The Marrow of Tradition – Chapters 32-35 – fiction by Charles Chesnutt


The Wellington riot began at three o’clock in the afternoon of a day as fair as was ever selected for a deed of darkness. The sky was clear, except for a few light clouds that floated, white and feathery, high in air, like distant islands in a sapphire sea. A salt-laden breeze from the ocean a few miles away lent a crisp sparkle to the air.

At three o’clock sharp the streets were filled, as if by magic, with armed white men. The negroes, going about, had noted, with uneasy curiosity, that the stores and places of business, many of which closed at noon, were unduly late in opening for the afternoon, though no one suspected the reason for the delay; but at three o’clock every passing colored man was ordered, by the first white man he met, to throw up his hands. If he complied, he was searched, more or less roughly, for firearms, and then warned to get off the street. When he met another group of white men the scene was repeated. The man thus summarily held up seldom encountered more than two groups before disappearing across lots to his own home or some convenient hiding-place. If he resisted any demand of those who halted him – But the records of the day are historical; they may be found in the newspapers of the following date, but they are more firmly engraved upon the hearts and memories of the people of Wellington. For many months there were negro families in the town whose children screamed with fear and ran to their mothers for protection at the mere sight of a white man.

Dr. Miller had received a call, about one o’clock, to attend a case at the house of a well-to-do colored farmer, who lived some three or four miles from the town, upon the very road, by the way, along which Miller had driven so furiously a few weeks before, in the few hours that intervened before Sandy Campbell would probably have been burned at the stake. The drive to his patient’s home, the necessary inquiries, the filling of the prescription from his own medicine-case, which he carried along with him, the little friendly conversation about the weather and the crops, and, the farmer being an intelligent and thinking man, the inevitable subject of the future of their race, – these, added to the return journey, occupied at least two hours of Miller’s time.

As he neared the town on his way back, he saw ahead of him half a dozen men and women approaching, with fear written in their faces, in every degree from apprehension to terror. Women were weeping and children crying, and all were going as fast as seemingly lay in their power, looking behind now and then as if pursued by some deadly enemy. At sight of Miller’s buggy they made a dash for cover, disappearing, like a covey of frightened partridges, in the underbrush along the road.

Miller pulled up his horse and looked after them in startled wonder.

“What on earth can be the matter?” he muttered, struck with a vague feeling of alarm. A psychologist, seeking to trace the effects of slavery upon the human mind, might find in the South many a curious illustration of this curse, abiding long after the actual physical bondage had terminated. In the olden time the white South labored under the constant fear of negro insurrections. Knowing that they themselves, if in the negroes’ place, would have risen in the effort to throw off the yoke, all their reiterated theories of negro subordination and inferiority could not remove that lurking fear, founded upon the obscure consciousness that the slaves ought to have risen. Conscience, it has been said, makes cowards of us all. There was never, on the continent of America, a successful slave revolt, nor one which lasted more than a few hours, or resulted in the loss of more than a few white lives; yet never was the planter quite free from the fear that there might be one.

On the other hand, the slave had before his eyes always the fear of the master. There were good men, according to their lights, – according to their training and environment, – among the Southern slaveholders, who treated their slaves kindly, as slaves, from principle, because they recognized the claims of humanity, even under the dark skin of a human chattel. There was many a one who protected or pampered his negroes, as the case might be, just as a man fondles his dog, – because they were his; they were a part of his estate, an integral part of the entity of property and person which made up the aristocrat; but with all this kindness, there was always present, in the consciousness of the lowest slave, the knowledge that he was in his master’s power, and that he could make no effectual protest against the abuse of that authority. There was also the knowledge, among those who could think at all, that the best of masters was himself a slave to a system, which hampered his movements but scarcely less than those of his bondmen.

When, therefore, Miller saw these men and women scampering into the bushes, he divined, with this slumbering race consciousness which years of culture had not obliterated, that there was some race trouble on foot. His intuition did not long remain unsupported. A black head was cautiously protruded from the shrubbery, and a black voice – if such a description be allowable – addressed him: –

“Is dat you, Doctuh Miller?”

“Yes. Who are you, and what’s the trouble?”

“What’s de trouble, suh? Why, all hell’s broke loose in town yonduh. De w’ite folks is riz ‘gins’ de niggers, an’ say dey’re gwine ter kill eve’y nigger dey kin lay han’s on.”

Miller’s heart leaped to his throat, as he thought of his wife and child. This story was preposterous; it could not be true, and yet there must be something in it. He tried to question his informant, but the man was so overcome with excitement and fear that Miller saw clearly that he must go farther for information. He had read in the Morning Chronicle, a few days before, the obnoxious editorial quoted from the Afro-American Banner, and had noted the comment upon it by the white editor. He had felt, as at the time of its first publication, that the editorial was ill-advised. It could do no good, and was calculated to arouse the animosity of those whose friendship, whose tolerance, at least, was necessary and almost indispensable to the colored people. They were living, at the best, in a sort of armed neutrality with the whites; such a publication, however serviceable elsewhere, could have no other effect in Wellington than to endanger this truce and defeat the hope of a possible future friendship. The right of free speech entitled Barber to publish it; a larger measure of common-sense would have made him withhold it. Whether it was the republication of this article that had stirred up anew the sleeping dogs of race prejudice and whetted their thirst for blood, he could not yet tell; but at any rate, there was mischief on foot.

“Fer God’s sake, doctuh, don’ go no closeter ter dat town,” pleaded his informant, “er you’ll be killt sho’. Come on wid us, suh, an’ tek keer er yo’se’f. We’re gwine ter hide in de swamps till dis thing is over!”

“God, man!” exclaimed Miller, urging his horse forward, “my wife and child are in the town!”

