There are no rose colored glasses to put on when looking back at the slave trade in the U.S. It was as ugly and as awful as it has been portrayed to be. For most of us, as we think about slavery we envision the huge plantations replete with dozens of slave quarters, overseers, and unrelenting physical and mental torture. For me I picture the Tara like house on the hill with shoeless, shirtless slaves working on endless acres of cotton and tobacco fields. I remember clearly the day that I got an updated version of that picture from my grandmother and her sisters. We were on a rented bus, touring our ancestors gravesites in Northeast Mississippi. "Here is my grandmother Martha Ann's Stone," my grandmother said. "She was born into slavery as was her mother Abby." We wanted to see Abby's stone as well and with some work, we found her weather worn, barely readable marker, still standing guard over her almost 90 years after her death. It was a somber moment as we clipped the wild grass and kudzu and cleared her gravesite.
Our group re-boarded the bus and meandered down the small black top road to the 'White cemetary,' where our legacy continued. The teenagers on the bus weren't thrilled about this stop complaining loudly and challenging the adults about why we needed to visit the graves of those who had enslaved our relatives. There we saw the grave of Jerusha Dean and her sons. My grandmother began to recount the tales of our ancestors and of her grandmother's mother Abby Dean.
Abby was one of a handful of slaves owned by the Deans. Jerusha was actually a white indentured servant who came with Abby to the Dean plantation. She had a daughter and two sons and she worked with Abby to scrape out a living on the patch of red clay they lived on. Abby was a young girl when she came to the farm and as she grew, she drew the attention of Jerusha's sons. When war came, the boys hid from recruiters so they would not have to fight. Jerusha would send Abby into the woods with food and clothing to care for them. Abby later bore their children and we will never know for sure who fathered whom. As Abby grew older, she and Jerusha formed as close to a friendship as this unequal alliance would permit. They needed each other and neither were free to move on. These relationships fascinate me and I marvel at the dynamics that made them work. My grandmother shared that Abby was physically strong and proud of the work she was able to do and the children she bore. She worked the fields, cooked, and cleaned, all next to Jerusha who though white, was equally poor and dependent. And so was the course of the relationship. They took care of one another when they were sick and Jerusha had a special, albeit socially regulated, relationship with her grandchildren.
From what we were told, Abby was a woman who recognized her circumstances and made them work. She honed a coping mechanism that let her retain her humanity and self-worth. Abby's children spoke of a remarkable woman with quick wit, strong hands, and a quiet demeanor. When I think of the long line of matriarchs in my family, my thoughts drift to her. Her strength was the foundation on which her children grew and so we are today.