|Charleston, S.C., Civil War Era Lithograph copy by Harper's Weekly|
It was decided after talkin’ to Leroy that Jack and me would continue to keep our ears alert for any more talk about runaway slaves between Molly and her friend, Virginia. But nothin’ came up. So Jack did what he did best: get information he wanted on the sly.
“How come we don’t see no more auctioning of the slaves,” Jack asked Virginia one fine June morning in 1852.
“It’s done behind closed doors now so the good Charleston folks don’t have to see what they’re doin’ to those po’ people. But please call me Ginny like I asked you to.” Ginny was, I later learned, referring to city ordinances Charleston passed into the 1850s prohibiting the sale of slaves out in the open and apparently many of Charleston’s residents were disgusted with the trade in their fair city.
“Sorry Ginny. But is that a fact? Are you one of those abolitionists?” Jack boldly asked.
“Well boy, I’ll tell you, I am a free slave. I don’t go around a’braggin ‘bout it cuz, while I‘m a’proud of some things, I ain’t a’proud of some others. See I’m a mallatto which is someone who is part black and part something else. I am part black, part white and part Seminole Indian. I was lucky because one of the rich Negro free tailors who has a shop now in the town center bought my freedom some years ago provided I agreed to sell his clothing in the markets for half the profits for ten years. I done did it and now I made enough money to start my own business and I have my freedom. Many others have gotten their freedom that way here in Charleston. There’s now a lot a free black folks a’runnin’ round this town and a’workin’ in the markets.” In fact, I later knew, there were more than 3000 freed slaves - most mallattos - in 1850s Charelston. Some had paid for their freedom while working for their masters or even bein' hired out to local businesses while bein' able to keep some of their pay.
“But why don’t the auctions happen anymore Ginny?” said Jack.
“Oh they happen alright but the city has a law against parading the slaves in the open markets now. That way nobody gets to see anymore what’s really goin’ on and so the whole trade in slaves has kinda turned invisible. But you still see them Africans com’in from the port and slave owners or their agents takin’ ‘em away after they put up their $1000 a head or whatever they pay. Then they usually go to the plantations-that’s where I was on an indigo plantation ‘til I was a sold again to the tailor who was a good man in his way.”
“Did ya ever help any Negroes escape or hide any runaways or help’em git up north,” Jack asked.
“Boy your are too bold fer your own good and you better watch it that you don’t a’go round town here a’stirrin up a bees nest with that kinda talk that could land people like me in jail in no time, or git me a horse whippin’. Sonny, you asking the wrong woman the wrong questions. You gotta stop that kinda talk and stop it mighty fast.”
Molly came over wearing a frown on her chubby face-an unusual thing for her. “What’s he a’botherin you about now Ginny?”
“Oh, he’s not botherin me Moll, but he’s a very persistent and intelligent child. He wants to know about moving someone underground.”
“I just thought you two could help us. You see, we have a problem with a runaway slave woman whose baby was a’takin from her and she has nowhere to stay and she’s hungry all the time and she’s a’fearin for her life. She needs to get up north and me and Jeremy, we been helping her. That’s why we took the food from you and said it was for a good cause. We just thought you’d know someone who could get her to where she wants to go. She wants to go up to Massachusetts to become a lawyer so she can come back to Charleston and help poor black folk who don’t have nobody to help them when they’re being tracked down by the slave catchers. “
“And what do you want me to do?” Molly said. “I have a business to run.”
“Well one day I heard you and Ginny talking about moving along a runaway so I says to myself they’s helping the runaways to escape.”
“Do you know how much trouble you could get me in a’talkin like that ‘round here?” Ginny said. “Why I could get strung up by my neck by that lamp post over there. And white folks have been known to set black folks on fire for that kind a talk, free or slave, makes no difference to ‘em. So you need to quit it boy.”
“But you two is the only ones I know who I can trust and the only other ones who knows anything about this. Don’t worry, me and Jeremy, we is both sworn to absolute secrecy. Believe me we would keep a secret upon pain of death. We have a secret club-it’s so secret we can’t even tell you the name or who is in it but we only discuss important matters at our secret meeting place way over the other side of the Cooper River and it’s in the middle of a swamp with lots of bugs and mosquitoes so as no-one with any sense aside from us would want to go in there.”
“Is that where the runaway girl is a’stayin?” Ginny asked.
“We’ll ma’am, I can’t tell you the answer to that-it’s for her protection.”
“Tell you what,” Ginny said in a low voice and looking across the square at some constables who were smoking cigars and chatting to one another, not payin any mind to us, “let me see what I can learn but you must promise me to keep your word about it a’bein a secret. You a white boy so they wouldn’t hurt you much but I’m a mallatto and that’s as good as a Negro to most white folk down this away.”