Fortunately, he reflected, there were no patients confined in the hospital, – if there should be anything in this preposterous story. To one unfamiliar with Southern life, it might have seemed impossible that these good Christian people, who thronged the churches on Sunday, and wept over the sufferings of the lowly Nazarene, and sent missionaries to the heathen, could be hungering and thirsting for the blood of their fellow men; but Miller cherished no such delusion. He knew the history of his country; he had the threatened lynching of Sandy Campbell vividly in mind; and he was fully persuaded that to race prejudice, once roused, any horror was possible. That women or children would be molested of set purpose he did not believe, but that they might suffer by accident was more than likely.

As he neared the town, dashing forward at the top of his horse’s speed, he heard his voice called in a loud and agitated tone, and, glancing around him, saw a familiar form standing by the roadside, gesticulating vehemently.

He drew up the horse with a suddenness that threw the faithful and obedient animal back upon its haunches. The colored lawyer, Watson, came up to the buggy. That he was laboring under great and unusual excitement was quite apparent from his pale face and frightened air.

“What’s the matter, Watson?” demanded Miller, hoping now to obtain some reliable information.

“Matter!” exclaimed the other. “Everything’s the matter! The white people are up in arms. They have disarmed the colored people, killing half a dozen in the process, and wounding as many more. They have forced the mayor and aldermen to resign, have formed a provisional city government _à la Française_, and have ordered me and half a dozen other fellows to leave town in forty-eight hours, under pain of sudden death. As they seem to mean it, I shall not stay so long. Fortunately, my wife and children are away. I knew you were out here, however, and I thought I’d come out and wait for you, so that we might talk the matter over. I don’t imagine they mean you any harm, personally, because you tread on nobody’s toes; but you’re too valuable a man for the race to lose, so I thought I’d give you warning. I shall want to sell you my property, too, at a bargain. For I’m worth too much to my family to dream of ever attempting to live here again.”

“Have you seen anything of my wife and child?” asked Miller, intent upon the danger to which they might be exposed.

“No; I didn’t go to the house. I inquired at the drugstore and found out where you had gone. You needn’t fear for them, – it is not a war on women and children.”

“War of any kind is always hardest on the women and children,” returned Miller; “I must hurry on and see that mine are safe.”

“They’ll not carry the war so far into Africa as that,” returned Watson; “but I never saw anything like it. Yesterday I had a hundred white friends in the town, or thought I had, – men who spoke pleasantly to me on the street, and sometimes gave me their hands to shake. Not one of them said to me today: ‘Watson, stay at home this afternoon.’ I might have been killed, like any one of half a dozen others who have bit the dust, for any word that one of my ‘friends’ had said to warn me. When the race cry is started in this neck of the woods, friendship, religion, humanity, reason, all shrivel up like dry leaves in a raging furnace.”

The buggy, into which Watson had climbed, was meanwhile rapidly nearing the town.

“I think I’ll leave you here, Miller,” said Watson, as they approached the outskirts, “and make my way home by a roundabout path, as I should like to get there unmolested. Home! – a beautiful word that, isn’t it, for an exiled wanderer? It might not be well, either, for us to be seen together. If you put the hood of your buggy down, and sit well back in the shadow, you may be able to reach home without interruption; but avoid the main streets. I’ll see you again this evening, if we’re both alive, and I can reach you; for my time is short. A committee are to call in the morning to escort me to the train. I am to be dismissed from the community with public honors.” Watson was climbing down from the buggy, when a small party of men were seen approaching, and big Josh Green, followed by several other resolute-looking colored men, came up and addressed them.

“Dr. Miller,” cried Green, “Mr. Watson, – we’re lookin’ fer a leader. De w’ite folks are killin’ de niggers, an’ we ain’ gwine ter stan’ up an’ be shot down like dogs. We’re gwine ter defen’ ou’ lives, an’ we ain’ gwine ter run away f’m no place where we ‘we got a right ter be; an’ woe be ter de w’ite man w’at lays ban’s on us! Dere’s two niggers in dis town ter eve’y w’ite man, an’ ef we ‘we got ter be killt, we’ll take some w’ite folks ‘long wid us, ez sho’ ez dere’s a God in heaven, – ez I s’pose dere is, dough He mus’ be ‘sleep, er busy somewhar e’se ter-day. Will you-all come an’ lead us?”

“Gentlemen,” said Watson, “what is the use? The negroes will not back you up. They haven’t the arms, nor the moral courage, nor the leadership.”

“We’ll git de arms, an’ we’ll git de courage, ef you’ll come an’ lead us! We wants leaders, – dat’s w’y we come ter you!”

“What’s the use?” returned Watson despairingly. “The odds are too heavy. I’ve been ordered out of town; if I stayed, I’d be shot on sight, unless I had a body-guard around me.”

“We’ll be yo’ body-guard!” shouted half a dozen voices.

“And when my body-guard was shot, what then? I have a wife and children. It is my duty to live for them. If I died, I should get no glory and no reward, and my family would be reduced to beggary, – to which they’ll soon be near enough as it is. This affair will blow over in a day or two. The white people will be ashamed of themselves to-morrow, and apprehensive of the consequences for some time to come. Keep quiet, boys, and trust in God. You won’t gain anything by resistance.”

“‘God he’ps dem dat he’ps demselves,'” returned Josh stoutly. “Ef Mr. Watson won’t lead us, will you, Dr. Miller?” said the spokesman, turning to the doctor.

For Miller it was an agonizing moment. He was no coward, morally or physically. Every manly instinct urged him to go forward and take up the cause of these leaderless people, and, if need be, to defend their lives and their rights with his own, – but to what end?

