A READING FROM GRANDPA BENJAMIN
By Uriah J. Fields
I am Uriah J. Fields, author of Grandpa Benjamin. Grandpa Benjamin is a novel that is part fiction and part nonfiction. And let me add, it involves my own experience, including the early twenty years of my life when I spent time with my Grandfather, the main character of this book.
Grandpa Benjamin is the story my Grandfather told me (his grandson) just as he had been told by his mother, about the lives and struggles of their enslaved ancestors and how he and his half-brother, also born into slavery established the Fields Community that nurtured their descendants for more than four generations. Established in this community was the Fields School which I attended the first eight years of my schooling.
Grandpa Benjamin's real name, the name given him by his slave master, is "Benjamin Franklin Fields." He was born on April 10, 1862, about a year after the Confederacy forces fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, South Carolina that started the four-year Civil War.
It was a gorgeous day in April of 1945, three days after my fifteenth birthday, when I skipped school to help my Grandpa, as his grandchildren called him, tend his garden. The day before, Grandpa had told my mother that he would be working in his garden on the next day. My mother had approved of me staying out of school that day to help Grandpa cultivate his garden. Two weeks had past since I last worked in his garden, plowing, hoeing and raking. But today, to my surprise, there would be no plowing, hoeing or raking; just a lot of careful observing and me listening to Grandpa talk about, and even talk to his vegetables and other things that were important to him. But most important of all were things he told me about my ancestors that I would always remember.
This reading is about some of the things my Grandpa told me about my ancestors. Now I will begin reading on page 17 of Grandpa Benjamin.
While Grandpa was opening the side door of his house he invited me to come inside and have lunch. As he put it, 'Lets have something to eat.' During the first five minutes while we were eating mostly products that Grandpa had harvested from his garden and pecans from a pecan tree in his back yard that were in the pecan pie we were about to have for desert, there was silence, except for the occasional clanging of eating utensils against pots and plates and the muffled-like sounds from our chewing food. Just before getting up from the table to pour Grandpa another cup of coffee and myself a glass of milk I noticed that he seemed to be in deep thought, something like a trance. It seemed as if he was pondering over some weighty matter. While slowly sipping his second cup of coffee and as I was gulping down my glass of milk in the usual milk-drinking style that I had become accustomed to, he said, 'Uchay," the name most community people called me. 'I want to tell you some things that you need to know about our folk, our ancestors... my mother's mother and even before her.' Following a pause he said, 'Let me see how far back I can go in telling you about our family history.' He got up from the table and went into his bedroom. He returned with a slender notebook that apparently his daughter-in-law had written in for him. He opened the notebook which had faded-looking pages but without reading from it and while gazing into my eyes he said, 'Rosalyn, as you know, my mother, not your mother.' (He smiled because my mother's name is also Rosalyn.')
Continuing he said, 'She told me things that I have never forgot and I want you to know them. I want you to remember them. During the last few years of her life my mother told me most of the things I am about to tell you. I was about twelves or thirteen years old. She told me that about one-hundred years before I was born, the same time as the Revolutionary War in1776, her great-great-great-great grandparents, while fetching water from the Bimau River near their home in Benin, West Africa were kidnapped by white English and American slave catchers. Their names are Baasti and Ashanti Nkurmga. They had two small children who were named Munga and Akami. The youngest child, only one year old was at the home of Ashanti's sister and her husband the day they were kidnapped and the other child was at the river with them. Before the slave catchers could take the child an elderly man who had warned them about slave catchers in the area took their child and ran away. Baatsi and Ashanti were unable to escape. The slave catchers chained one of Basts's feet to a foot of another kidnapped man and one of Ashanti's feet to a foot of another kidnapped woman. Like animals, they herded them onto a slave trader's ship named Liverpool with about two hundred other kidnapped Africans.'
It took them many days, even weeks, to sail the Middle Passage and make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship anchored in Charleston, South Carolina where they were auctioned off and sold as slaves to the highest bidders. Just two days after arriving in Charleston Baatsi was sold to a South Carolina slave owner and that was the last time Ashanti ever saw her husband. Like their two children, her husband had disappeared forever. Three weeks later Ashanti was sold and taken to Georgia by a slave owner who called her Elsie an told her that her name was Elsie. He also told her that he was her slave master.
Georgia had been established by England in 1733, as a New World Colony and designated to be a slave free Colony. But in 1759 that law was repealed. ... By the time Ashanti, and I will call her by her African name that she loved and always called herself when she was not in the presence of white folk, not Elsie, was brought to Georgia slavery was flourishing there just as it was in the state of South Carolina that adjoined her to the north. Georgia had actually adopted laws governing slavery very similar to the laws in South Carolina. Both of these states entered the Union in 1778 as two of the original colonies that formed the Union."
