“Life in Washington. Stories of the Late Slaves.” (April 18, 1862)

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union LinesLincoln's funeral on Pennsylvania Ave.Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe on Exhibition in New York

In this article, published April 18, 1862, in the Evening Post, journalist Mary Clemmer Ames writes the stories of several formerly enslaved people, now free Blacks, living in Washington, D.C. including Elizabeth Keckly.


[Correspondence of the Evening Post.]

Washington, April, 1863.

A Slave-Girl’s Story.

Bena is a cunning little nig; the oddest and the jolliest little Congo that I eversaw. She is a perfect Congo—no blood of the chivalry in her.

A head thickly padded with wool, jutting out here and there in fantastic tufts; a nose which looks as if it had been flattened to her face by a single blow; lips like two sausages tied at the ends, opening over large teeth, white and gleaming; eyes large and liquid, soft and sunny, loving eyes, has Bena.

She is nine years old; wears shoes more substantial than stylish—regular brogans; a long blue woolen frock down to her heels; a white apron, with an enormous pocket crammed to bursting with headless dolls and their ragged wardrobes with broken crockery; beads which always need stringing, and a leaf of an old catechism, which she knows by rote, for she is a perfect little Papist, and crosses herself like a saint.

This is Bena—do you see her?

I open my door; and from behind it pops Bena with a bunch of flowers in her hand.

“Ben waitin’ out yer dis long time. Picked dese flowers fur Missy; know’d she lifted dese ar,” says the little sinner, with an insinuating voice, and a grin which almost stretched her mouth to her ears.

Perhaps I might think that it is pure love for me which keeps these fair, fresh flowers upon my table, if I did not know that Bena’s heart is, set upon possessing a very large doll with a head and every new flower, she expects, will bring her an instalment of pennies toward gaining that beloved object.

Bena is a slave. Through the greater portion of her life she received a beating from her master regularly every day. The bestowal of this thrashing was a part of the routine of his life; he gave it independently of her doings or undoings, simply to “break her.” And to preclude the possibility of his pos-essing in a “sassay nigger.”

Bena formed a portion of the dowry of his wife, and she having as much attachment for her as she might feel for any animal of her own, placed her in this house to save her from the beatings of her master. Very likely you will call him a boor, but he is regarded as a gentleman of “high blood.”

What are you thinking about, Bena? I asked the other day, as the child stood in the middle of the room, her large dewy eyes gazing mistily out in the distance.

“‘Bout my fader an’ mudder. They’s way up thar in the country,” pointing toward Maryland.

You don’t love your father and mother, I asserted.

“Yes, Mis’, I does. I loves ’em better than anybody in dis world. I thinks about ’em all de time. Las’ night I dreams my [mother] stands over my bed and kissed me, and so did my little sister Posy; long time since I seen Posy, she’s way up that, too, Posy is,” and at this thought Bena began to cry in earnest and would not be comforted. Bena is one of the gentlest and most affectionate of children. If she only had a ripple of Saxon blood in her veins we might claim it at the source of all these quick, strong affections, but as I told you, Bena is a Congo.

Bena is a heathen. She needs “missionary effort” as much as any little sister heathen worshipping her wooden gods under the palor of the tropcs. It is true, Bena knows a few strong passages in a Catholic catechism, but she is very slightly acquainted with the Virgin Mary, and much less so with her Holy Son.

But Bena has the reputation of being the most profitable servant in the house. She more than pays her way already. She takes care of herself she makes her own simple clothes, she waits on everybody, yet always has time to coax tardy flowers into blooming for my next bouquet, or to drop down on the staircase or in the sunshine any where to draw the headless dolls from her pocket and go to playing with them.

When slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia, of course it will be a great pity that such a child should be free. Poor thing: what will become of her when she can go “up thar” and see her “madder” and Posy if she likes!

A Slave “Boy” and His Family.

Albert is a young mulatto, soft-footed, soft-voiced, with fine intuitions and affections. Albert has a wife who has not seen eighteen years, and a baby that has not seen eighteen years, and a baby that has not seen eighteen weeks.

This baby fills Albert with amazement and admiration. He can scarcely wait for us to finish our dinner, he is so anxious to go downtown to look at it; and as the days go on his wonder and love seems in no wise to diminish. His mistress says that Albert never “shirked” before he wanted so much time to look at “that baby.”