“Listen, men,” he said. “We would only be throwing our lives away. Suppose we made a determined stand and won a temporary victory. By morning every train, every boat, every road leading into Wellington, would be crowded with white men, – as they probably will be any way, – with arms in their hands, curses on their lips, and vengeance in their hearts. In the minds of those who make and administer the laws, we have no standing in the court of conscience. They would kill us in the fight, or they would hang us afterwards, – one way or another, we should be doomed. I should like to lead you; I should like to arm every colored man in this town, and have them stand firmly in line, not for attack, but for defense; but if I attempted it, and they should stand by me, which is questionable, – for I have met them fleeing from the town, – my life would pay the forfeit. Alive, I may be of some use to you, and you are welcome to my life in that way, – I am giving it freely. Dead, I should be a mere lump of carrion. Who remembers even the names of those who have been done to death in the Southern States for the past twenty years?”

“I ‘members de name er one of ’em,” said Josh, “an’ I ‘members de name er de man dat killt ‘im, an’ I s’pec’ his time is mighty nigh come.”

“My advice is not heroic, but I think it is wise. In this riot we are placed as we should be in a war: we have no territory, no base of supplies, no organization, no outside sympathy, – we stand in the position of a race, in a case like this, without money and without friends. Our time will come, – the time when we can command respect for our rights; but it is not yet in sight. Give it up, boys, and wait. Good may come of this, after all.”

Several of the men wavered, and looked irresolute.

“I reckon that’s all so, doctuh,” returned Josh, “an’, de way you put it, I don’ blame you ner Mr. Watson; but all dem reasons ain’ got no weight wid me. I’m gwine in dat town, an’ ef any w’ite man ‘sturbs me, dere’ll be trouble, – dere’ll be double trouble, – I feels it in my bones!”

“Remember your old mother, Josh,” said Miller.

“Yas, sub, I’ll ‘member her; dat’s all I kin do now. I don’ need ter wait fer her no mo’, fer she died dis mo’nin’. I’d lack ter see her buried, suh, but I may not have de chance. Ef I gits killt, will you do me a favor?”

“Yes, Josh; what is it?”

“Ef I should git laid out in dis commotion dat’s gwine on, will you collec’ my wages f’m yo’ brother, and see dat de ole ‘oman is put away right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Wid a nice coffin, an’ a nice fune’al, an’ a head-bo’d an’ a foot-bo’d?”


“All right, suh! Ef I don’ live ter do it, I’ll know it’ll be ‘tended ter right. Now we’re gwine out ter de cotton compress, an’ git a lot er colored men tergether, an’ ef de w’ite folks ‘sturbs me, I shouldn’t be s’prise’ ef dere’d be a mix-up; – an’ ef dere is, me an _one_ w’ite man ‘ll stan’ befo’ de jedgment th’one er God dis day; an’ it won’t be me w’at’ll be ‘feared er de jedgment. Come along, boys! Dese gentlemen may have somethin’ ter live fer; but ez fer my pa’t, I’d ruther be a dead nigger any day dan a live dog!”


The party under Josh’s leadership moved off down the road. Miller, while entirely convinced that he had acted wisely in declining to accompany them, was yet conscious of a distinct feeling of shame and envy that he, too, did not feel impelled to throw away his life in a hopeless struggle.

Watson left the buggy and disappeared by a path at the roadside. Miller drove rapidly forward. After entering the town, he passed several small parties of white men, but escaped scrutiny by sitting well back in his buggy, the presumption being that a well-dressed man with a good horse and buggy was white. Torn with anxiety, he reached home at about four o’clock. Driving the horse into the yard, he sprang down from the buggy and hastened to the house, which he found locked, front and rear.

A repeated rapping brought no response. At length he broke a window, and entered the house like a thief.

“Janet, Janet!” he called in alarm, “where are you? It is only I, – Will!”

There was no reply. He ran from room to room, only to find them all empty. Again he called his wife’s name, and was about rushing from the house, when a muffled voice came faintly to his ear, –

“Is dat you, Doctuh Miller?”

“Yes. Who are you, and where are my wife and child?”

He was looking around in perplexity, when the door of a low closet under the kitchen sink was opened from within, and a woolly head was cautiously protruded.

“Are you _sho’_ dat’s you, doctuh?”

“Yes, Sally; where are” –

“An’ not some w’ite man come ter bu’n down de house an’ kill all de niggers?”

“No, Sally, it’s me all right. Where is my wife? Where is my child?”

“Dey went over ter see Mis’ Butler ‘long ’bout two o’clock, befo’ dis fuss broke out, suh. Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy, suh! Is all de cullud folks be’n killt ‘cep’n’ me an’ you, suh? Fer de Lawd’s sake, suh, you won’ let ’em kill me, will you, suh? I’ll wuk fer you fer nuthin’, suh, all my bawn days, ef you’ll save my life, suh!”

“Calm yourself, Sally. You’ll be safe enough if you stay right here, I ‘we no doubt. They’ll not harm women, – of that I’m sure enough, although I haven’t yet got the bearings of this deplorable affair. Stay here and look after the house. I must find my wife and child!”

The distance across the city to the home of the Mrs. Butler whom his wife had gone to visit was exactly one mile. Though Miller had a good horse in front of him, he was two hours in reaching his destination. Never will the picture of that ride fade from his memory. In his dreams he repeats it night after night, and sees the sights that wounded his eyes, and feels the thoughts – the haunting spirits of the thoughts – that tore his heart as he rode through hell to find those whom he was seeking. For a short distance he saw nothing, and made rapid progress. As he turned the first corner, his horse shied at the dead body of a negro, lying huddled up in the collapse which marks sudden death. What Miller shuddered at was not so much the thought of death, to the sight of which his profession had accustomed him, as the suggestion of what it signified. He had taken with allowance the wild statement of the fleeing fugitives. Watson, too, had been greatly excited, and Josh Green’s group were desperate men, as much liable to be misled by their courage as the others by their fears; but here was proof that murder had been done, – and his wife and children were in the town. Distant shouts, and the sound of firearms, increased his alarm. He struck his horse with the whip, and dashed on toward the heart of the city, which he must traverse in order to reach Janet and the child.