Grandpa stopped talking and gave me an inquiring look that indicated he wanted to know just how I was being impacted by the things that he had told me. With my pensive eyes and a smile I attempted to assure him that I was all right and really wanted to hear more about my family history. Sensing that I was favorably impacted with what he had said he continued sharing his story with me. About two years after Ashanti came to America at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Her slave owner name John Shambock, told her that he had named her children Andrew and Isabella. He added, 'all three of you are Shambocks, i.e., (with emphasis) slaves of Shambock!' While still a small child, about three or four, Andrew was sold to another slave owner. Neither Ashanti or Isabella would ever again see him. Isabella remained with slave owner Shambock until she was eighteen. she was frequently beaten and raped by both her slave master and his oldest son.
A few months after the death of her mother Isabella and her Indian Lover, a Muskogean Indian named Hitchtaw a slave owned by Daniel Carrell whose plantation adjoined Shambock's plantation, joined with sixteen other slaves from three plantations, including two other Indians, and escaped to Spanish Florida where Choctaws and Seminole were giving refuge to runaway slaves. Soon after their escape posters asking for help in capturing them were posted in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. One poster described Isabella as a young Negro woman who had scars on her back and a gash on the right side of her buttock occasioned by the whip and a Choctaw Indian who had the letter "S" branded on the left side of his face and lower left forearm. At the bottom of the poster was a warning, 'The Indian may be violent!' A reward was offered to anyone returning these slaves to their slave masters.
A few weeks after they arrived in Florida a pose numbering twenty white slave catches from Georgia and Alabama came to Florida with the intention of capturing runaway slaves there and returning them to their slave masters or selling them to other slave owners. Isabella and the other runaway slaves with her resisted the slave catchers as they put up a "hellava" fight. Isabella's Indian Lover Hittchtaw overpowered one of the slave catchers, took his gun and killed him, one other slave catcher and a horse before he was killed. During that bloody confrontation four other slaves and three slave catchers were killed. Eight off these runaway slaves, including Isabella and the two other females in the group, were captured by surviving slave catchers and brought to Mason City, Alabama where they were penned up in a barn on Daulphinville Island. Isabella remained there for two weeks before she was sold to Peter Blount who took her to his plantation in Hilltox County, Alabama. A few months later Isabella's slave master learned that she was pregnant. She had been impregnated by her Indian Lover, as she affectionately called him. In 1798 at the age of twenty she gave birth to a girl who was named Betty by her slave master. Although Isabella called her daughter Betty in the presence of her slave owner and other white people she never called her by that name at other times. She named her daughter Dehgewanum, after the Indian Lover's mother. The name means 'The Two-Descending Voices.'
At the age of sixteen Betty was impregnated by Jocob Davenport. She gave birth to a child her slave master named Sophia.When Sophia was seventeen Davenport's wife accused him of having sexual intercourse with her and soon afterward Sophia was sold to a slave owner named Birmingham Stott in Hillcox County. Stott desiring to increase his slave holdings authorized or, more correctly, ordered a slave who he called "The Stud" to have sex with Sophia. For nearly three years Sophia's strong will against having children who would be slaves was sufficient to prevent The Stud from impregnating her but The Stud whose real name was Walter, frequently engaged in sexual intercourse with Sophia, sometime to the cheering of and delight of Stott who occasionally watched their sexual performance. There were times that he would beat The Stud while he was having sex with Sophia on the pretext that "The Stud would perform better sexually. In time The Stud did succeed in impregnating Sophia and at the age of twenty-three she gave birth to a girl who was named Rosalyn by her slave master. Following Sophia' untimely death that may have resulted from frequent beatings she received from her slave master who cut off two of her toes after she attempted to run away Suzanne replaced Sophia, in more ways than one, as Stott's chief houseslave. In addition to being the house woman for Stott and his wife and his mistress, she was the surrogate mother for Rosalyn.
Stott's wife taught Rosalyn how to read and write when she was six years of age and Suzanne taught her how to 'be a lady, even though you are a slave,' to borrow a phrase Stott's wife occasionally used when speaking to Suzanne. When Rosalyn was fifteen her slave owner allowed her to teach other slaves how to read and write, including some slaves who were nannies for their slave owners' children.