Yesterday he made such an extraordinary noise about the grate that I looked up to see what was the matter. Having gained attention he remarked, with some embarrassment, that “if Mis’ was willing he would like to bring his boy up some pleasant Sunday and have ter look at him.”

I said that I should like to “look at him,” and asked the name of this wonderful child.

“Elmer Ellsworth Warfield,” said the father loftily.

“Where did you find such an aristocratic name?” I asked.

“Warfield is the name of gentleman what raised me, a very fine gentleman. And I named him beside after our Cunnel Ellsworth—that was killed. I blacked his boots every day when he was over to the Capitol. He allas payed me twice as much as it was worth. Allus had a kind word to say. He was kind to his men, kind to everybody, was Cunnel Ellsworth—a kinder gentleman never drew the bref of life. If my boy grows up to be half as kind he’ll do.” It never occurs to Albert that legally he has no right to say “my boy.”

Albert’s wife is a slave, and this young Elmer Ellsworth Warfield is a slave. If his mistress wanted pin-money she might sell him with as little compunction as a northern woman would a chicken. Great consolation then it would be to Albert to talk of “my boy.” When slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia, what a piece of injustice it will involve—to Albert’s wife the right to own herself, and to both the joint right to own their own baby!

A Stylish Black Woman.

Lizzie—is a stately, stylish woman. Her cheek is tawny, but her features are perfectly regular, her eyes dark and winning; hair straight, black, shining. A smile half sorrowful and wholly sweet makes you love her face as soon as you look on it. It is a face strong with intellect and heart, with enough of beauty left to tell you that it was more beautiful still before wrong and grief had shadowed it.

Lizzie’s father was a gentleman of “the chivalry,” and in her mother’s veins ran some of the best blood of the Old Dominion.

I cannot tell the wrongs of her childhood and early youth: if I were to try my hand would stiffen with horror, my heart, in its strong indignation, would stifle the words I might utter.

In her girlhood she was sold to a family who took her to a great city of the Northwest. For years the “gentleman,” the “lady,” and their large family of children were supported by the labors of this young slave. Lizzie’s great skill and taste made her the fashionable dressmaker of this metropolis. She earned thousands of dollars, and it all went to the support of her master’s family. The young ladies went in fashionable society and enjoyed their fine costumes none the less that they were first earned and then made by the young slave, who, thrice as intelligent and quite as handsome as themselves, sat through the weeks and months in a chamber at home, spending her life for them. They considered it eminently proper that she should do so. Was she not their slave? They owned her—of course they did! In the meantime Lizzie had married. The care of one family, and the support of another seemed a little heavier burden than she could bear. She had borne it to be a slave herself she would not be the mother of slaves.

One day she astounded her master by asking the privilege of paying twelve hundred for her liberty. He received the proposition with great anger:

“Lizzie,” he said, “I am astonished that you should talk about liberty. Haven’t you always had your liberty? Don’t you go and come as you please? Who restricts you; you might have run away long ago had you pleased. Who has more liberty than you have?”

“It is true,” said Lizzie, “that I come and go as I please, because I have always pleased to come and go for your benefit and that of your family. I am tired. I shall never run away; but I should like to earn the right to own myself before I die.”

“Nonsense; you might as well dismiss that idea first as last. I shall not consider it for a moment,” said this owner of a most profitable piece of human property.

Purchasing Freedom.

Lizzie’s integrity, talents and true womanhood had won, her many influential friends.

Ladies, who thought slavery a very pretty and convenient institution some way, felt that there was something incongruous in “such a woman as Lizzie being slave.” The leading women of—— advanced twelve hundred dollars to purchase Lizzie’s freedom, and her master found out that he must sell it, as he was in very bad odor among the bon ton. Yet so reluctant was he that this woman should belong to herself, that when he died, years after, her freedom papers were not made, and she was subjected to trials without number before her claim to freedom was completely established. She paid back the twelve hundred dollars with the work of her needle. She paid large debts of her husband’s. She gave her only son a college education. Last summer he was just graduated, when, with thousands of other young men, he rushed into the ranks of the federal army. He fell in battle with the brave Lyon. He died, and with him the last earthly hope and consolation of his mother’s heart. Desolate she turned her face from the West, and came here, sorrowfully, wearily to begin life anew.