At the next corner lay the body of another man, with the red blood oozing from a ghastly wound in the forehead. The negroes seemed to have been killed, as the band plays in circus parades, at the street intersections, where the example would be most effective. Miller, with a wild leap of the heart, had barely passed this gruesome spectacle, when a sharp voice commanded him to halt, and emphasized the order by covering him with a revolver. Forgetting the prudence he had preached to others, he had raised his whip to strike the horse, when several hands seized the bridle.

“Come down, you damn fool,” growled an authoritative voice. “Don’t you see we’re in earnest? Do you want to get killed?”

“Why should I come down?” asked Miller. “Because we’ve ordered you to come down! This is the white people’s day, and when they order, a nigger must obey. We’re going to search you for weapons.”

“Search away. You’ll find nothing but a case of surgeon’s tools, which I’m more than likely to need before this day is over, from all indications.”

“No matter; we’ll make sure of it! That’s what we’re here for. Come down, if you don’t want to be pulled down!”

Miller stepped down from his buggy. His interlocutor, who made no effort at disguise, was a clerk in a dry-goods store where Miller bought most of his family and hospital supplies. He made no sign of recognition, however, and Miller claimed no acquaintance. This man, who had for several years emptied Miller’s pockets in the course of more or less legitimate trade, now went through them, aided by another man, more rapidly than ever before, the searchers convincing themselves that Miller carried no deadly weapon upon his person. Meanwhile, a third ransacked the buggy with like result. Miller recognized several others of the party, who made not the slightest attempt at disguise, though no names were called by any one.

“Where are you going?” demanded the leader.

“I am looking for my wife and child,” replied Miller.

“Well, run along, and keep them out of the streets when you find them; and keep your hands out of this affair, if you wish to live in this town, which from now on will be a white man’s town, as you niggers will be pretty firmly convinced before night.”

Miller drove on as swiftly as might be. At the next corner he was stopped again. In the white man who held him up, Miller recognized a neighbor of his own. After a short detention and a perfunctory search, the white man remarked apologetically: –

“Sorry to have had to trouble you, doctuh, but them’s the o’ders. It ain’t men like you that we’re after, but the vicious and criminal class of niggers.”

Miller smiled bitterly as he urged his horse forward. He was quite well aware that the virtuous citizen who had stopped him had only a few weeks before finished a term in the penitentiary, to which he had been sentenced for stealing. Miller knew that he could have bought all the man owned for fifty dollars, and his soul for as much more.

A few rods farther on, he came near running over the body of a wounded man who lay groaning by the wayside. Every professional instinct urged him to stop and offer aid to the sufferer; but the uncertainty concerning his wife and child proved a stronger motive and urged him resistlessly forward. Here and there the ominous sound of firearms was audible. He might have thought this merely a part of the show, like the “powder play” of the Arabs, but for the bloody confirmation of its earnestness which had already assailed his vision. Somewhere in this seething caldron of unrestrained passions were his wife and child, and he must hurry on.

His progress was painfully slow. Three times he was stopped and searched. More than once his way was barred, and he was ordered to turn back, each such occasion requiring a detour which consumed many minutes. The man who last stopped him was a well-known Jewish merchant. A Jew – God of Moses! – had so far forgotten twenty centuries of history as to join in the persecution of another oppressed race! When almost reduced to despair by these innumerable delays, he perceived, coming toward him, Mr. Ellis, the sub-editor of the Morning Chronicle. Miller had just been stopped and questioned again, and Ellis came up as he was starting once more upon his endless ride.

“Dr. Miller,” said Ellis kindly, “it is dangerous for you on the streets. Why tempt the danger?”

“I am looking for my wife and child,” returned Miller in desperation. “They are somewhere in this town, – I don’t know where, – and I must find them.”

Ellis had been horror-stricken by the tragedy of the afternoon, the wholly superfluous slaughter of a harmless people, whom a show of force would have been quite sufficient to overawe. Elaborate explanations were afterwards given for these murders, which were said, perhaps truthfully, not to have been premeditated, and many regrets were expressed. The young man had been surprised, quite as much as the negroes themselves, at the ferocity displayed. His own thoughts and feelings were attuned to anything but slaughter. Only that morning he had received a perfumed note, calling his attention to what the writer described as a very noble deed of his, and requesting him to call that evening and receive the writer’s thanks. Had he known that Miss Pemberton, several weeks after their visit to the Sound, had driven out again to the hotel and made some inquiries among the servants, he might have understood better the meaning of this missive. When Miller spoke of his wife and child, some subtle thread of suggestion coupled the note with Miller’s plight. “I’ll go with you, Dr. Miller,” he said, “if you’ll permit me. In my company you will not be disturbed.”

He took a seat in Miller’s buggy, after which it was not molested.

Neither of them spoke. Miller was sick at heart; he could have wept with grief, even had the welfare of his own dear ones not been involved in this regrettable affair. With prophetic instinct he foresaw the hatreds to which this day would give birth; the long years of constraint and distrust which would still further widen the breach between two peoples whom fate had thrown together in one community.

There was nothing for Ellis to say. In his heart he could not defend the deeds of this day. The petty annoyances which the whites had felt at the spectacle of a few negroes in office; the not unnatural resentment of a proud people at what had seemed to them a presumptuous freedom of speech and lack of deference on the part of their inferiors, – these things, which he knew were to be made the excuse for overturning the city government, he realized full well were no sort of justification for the wholesale murder or other horrors which might well ensue before the day was done. He could not approve the acts of his own people; neither could he, to a negro, condemn them. Hence he was silent.

“Thank you, Mr. Ellis,” exclaimed Miller, when they had reached the house where he expected to find his wife. “This is the place where I was going. I am – under a great obligation to you.”

