of imported wines for those who chose otherwise. The family was still getting dressed with the help of the slaves assigned to each one. In one room you could hear one of the daughters of Maser Richard screaming,
“Mother, Mother! Come quickly. This dress is not fitting right!”
Mistress Elizabeth yelled back, but not at the daughter. “Elvira, fix it for her. Our guest will be here shortly and I want her to look beautiful so her dress must be right!”
“Yesim mistress. I’s doing the best I can. I’ll have her ready.”
Poor Elvira, almost out of breath from pulling the draw strings of the corset thought to herself. ‘Dis dress ain’t fitting cause its too little —most probably cause she a bit heavy than she’d dare confess, and she hollerin cause the waist corset pinching her. Hope she don’t faint, cause they will blame me.’
Meanwhile, placing the candelabra centerpiece on the dining table, Benson watched and admired how proud the doormen looked as they stood like staunch black statues at the ready to open the twin French doors to the entrance hall when guests arrived. It was access into the reception area where guests were greeted by the master, mistress, and sometimes children of the manor. And, of course, it was also used to make a statement of grandeur and wealth.
Each window had a single lit candle sitting on the sills inviting guests and families into the warmth of the home. Inside the great hall a sweeping curved staircase greeted the guests which from top to bottom was picturesque; decorated with mixed foliage of pine, cedar, holly, and fir branched garland, spaced apart with huge red velvet bows, ending with even bigger bows at the bottom of the platformed staircase. Here the owners would make grand entrances to the gatherings and parties they held. Even more exquisite were the high tri-level ceilings boasting of beautiful, tiered chandeliers and Greek revival moldings. On the main floor, the twin parlors and dining room were decorated in holiday splendor featuring the finest crystals, porcelain, and antique silver. Christmas reefs lined the walls with colors of red and gold ribbons. In each doorway hung bunched springs of mistletoe from the many oak trees surrounding the mansion and driveways. Each room had a huge fireplace bordered by two finely dressed Christmas trees. A reef made of eucalyptus, pine tree branches, dried flowers, holly berries and pinecones adorned doors leading into the dining hall.
Soon the family descended the stairs to line up to greet the guest. Mistress Elizabeth came down first to inspect the table settings, food to be served, and holiday décor. Satisfied, she then gathered with her husband and girls, including daughter Mistress Mary who could barely walk because of the ill-fitting dress which looked like it would burst open with every breath she took. The guests begin to arrive, and voices chattered with the family bowing and complimenting each other, speaking on how well they looked, who’s well and who’s ill while the kitchen servants made last minute adjustments to this dish or the other. All in all, everyone bustled about getting ready for the banquet destined to begin shortly.
Elias, the oldest slave in the house sat in the corner playing carols on his fiddle next to one of the large fir trees decorated with porcelain angels, gold ribbons and imported silk white ornament balls.
In general, the Hallum slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many ways. For most there was joy, hope, and celebration. For others, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom and even the maybe chance to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it yet as another burden to be endured, especially by some of the crueler slave owners who felt it was a better time to sell or gift their slaves to other family members or guests.
Nevertheless, the excitement was in the air for all because after chores for the plantation slaves, Christmas meant the house and field hands had two to seven days of celebration and parties away from the manor. However, as per tradition, after dinner and before the men and women guest separated to different parlors, Maser Hallum, called first the house servants to stand in the yard while he and the male guests would throw out coins and trinkets to whoever could catch them. Second the field hands were thrown out used clothes and fruit, and several bottles of cheap wine or homemade liquor, set out in hidden places as a game for those who could find them. All were encouraged to share as they enjoyed their time of. This was his way of being a good maser to his servants, more to encourage them to not try and run away, but not without warning, no other maser in the land would be as good as he was to his servants.
This happened once a year under the watchful eye of overseers, who themselves kept a safe but vigilant distance away from the slaves while enjoying rolled tobacco and strong drink until drunkenness caused many to fall asleep. Sometimes pretty young slave girls would lure the overseers away giving time for all to get away to an old, abandoned pasture where they mostly gathered in free time to play their music, dance, eat and drink till early morning. Many used this time to marry the one they loved.
Benson and Old Lucy decided to visit an elderly couple, Rhoda and Jesse, who was sickly and too old to work anymore. They were one of a few married couples that were able to stay together without being sold apart from the other. Like many of the slave cabins, their’s had a chimney that were prone to catching fire, roofs that leaked, dirt floors, and walls with gaping holes. Nothing more than a place to sleep. Yet the old one-room wood framed hut had been their home for over 50 years. Rhoda often the story of living in that same hut as a child and how she held a pine torch so her mother, who spent her days in the fields, would have enough light to complete her evening tasks of spinning and quilting. At the age of 10, her mother was later sold to another planter in Tennessee, but she’d learned enough and other slaves helped to make it on her own until she met Jesse. Both Jesse and Rhoda worked in the fields until they became sick. Rhoda had head spells, but made quilts for the big house now and Jesse now worked in the gardens when he could. He’d had a stroke one day in the field. An overseer saw him fall and decided to whip him instead of helping. It almost killed him. When Maser Richard saw him, he called a doctor and was informed that he wasn’t tired or too lazy to keep working but that he’d actually taken sick.