Some slave masters were eager to have their slaves learn to read and write, especially if they could be taught reading and writing by other slaves, without the need for 'pedestal-elevated' white women having to stoop to the level of teaching slaves. They believed that these slaves who learned to read and write would have a positive influence upon their legal children who were often neglected by their own, again "on a pedestal-elevated' mothers. They also felt that slaves who were able to read and write would serve their masters better. Today, some white people in America are still pushing slavery-fashioned education for black people. But the vast majority of slave masters were not so inclined to allow their slaves to learn to read and write and they did whatever they could to prevent slaves from learning how to read and write. They believed that slaves who could read and write would be more difficult for them to control and to keep as slaves than illiterate slaves. And there were other slave owners who maintained that slaves were incapable of learning to read and write, just as were the beasts of the field.
William Calhoun, a cousin of slave owner Stott convinced him that teaching slaves to read and write was a bad thing for him to do and he urged him to immediately put an end to Rosalyn teaching slaves how to read and write. He told Stott that one of his trusted niggers had informed him just yesterday that some of his slaves who had been taught by Rosalyn were planning to escape and that some slaves she had taught were teaching other slaves how to read and write. Calhoun ordered one of his slaves to tell Stott what he had told him yesterday about what some nigger slaves were planning to do to their slave masters and their children.
A somewhat bully-looking slave in his fifties said that he had been told by some slaves that they were planning to escape using the Underground Railroad. He also said that house servants had been told to put rat droppings, poison and their own pee and shit in their slave masters' food. He said that two of these slaves who were planning these things had been taught to read and write by Rosalyn.
After listening to the things Calhoun and his slave collaborator said Stott decided that he should sell Rosalyn to another slave owner. Within days he sold nineteen year-old Rosalyn to Henry Harold Hampton, a slave owner in Hamilton County, Alabama. Hampton was also known in Sunflower where he lived and beyond as Captain H. H. H., a title he received after returning home following a brief battlefield engagement in which he was wounded during the War of 1812 that involved British and American Soldiers and Indian warriors. Hampton was in his late sixties when he impregnated Rosalyn who became my mother on April 10, 1862. Captain H. H. H., named me Benjamin Franklin Fields. While in the military he gained an appreciation for Benjamin Franklin. Sometimes he could be heard quoting Benjamin Franklin. This was his favorite quotation that he attributed to Benjamin Franklin, "A penny saved is a penny earned."
My mother thought that this is why he name me Benjamin Franklin. She did not know why he gave me the surname Fields. As far as she knew there was never anyone known by that name in this area. She heard Captain H. H. H. tell another slave master that he created that surname for my and his son. He also said that he didn't want our son to have the same surname as his legal children or the name Stott that I still used privately because he never forgave slave master Stott for having sold him an effete slave who died less than a year after he was purchased from Stott. But as you can see my surname should be Benjamin Franklin Hampton. I should have the same surname as my two half- brothers. My mother taught me that my surname is Fields, not Stott as is her surname or Hampton's slave as some people called her. So you can see what happened to my ancestors... and your ancestors....beginning with when they were kidnapped in Africa and continuing until the day I was born." After a pause... Grandpa said, "Now, you know the rest, don't you?"
I was speechless, unable to respond to his question. While he was talking I had been all ears, eyes and soul. His words and the expressions on his face were riveting and soul-wrenching. I was so overwhelmed by the awesome things that he had said that I had to wait before I could respond to his question, the last seven words he had uttered: "Now, you know the rest don't you?" When I gained my composure after a significant delay, I said "Yes sir Grandpa, I know the rest." Beginning with Grandpa's name I said, "Benjamin." Continuing I called the names of his two brothers "Alexander" and "Edward" who had the same mother as he but Alexander had a different father than he and "Edward." As I was in the process of calling the name of his oldest child, the first born from the first Fields' marriage, before I could say any more than "John Ham.... he, convinced that I knew the rest, abruptly interjected without allowing me to finish calling his oldest son's (also my father's) full name, "I KNOW YOU KNOW THE REST, AND WHO YOU ARE."
I will close with a poem I wrote and asked one of my sisters to read for Grandpa. I was a soldier during the Korean War when Grandpa died on December 15,1950. He was 88 years old. This is my farewell tribute to Grandpa:
To lose the earth you know, for
To lose the life you have, for
To leave the friends you love, for
heavenly loving and angelic fellowship:
To find a land more sweet than home
and more awesome than earth,
Behold! A wind is rising and rivers
Your soul too is rising and flowing:
You are communing with the wind
and the rivers.
You, the wind and the rivers are one.
(From Grandpa Benjamin, pp. 17-26 & 151)
Copyright 2015 by Uriah J. Fields