“Not at all, Dr. Miller. I need not tell you how much I regret this deplorable affair.”

Ellis went back down the street. Fastening his horse to the fence, Miller sprang forward to find his wife and child. They would certainly be there, for no colored woman would be foolhardy enough to venture on the streets after the riot had broken out.

As he drew nearer, he felt a sudden apprehension. The house seemed strangely silent and deserted. The doors were closed, and the Venetian blinds shut tightly. Even a dog which had appeared slunk timidly back under the house, instead of barking vociferously according to the usual habit of his kind.


Miller knocked at the door. There was no response. He went round to the rear of the house. The dog had slunk behind the woodpile. Miller knocked again, at the back door, and, receiving no reply, called aloud.

“Mrs. Butler! It is I, Dr. Miller. Is my wife here?”

The slats of a near-by blind opened cautiously.

“Is it really you, Dr. Miller?”

“Yes, Mrs. Butler. I am looking for my wife and child, – are they here?”

“No, sir; she became alarmed about you, soon after the shooting commenced, and I could not keep her. She left for home half an hour ago. It is coming on dusk, and she and the child are so near white that she did not expect to be molested.”

“Which way did she go?”

“She meant to go by the main street. She thought it would be less dangerous than the back streets. I tried to get her to stay here, but she was frantic about you, and nothing I could say would keep her. Is the riot almost over, Dr. Miller? Do you think they will murder us all, and burn down our houses?”

“God knows,” replied Miller, with a groan. “But I must find her, if I lose my own life in the attempt.”

Surely, he thought, Janet would be safe. The white people of Wellington were not savages; or at least their temporary reversion to savagery would not go as far as to include violence to delicate women and children. Then there flashed into his mind Josh Green’s story of his “silly” mother, who for twenty years had walked the earth as a child, as the result of one night’s terror, and his heart sank within him.

Miller realized that his buggy, by attracting attention, had been a hindrance rather than a help in his progress across the city. In order to follow his wife, he must practically retrace his steps over the very route he had come. Night was falling. It would be easier to cross the town on foot. In the dusk his own color, slight in the daytime, would not attract attention, and by dodging in the shadows he might avoid those who might wish to intercept him. But he must reach Janet and the boy at any risk. He had not been willing to throw his life away hopelessly, but he would cheerfully have sacrificed it for those whom he loved.

He had gone but a short distance, and had not yet reached the centre of mob activity, when he intercepted a band of negro laborers from the cotton compress, with big Josh Green at their head.

“Hello, doctuh!” cried Josh, “does you wan’ ter jine us?”

“I’m looking for my wife and child, Josh. They’re somewhere in this den of murderers. Have any of you seen them?”

No one had seen them.

“You men are running a great risk,” said Miller. “You are rushing on to certain death.”

“Well, suh, maybe we is; but we’re gwine ter die fightin’. Dey say de w’ite folks is gwine ter bu’n all de cullud schools an’ chu’ches, an’ kill all de niggers dey kin ketch. Dey’re gwine ter bu’n yo’ new hospittle, ef somebody don’ stop ’em.”

“Josh – men – you are throwing your lives away. It is a fever; it will wear off to-morrow, or to-night. They’ll not burn the schoolhouses, nor the hospital – they are not such fools, for they benefit the community; and they’ll only kill the colored people who resist them. Every one of you with a gun or a pistol carries his death warrant in his own hand. I’d rather see the hospital burn than have one of you lose his life. Resistance only makes the matter worse, – the odds against you are too long.”

“Things can’t be any wuss, doctuh,” replied one of the crowd sturdily. “A gun is mo’ dange’ous ter de man in front of it dan ter de man behin’ it. Dey’re gwine ter kill us anyhow; an’ we’re tired, – we read de newspapers, – an’ we’re tired er bein’ shot down like dogs, widout jedge er jury. We’d ruther die fightin’ dan be stuck like pigs in a pen!”

“God help you!” said Miller. “As for me, I must find my wife and child.”

“Good-by, doctuh,” cried Josh, brandishing a huge knife. “‘Member ’bout de ole ‘oman, ef you lives thoo dis. Don’ fergit de headbo’d an’ de footbo’d, an’ a silver plate on de coffin, ef dere’s money ernuff.”

They went their way, and Miller hurried on. They might resist attack; he thought it extremely unlikely that they would begin it; but he knew perfectly well that the mere knowledge that some of the negroes contemplated resistance would only further inflame the infuriated whites. The colored men might win a momentary victory, though it was extremely doubtful; and they would as surely reap the harvest later on. The qualities which in a white man would win the applause of the world would in a negro be taken as the marks of savagery. So thoroughly diseased was public opinion in matters of race that the negro who died for the common rights of humanity might look for no meed of admiration or glory. At such a time, in the white man’s eyes, a negro’s courage would be mere desperation; his love of liberty, a mere animal dislike of restraint. Every finer human instinct would be interpreted in terms of savagery. Or, if forced to admire, they would none the less repress. They would applaud his courage while they stretched his neck, or carried off the fragments of his mangled body as souvenirs, in much the same way that savages preserve the scalps or eat the hearts of their enemies.

But concern for the fate of Josh and his friends occupied only a secondary place in Miller’s mind for the moment. His wife and child were somewhere ahead of him. He pushed on. He had covered about a quarter of a mile more, and far down the street could see the signs of greater animation, when he came upon the body of a woman lying upon the sidewalk. In the dusk he had almost stumbled over it, and his heart came up in his mouth. A second glance revealed that it could not be his wife. It was a fearful portent, however, of what her fate might be. The “war” had reached the women and children. Yielding to a professional instinct, he stooped, and saw that the prostrate form was that of old Aunt Jane Letlow. She was not yet quite dead, and as Miller, with a tender touch, placed her head in a more comfortable position, her lips moved with a last lingering flicker of consciousness: –

“Comin’, missis, comin’!”