Lucy had made a special sweet potato dish, some corn and ham from the dinner that was prepared at the big house as a gift along with a pouch of tobacco she’d managed to take from the stash of canned tobacco maser Richard had in the house. Benson, in his spare time, learned to fiddle from Elias. To his surprise, Old Lucy made a trade with another slave who made fiddles and presented Benson with a brand new one for Christmas. Happy to have his own, he played to the delight of Lucy’s friends. Old Jesse pat his good feet to the tunes and his wife Rhoda clapped and hugged him.
“Chile, Rhoda said, “evertime I sees you, you look better and better. Ain’t no guessing yo daddy is one of them. Don’t much know which one of them Hallum boys, but you got that red curly hair from one of ‘em. Shame the way they take advantage of us women, make us bent over and git us pregnant. Us have chillum and know they ain’t us husbands but can’t hep it. Guess I was blessed. If we git sassy like yo’ mama did, they sell us off or beat us. But I glad you still here. Dey will never admit they yo kin, but we knows. Now go sit out in the yard and play yo fiddle all you want, cause this is the onliest time we’s git to enjoy us sefs jus like we want to. Now gwine so’s me an Old Lucy can catch up.”
“Yesim, I will and I’m mighty glad you like my fiddling.”
Out of the boy’s hearing, their way of speaking changed. This was rare because good slave or not, old or young, if caught there would be severe punishment.From a small homemade table, Rhoda, picked up her corn pipe that she loved so well and packed it with some of the tobacco that Lucy bought her in her package of gifts.
“Did you tell the boy yet?” she asked.
“Not yet Rhoda, but soon. I will tell him before long.”
“It’s important Lucy, don’t let him go on believing what he thinks now.” She looked at Old Lucy and winked her time lined eye.
Finding him a good stump to sit on, Benson began to play a tune he made up in his head good to dance to. The more he played, the more his feet tapped until he got up, strutting and dancing around the yard to his own music. Round and round he turned until he heard a voice he knew all too well that stopped him right in the middle of his strut.
“Miss Mary Ann, you scared me ‘bout otta my wit! What you doin here? If’’n my maser and yo daddy catch you here they gon’ punish me something awful.”
“Oh stop your worrying Benson. Member when we used to play. I just heard fiddling and followed the sound. Why I didn’t know it was you. I didn’t even know you played. But since it is you, I think I want to dance. Besides, my daddy and all the men at the big house is all drunk and smoking and telling tall tales. And my ma is so busy gossiping with the others they don’t even know or probably care whether I’m gone or not. Now, play for me while I dance. Anyway my druthers is to be here with you. You look so handsome in your dress up clothes. Plus I got a little gift for you too.”
She pulled from her pocket a small bag of candy.
“Here you go. I brought you some sugar cane candy all cause I am sweet on you.”
“I like candy and ‘preciate it too. But is it worth my back being split by the whip of the overseer. No ma’am. So thank you, but no thank you.”
“Well I aint taking it back, and anyway, you know which ever overseer is still here and not out in town is drunk or sleep. Benson, I’d never git you in trouble, plus I always hear you is one of my uncle Richard’s favorite slaves anyhow. He ain’t gone let nobody lash you. Besides, I think my uncle Richard loves me more than his own spoiled daughters, and he knows me and you been friends all our lives. I just want to have a little fun with my friend—that’s all Benson. Now my friend, lift up your head and look at me. I’m just as dressed up as you. It’s okay, I promise I won’t tell you looked me in the face. Besides, what they think us white women gonna do? Maybe put some kind of curse on you? Crazy talk, but I understand rules these landowners make up.”
He did look up and saw that she was wearing a beautiful red velvet full length skirt with matching off the shoulder long sleeves and tight fitting bodice. She lifted her flowing skirt and sashayed around Benson as he played his fiddle. Both laughing and dancing to his tunes. Soon, both worn out from prancing around had to stop and take a break. Benson sat back down on the tree stump and played for his friend a slower song that made her sway from side to side. Suddenly, and on purpose, she threw her hand up to her forehead and exclaimed,
“Oh my, I do feel faint,” falling helplessly onto Benson’s lap just as Old Lucy was coming out of the door.
“Boy is you don’ gon’ plum crazy?’ she questioned Benson.