It is Lizzie who fashioned those splendid costumes of Mrs. Lincoln, whose artistic elegance have been so praised during the past winter. It was she who “dressed” Mrs. Lincoln for “the party,” and for every grand occasion. Stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzie docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear. Lizzie is an artist, and has such a genius for making women look pretty, that not one thinks of disputing her decrees.

Thus she forgets her sorrows, interesting herself to serve each one who comes, as if to dress her was the chief business of her existence. But to the woman who stretched out her hand to her as a sister, she broke into passionate tears, saying: “I am alone in the world. I have nothing to live for any longer. I try to interest myself in these things, but cannot.”

Lizzie has her rooms in a neatly-furnished, handsome brick house owned by a colored man, who first bought his own freedom, then that of his wife and children. This house and several others in the city, which bring him in handsome rents, are the result of his own industry and economy.

A woman of thought and refinement, a woman of deep affection and high aspiration, she stands alone in her womanhood, alone in the universe.

A Sorrowful Tale.

I must tell you of one other slave. George wanted his freedom; his mistress, a kind, good woman, wanted him to have it, and promised it to him for eight hundred dollars. George is young, industrious, ambitious. He had saved from his scanty earnings six hundred and fifty dollars, and payed it to his mistress towards his final ransom. She was taken ill; she needed the remaining one hundred and fifty dollars; told George so, requesting him to get some friend to advance it for him. George went to an officer in this city, stated the case, asking him to be kind enough to advance the sum for the benefit of his mistress, giving George the privilege of repaying him. The officer had papers made out, which the lady signed without reading, being too ill, receiving from the officer one hundred and fifty dollars. When George referred to the matter afterwards, this officer coolly informed George that he was his slave; that he had bought him for one hundred and fifty dollars. Six hundred and fifty dollars of hard earnings, saved for freedom by this poor slave, gone for nought. Now (if it were not for the promise of Congress) he is hopelessly a slave, consecrated to the high employ of blacking the boots and standing behind the chair of this gallant knight.

For the credit of all the North, let me say that this man hails from “Dixie.” There his family stay to secure their property, while he is here fattening on the government, calling himself a Union officer. A noble officer for our federal army! When slavery is abolished in the District of Columbia, what robbery it will be to rob this man of his slave. Probably he will have George safely stowed in Maryland by that time.

Wealthy Negroes.

Some of the wealthiest men in the city are colored. Two of them have mortgages on the houses of United States senators for all that they are worth, while there is hardly a free colored family in the city who do not own the house in which they live. Yet, Garret Davis stands up in the Senate and howls in his small way over the inability of negroes to take care of themselves, and the wretchedness of free blacks. He presented the pitiable case of a widow lady, (proved to be a secessionist,) who by the abolition of slavery in the District will lose her sole means of support, six slaves. He told how much each earned a week, which went to their mistress; and exclaimed: “What will become of these poor things, if they get their freedom and are bereft of their protector?” As if it could be less easy to support themselves alone, than to support themselves and their mistress’s family besides, as they now do.

My wits fail to comprehend such logic.

Society in Washington.

The ladies say that Washington is very dull. By that they mean that parties have ceased, that “hops” are growing few, that formal receptions are no more, and that they are all going home. The closing reception at Speaker Grow’s last week was one of the most delightful of the many delightful reunions which have made his house such a favorite resort during the entire winter. It has been the favorite sion of the chiefs of the Republican party. In its brilliant and electric air they have found it pleasant to ventilate their wit, and to resuscitate old compliments for the benefit of young Republican belles; pleasant to eat ice cream, and to forget the Tax bill, if but for a single hour. Still these receptions have not represented any clique, but have been as cosmopolitan in their character as any in Washington.

At the last, among the guests was Baron [?] and his lady, Count—– (I don’t know how to spell his name; Mrs. Villette, the beautiful daughter of Secretary Smith, Secretary Weiles, with his remarkable wig; Miss Sara Hamlin, the lovely niece of Senator Sherman; Senators Sherman, Grimes, Trumbull, and Chandler with his elegant wife, Hon. Messrs. [?], Dawes, Ashley, and any quantity of other Hon’s, besides many people doubtless just as agreeable if not quite as distinguished.

M. C. A.

APA Citation:
Ames, Mary Clemmer. “Life in Washington. Stories of the Late Slaves.” (April 18, 1862). (2021, March 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Ames, Mary Clemmer. "“Life in Washington. Stories of the Late Slaves.” (April 18, 1862)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (26 Mar. 2021). Web. 22 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, April 05
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.