Mammy Jane had gone to join the old mistress upon whose memory her heart was fixed; and yet not all her reverence for her old mistress, nor all her deference to the whites, nor all their friendship for her, had been able to save her from this raging devil of race hatred which momentarily possessed the town.

Perceiving that he could do no good, Miller hastened onward, sick at heart. Whenever he saw a party of white men approaching, – these brave reformers never went singly, – he sought concealment in the shadow of a tree or the shrubbery in some yard until they had passed. He had covered about two thirds of the distance homeward, when his eyes fell upon a group beneath a lamp-post, at sight of which he turned pale with horror, and rushed forward with a terrible cry.


The proceedings of the day – planned originally as a “demonstration,” dignified subsequently as a “revolution,” under any name the culmination of the conspiracy formed by Carteret and his colleagues – had by seven o’clock in the afternoon developed into a murderous riot. Crowds of white men and half-grown boys, drunk with whiskey or with license, raged through the streets, beating, chasing, or killing any negro so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. Why any particular negro was assailed, no one stopped to inquire; it was merely a white mob thirsting for black blood, with no more conscience or discrimination than would be exercised by a wolf in a sheepfold. It was race against race, the whites against the negroes; and it was a one-sided affair, for until Josh Green got together his body of armed men, no effective resistance had been made by any colored person, and the individuals who had been killed had so far left no marks upon the enemy by which they might be remembered.

“Kill the niggers!” rang out now and then through the dusk, and far down the street and along the intersecting thoroughfares distant voices took up the ominous refrain, – “Kill the niggers! Kill the damned niggers!” Now, not a dark face had been seen on the street for half an hour, until the group of men headed by Josh made their appearance in the negro quarter. Armed with guns and axes, they presented quite a formidable appearance as they made their way toward the new hospital, near which stood a schoolhouse and a large church, both used by the colored people. They did not reach their destination without having met a number of white men, singly or in twos or threes; and the rumor spread with incredible swiftness that the negroes in turn were up in arms, determined to massacre all the whites and burn the town. Some of the whites became alarmed, and recognizing the power of the negroes, if armed and conscious of their strength, were impressed by the immediate necessity of overpowering and overawing them. Others, with appetites already whetted by slaughter, saw a chance, welcome rather than not, of shedding more black blood. Spontaneously the white mob flocked toward the hospital, where rumor had it that a large body of desperate negroes, breathing threats of blood and fire, had taken a determined stand.

It had been Josh’s plan merely to remain quietly and peaceably in the neighborhood of the little group of public institutions, molesting no one, unless first attacked, and merely letting the white people see that they meant to protect their own; but so rapidly did the rumor spread, and so promptly did the white people act, that by the time Josh and his supporters had reached the top of the rising ground where the hospital stood, a crowd of white men much more numerous than their own party were following them at a short distance.

Josh, with the eye of a general, perceived that some of his party were becoming a little nervous, and decided that they would feel safer behind shelter.

“I reckon we better go inside de hospittle, boys,” he exclaimed. “Den we’ll be behind brick walls, an’ dem other fellows ‘ll be outside, an’ ef dere’s any fightin’, we’ll have de bes’ show. We ain’ gwine ter do no shootin’ till we’re pestered, an’ dey’ll be less likely ter pester us ef dey can’t git at us widout runnin’ some resk. Come along in! Be men! De gov’ner er de President is gwine ter sen’ soldiers ter stop dese gwines-on, an’ meantime we kin keep dem white devils f’m bu’nin’ down our hospittles an’ chu’ch-houses. Wen dey comes an’ fin’s out dat we jes’ means ter pertect ou’ prope’ty, dey’ll go ‘long ’bout deir own business. Er, ef dey wants a scrap, dey kin have it! Come erlong, boys!”

Jerry Letlow, who had kept out of sight during the day, had started out, after night had set in, to find Major Carteret. Jerry was very much afraid. The events of the day had filled him with terror. Whatever the limitations of Jerry’s mind or character may have been, Jerry had a keen appreciation of the danger to the negroes when they came in conflict with the whites, and he had no desire to imperil his own skin. He valued his life for his own sake, and not for any altruistic theory that it might be of service to others. In other words, Jerry was something of a coward. He had kept in hiding all day, but finding, toward evening, that the riot did not abate, and fearing, from the rumors which came to his ears, that all the negroes would be exterminated, he had set out, somewhat desperately, to try to find his white patron and protector. He had been cautious to avoid meeting any white men, and, anticipating no danger from those of his own race, went toward the party which he saw approaching, whose path would cross his own. When they were only a few yards apart, Josh took a step forward and caught Jerry by the arm.

“Come along, Jerry, we need you! Here’s another man, boys. Come on now, and fight fer yo’ race!”

In vain Jerry protested. “I don’ wan’ ter fight,” he howled. “De w’ite folks ain’ gwine ter pester me; dey’re my frien’s. Tu’n me loose, – tu’n me loose, er we all gwine ter git killed!”

The party paid no attention to Jerry’s protestations. Indeed, with the crowd of whites following behind, they were simply considering the question of a position from which they could most effectively defend themselves and the building which they imagined to be threatened. If Josh had released his grip of Jerry, that worthy could easily have escaped from the crowd; but Josh maintained his hold almost mechanically, and, in the confusion, Jerry found himself swept with the rest into the hospital, the doors of which were promptly barricaded with the heavier pieces of furniture, and the windows manned by several men each, Josh, with the instinct of a born commander, posting his forces so that they could cover with their guns all the approaches to the building. Jerry still continuing to make himself troublesome, Josh, in a moment of impatience, gave him a terrific box on the ear, which stretched him out upon the floor unconscious.