Standing up and leaving Mary Ann to drop to the ground he responded,
“No ma’am, I was jus playing my fiddle and Mary Ann, I mean Ms. Mary Ann heard me and came and wanted to dance.”
“Benson, Hep that poor girl up off the ground. If one of dem crazy drunk by now overseer’s sees you, he aint gon’ see nobody but you cause I’m gwine the other way. If one of them white folk see Ms. Mary Ann in your lap ain’t nothing gone save you.”
“Miss Mary Ann I know you does mean well, but ain’t no darkie suppose to be close to any of y’all especially what my eyes just saw.”.
Mary Ann spoke back, “Benson ain’t no darkie and neither are you. But I’ll go cause I loves both y’all. Bye now Benson.” She said sarcastically.
Head down, Benson replied. “Bye Ms. Mary Ann.”
Watching her leave, Lucy turned scolding Benson,
“Lift yo head up boy and look at me eyeball to eyeball. That pretty little white gal gon’git your half white sef skinned, tarred and feathered no matter you Maser Richard’s favorite or not. You hear me son?”
“Now come on here and lets find our own folk and enjoy this time while we can.”
Benson’s heart was beating faster than his fingers was when he was playing that fiddle, but not out of fear. It was out of emotional love—dangerous love.
Lucy said, “Chile, I loves you like I bought you in this world myself. But if you don’t watch yo’sef around that pretty little white gal, Lawd, you gon’ be the death of us both. Yall both been sweet on each other since childhood. I remember and I knows what you feel. I don’t know if I ever really been in love cause all my life since my capture, I been abused, used, and some time beaten.”
She saw the look of question on his face and answered before he had a chance to speak.
“Somethings ain’t for young’uns to know just yet. One day, I promise, I’ll tell you and show you something you gon’ need to know for the rest of your life. And one mo’ thing, me and you never had this conversation. This here is our secret. You hear?”
“Yesim,” was his reply. Though he couldn’t help wondering what in the world is she talking about.
It was not just Lucy remembering the connection between little Benson and her maser Richard’s niece, but Benson remembered too. The brothers, Richard and Thomas Jefferson were very close. Their homes were not that far apart, separated only by a small fishing pond and some fruit orchards. The wives also socialized together so they brought their children over whenever they visited.
Most male slaves Benson’s age was in the fields picking cotton all day, but in a sense, he was special from the very beginning. Some of the older slaves knew his daddy was a white man, even more that his daddy was one of the Hallum men but would never say. Word was his mother was a house slave for Richard Hallum but was sold shortly after giving birth to Benson. A wet nurse was then made to nurse him and her own baby until he was weaned off at six months. Thereafter he was given a sugar tit, made by placing a spoonful of sugar, or honey, in a small patch of clean cloth, then gathering the cloth around the sugar and twisting it to form a nipple or bulb. Babies loved sugar tits, and I’m sure the wet nurses did too as it gave them a time to heal from all of the pulling. However, when either brother visited, they would bring their children to play and Benson would be brought along as well.
Sadly, play was a preparation, sort of an initiation into the world of slavery. Psychologically, it was used on most enslaved children, especially those who would be house servants, to be social and accepting of what would be an eternity of bondage even times of distress through role play games such as slave auction.
Thomas only had girls while Richard had boys and girls. However, his sons were too old to play with Benson and when they did take time with him, they were knocking him around and calling him names. But it was different when Thomas would bring his family. Mary Ann was the first born of Thomas and his wife, and was two years older than Benson, so they grew up playing together. Of course, Benson was not allowed to play with her dolls, however, the games he could play were still ones that were preparing him for what would be his destiny.
A common game they always played was “Hide the Switch” where master Richard or Thomas would instruct Benson to hide a simple switch cut from a tree and whoever found it would then chase the other to whip them (of course they would tell Mary Ann where the switch was) and it would always be Benson who felt the lash. It was a crude attempt to deal mentally with the constant fear of the whip and the authority of the master.
While not looking one day, Mary hid the switch while Benson slyly watched, and he got to chase her. When he attempted to hit her, he was punished with the belt of his master and told never to lift his hand to a white girl especially his master’s kin. Mary Ann did not like it and told her uncle so. While Benson sat on the back steps of the manor crying, she came to him to comfort him. She told her daddy, who loved her so, never to let her uncle Richard punish Benson again. “He’s my friend and my playmate.”
“They’re just children Richard,” Thomas said, “He will know soon enough his place.”
‘But,’ thought Benson, ‘it was just that phrase that Mary Ann used just before she started to dance to my fiddling. She said, “Member when we used to play?” Lord, he thought, maybe she do have some kinda spell on me. Makes me feel all sweet inside my heart. Best I stay my distance.’
He was quiet as he and Old Lucy said their goodbye’s to Rhoda and Jesse. However, he was still thinking of Mary Ann and their close encounter before now.