“Shet up,” he said; “ef you can’t stan’ up like a man, keep still, and don’t interfere wid men w’at will fight!” The hospital, when Josh and his men took possession, had been found deserted. Fortunately there were no patients for that day, except one or two convalescents, and these, with the attendants, had joined the exodus of the colored people from the town.

A white man advanced from the crowd without toward the main entrance to the hospital. Big Josh, looking out from a window, grasped his gun more firmly, as his eyes fell upon the man who had murdered his father and darkened his mother’s life. Mechanically he raised his rifle, but lowered it as the white man lifted up his hand as a sign that he wished to speak.

“You niggers,” called Captain McBane loudly, – it was that worthy, – “you niggers are courtin’ death, an’ you won’t have to court her but a minute er two mo’ befo’ she’ll have you. If you surrender and give up your arms, you’ll be dealt with leniently, – you may get off with the chain-gang or the penitentiary. If you resist, you’ll be shot like dogs.”

“Dat’s no news, Mr. White Man,” replied Josh, appearing boldly at the window. “We’re use’ ter bein’ treated like dogs by men like you. If you w’ite people will go ‘long an’ ten’ ter yo’ own business an’ let us alone, we’ll ten’ ter ou’n. You’ve got guns, an’ we’ve got jest as much right ter carry ’em as you have. Lay down yo’n, an’ we’ll lay down ou’n, – we didn’ take ’em up fust; but we ain’ gwine ter let you bu’n down ou’ chu’ches an’ school’ouses, er dis hospittle, an’ we ain’ comin’ out er dis house, where we ain’ disturbin’ nobody, fer you ter shoot us down er sen’ us ter jail. You hear me!”

“All right,” responded McBane. “You’ve had fair warning. Your blood be on your” – His speech was interrupted by a shot from the crowd, which splintered the window-casing close to Josh’s head. This was followed by half a dozen other shots, which were replied to, almost simultaneously, by a volley from within, by which one of the attacking party was killed and another wounded.

This roused the mob to frenzy.

“Vengeance! vengeance!” they yelled. “Kill the niggers!”

A negro had killed a white man, – the unpardonable sin, admitting neither excuse, justification, nor extenuation. From time immemorial it had been bred in the Southern white consciousness, and in the negro consciousness also, for that matter, that the person of a white man was sacred from the touch of a negro, no matter what the provocation. A dozen colored men lay dead in the streets of Wellington, inoffensive people, slain in cold blood because they had been bold enough to question the authority of those who had assailed them, or frightened enough to flee when they had been ordered to stand still; but their lives counted nothing against that of a riotous white man, who had courted death by attacking a body of armed men.

The crowd, too, surrounding the hospital, had changed somewhat in character. The men who had acted as leaders in the early afternoon, having accomplished their purpose of overturning the local administration and establishing a provisional government of their own, had withdrawn from active participation in the rioting, deeming the negroes already sufficiently overawed to render unlikely any further trouble from that source. Several of the ringleaders had indeed begun to exert themselves to prevent further disorder, or any loss of property, the possibility of which had become apparent; but those who set in motion the forces of evil cannot always control them afterwards. The baser element of the white population, recruited from the wharves and the saloons, was now predominant.

Captain McBane was the only one of the revolutionary committee who had remained with the mob, not with any purpose to restore or preserve order, but because he found the company and the occasion entirely congenial. He had had no opportunity, at least no tenable excuse, to kill or maim a negro since the termination of his contract with the state for convicts, and this occasion had awakened a dormant appetite for these diversions. We are all puppets in the hands of Fate, and seldom see the strings that move us. McBane had lived a life of violence and cruelty. As a man sows, so shall he reap. In works of fiction, such men are sometimes converted. More often, in real life, they do not change their natures until they are converted into dust. One does well to distrust a tamed tiger.

On the outskirts of the crowd a few of the better class, or at least of the better clad, were looking on. The double volley described had already been fired, when the number of these was augmented by the arrival of Major Carteret and Mr. Ellis, who had just come from the Chronicle office, where the next day’s paper had been in hasty preparation. They pushed their way towards the front of the crowd.

“This must be stopped, Ellis,” said Carteret. “They are burning houses and killing women and children. Old Jane, good old Mammy Jane, who nursed my wife at her bosom, and has waited on her and my child within a few weeks, was killed only a few rods from my house, to which she was evidently fleeing for protection. It must have been by accident, – I cannot believe that any white man in town would be dastard enough to commit such a deed intentionally! I would have defended her with my own life! We must try to stop this thing!”

“Easier said than done,” returned Ellis. “It is in the fever stage, and must burn itself out. We shall be lucky if it does not burn the town out. Suppose the negroes should also take a hand at the burning? We have advised the people to put the negroes down, and they are doing the job thoroughly.”

“My God!” replied the other, with a gesture of impatience, as he continued to elbow his way through the crowd; “I meant to keep them in their places, – I did not intend wholesale murder and arson.”

Carteret, having reached the front of the mob, made an effort to gain their attention.

“Gentlemen!” he cried in his loudest tones. His voice, unfortunately, was neither loud nor piercing.

“Kill the niggers!” clamored the mob.

“Gentlemen, I implore you” –

The crash of a dozen windows, broken by stones and pistol shots, drowned his voice.

“Gentlemen!” he shouted; “this is murder, it is madness; it is a disgrace to our city, to our state, to our civilization!”

“That’s right!” replied several voices. The mob had recognized the speaker. “It _is_ a disgrace, and we’ll not put up with it a moment longer. Burn ’em out! Hurrah for Major Carteret, the champion of ‘white supremacy’! Three cheers for the Morning Chronicle and ‘no nigger domination’!”

“Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” yelled the crowd.

In vain the baffled orator gesticulated and shrieked in the effort to correct the misapprehension. Their oracle had spoken; not hearing what he said, they assumed it to mean encouragement and coöperation. Their present course was but the logical outcome of the crusade which the Morning Chronicle had preached, in season and out of season, for many months. When Carteret had spoken, and the crowd had cheered him, they felt that they had done all that courtesy required, and he was good-naturedly elbowed aside while they proceeded with the work in hand, which was now to drive out the negroes from the hospital and avenge the killing of their comrade.

Some brought hay, some kerosene, and others wood from a pile which had been thrown into a vacant lot near by. Several safe ways of approach to the building were discovered, and the combustibles placed and fired. The flames, soon gaining a foothold, leaped upward, catching here and there at the exposed woodwork, and licking the walls hungrily with long tongues of flame.

Meanwhile a desultory firing was kept up from the outside, which was replied to scatteringly from within the hospital. Those inside were either not good marksmen, or excitement had spoiled their aim. If a face appeared at a window, a dozen pistol shots from the crowd sought the spot immediately.

Higher and higher leaped the flames. Suddenly from one of the windows sprang a black figure, waving a white handkerchief. It was Jerry Letlow. Regaining consciousness after the effect of Josh’s blow had subsided, Jerry had kept quiet and watched his opportunity. From a safe vantage-ground he had scanned the crowd without, in search of some white friend. When he saw Major Carteret moving disconsolately away after his futile effort to stem the torrent, Jerry made a dash for the window. He sprang forth, and, waving his handkerchief as a flag of truce, ran toward Major Carteret, shouting frantically: –

“Majah Carteret – _O_ majah! It’s me, suh, Jerry, suh! I didn’ go in dere myse’f, suh – I wuz drag’ in dere! I wouldn’ do nothin’ ‘g’inst de w’ite folks, suh, – no, ‘ndeed, I wouldn’, suh!”

Jerry’s cries were drowned in a roar of rage and a volley of shots from the mob. Carteret, who had turned away with Ellis, did not even hear his servant’s voice. Jerry’s poor flag of truce, his explanations, his reliance upon his white friends, all failed him in the moment of supreme need. In that hour, as in any hour when the depths of race hatred are stirred, a negro was no more than a brute beast, set upon by other brute beasts whose only instinct was to kill and destroy.

“Let us leave this inferno, Ellis,” said Carteret, sick with anger and disgust. He had just become aware that a negro was being killed, though he did not know whom. “We can do nothing. The negroes have themselves to blame, – they tempted us beyond endurance. I counseled firmness, and firm measures were taken, and our purpose was accomplished. I am not responsible for these subsequent horrors, – I wash my hands of them. Let us go!”

The flames gained headway and gradually enveloped the burning building, until it became evident to those within as well as those without that the position of the defenders was no longer tenable. Would they die in the flames, or would they be driven out? The uncertainty soon came to an end.

The besieged had been willing to fight, so long as there seemed a hope of successfully defending themselves and their property; for their purpose was purely one of defense. When they saw the case was hopeless, inspired by Josh Green’s reckless courage, they were still willing to sell their lives dearly. One or two of them had already been killed, and as many more disabled. The fate of Jerry Letlow had struck terror to the hearts of several others, who could scarcely hide their fear. After the building had been fired, Josh’s exhortations were no longer able to keep them in the hospital. They preferred to fight and be killed in the open, rather than to be smothered like rats in a hole.

“Boys!” exclaimed Josh, – “men! – fer nobody but men would do w’at you have done, – the day has gone ‘g’inst us. We kin see ou’ finish; but fer my part, I ain’ gwine ter leave dis worl’ widout takin’ a w’ite man ‘long wid me, an’ I sees my man right out yonder waitin’, – I be’n waitin’ fer him twenty years, but he won’ have ter wait fer me mo’ ‘n ’bout twenty seconds. Eve’y one er you pick yo’ man! We’ll open de do’, an’ we’ll give some w’ite men a chance ter be sorry dey ever started dis fuss!”

The door was thrown open suddenly, and through it rushed a dozen or more black figures, armed with knives, pistols, or clubbed muskets. Taken by sudden surprise, the white people stood motionless for a moment, but the approaching negroes had scarcely covered half the distance to which the heat of the flames had driven back the mob, before they were greeted with a volley that laid them all low but two. One of these, dazed by the fate of his companions, turned instinctively to flee, but had scarcely faced around before he fell, pierced in the back by a dozen bullets.

Josh Green, the tallest and biggest of them all, had not apparently been touched. Some of the crowd paused in involuntary admiration of this black giant, famed on the wharves for his strength, sweeping down upon them, a smile upon his face, his eyes lit up with a rapt expression which seemed to take him out of mortal ken. This impression was heightened by his apparent immunity from the shower of lead which less susceptible persons had continued to pour at him.

Armed with a huge bowie-knife, a relic of the civil war, which he had carried on his person for many years for a definite purpose, and which he had kept sharpened to a razor edge, he reached the line of the crowd. All but the bravest shrank back. Like a wedge he dashed through the mob, which parted instinctively before him, and all oblivious of the rain of lead which fell around him, reached the point where Captain McBane, the bravest man in the party, stood waiting to meet him. A pistol-flame flashed in his face, but he went on, and raising his powerful right arm, buried his knife to the hilt in the heart of his enemy. When the crowd dashed forward to wreak vengeance on his dead body, they found him with a smile still upon his face.

One of the two died as the fool dieth. Which was it, or was it both? “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and it had not been left to Him. But they that do violence must expect to suffer violence. McBane’s death was merciful, compared with the nameless horrors he had heaped upon the hundreds of helpless mortals who had fallen into his hands during his career as a contractor of convict labor.

Sobered by this culminating tragedy, the mob shortly afterwards dispersed. The flames soon completed their work, and this handsome structure, the fruit of old Adam Miller’s industry, the monument of his son’s philanthropy, a promise of good things for the future of the city, lay smouldering in ruins, a melancholy witness to the fact that our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s