TW: abuse, slavery
Juliana was only four when Mama sat her down and had the talk. To a four-year-old mind, the things Mama described sounded like a fairy tale, a terrifying one. Yet, the things Mama told her about obedience to masters, never speaking back, and deference to white people began to explain things she couldn’t help observing on Belle Grove Plantation. Years later, she still remembered every single word Mama had said, and it was those words that kept her alive.
Belle Grove’s farm manager, Cyrus, was meaner than a cornered alligator. Juliana had decided long ago that thinking of him as a crazed animal helped her cope. Mama would tell her, “You are strong and unmovable, like a tree planted by a river. Nothing can harm you if you stay strong.”
Juliana and Mama looked so alike that members of the white family they served often confused them, calling Mama Juliana and Juliana Mary. Mama’s job was as seamstress and chambermaid to Anna, the master’s daughter. When Juliana was eleven, Mama began to teach her how to sew, build a fire, do laundry, and arrange hair. At first, Juliana loved learning new things, but mostly, she loved having one-on-one time with Mama, her kind and patient teaching reinforcing how much Mama loved her. Slowly, she began to suspect that Mama was preparing her to serve Anna in her stead, and every day Juliana silently wondered why. Would Mama run away? If so, why wouldn’t she take Juliana with her? Would she kill herself? Suicides were not uncommon among slaves. Juliana never asked because she didn’t want to hear what was likely a terrible truth.
Juliana was now fifteen, and it was her birthday. Other slaves had gone without to give Mama extra food to cook a good meal for Juliana’s special day, tomatoes, collards, and cornmeal for cornbread, a rare treat.
Later that night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, Mama woke her daughter and whispered, “Sweet girl, I need to talk with you. Come with me.” They sat by the fire, and Mama began slowly, “Now, I don’t know what will happen, but you have to be strong, and you have to be ready if something happens to me. You hear me, little one? I’ve taught you all I know, and if something happens to me, you take my place and take care of Miss Anna. She’s a kind woman. She won’t hurt you. You safe so long as you be Miss Anna’s maid and stay here. Listen to me, sweetie. This is your only window, your chance to live a safer life, out of the fields and safe with Miss Anna, you hear?”
“But, where you goin’ Mama?” Juliana’s eyes filled with tears.
“Shhh, stop your cryin’ baby. You have to be ready if something happens to me, ya hear? Remember, you’s like that tree standing strong by the river, right?”
Juliana nodded, still afraid of what Mama would say next.
“There’s one thing that Miss Anna will recognize. There’s one way she’ll know you’s not me.” Mama looked earnestly into Juliana’s eyes, took her hand, and held it firmly. Tears began streaming down Mama’s face, and she could hardly say the words she’d rehearsed for this moment. “One day, you’ll understand, my sweet one, that I did this to save you. Please, I beg you, don’t hate me for it.”
Juliana screamed when she saw Mama pick up the hot poker from the fire. She tried to pull her hand away, but Mama was strong and held it tightly. She let the poker touch her daughter’s hand for only a moment. Nothing could bring her to scar her daughter as she had been. Mama cried as she remembered being burned when she was only twelve. Cyrus was angry over the time it took her to iron his shirt, so he punished her by burning her hand with the edge of the hot iron. The burn left a large scar on the top of her beautiful hand.
A month after Juliana’s birthday, Cyrus stumbled drunk into their sod shack and yelled for Mama. She sat up in bed, terrified. He ordered her to get dressed and to follow him. Juliana learned later that night from a fellow slave whose shack was by the big oak, called The Meeting Place, that Mama broke down and wailed an unearthly sound when she heard the neighbor’s words.
“Guess you’d better polish up on your poker skills there, Cyrus! Though I’m happy to beat you again if you’re gonna wager your darkies!” Cyrus never told Anna that he’d gambled away her maid.
When Juliana heard what happened, the agony was so great that she screamed for hours. Others tried to quiet her, but she could not cross the chasm in her heart to hear their comfort. The following day, Juliana barely could open her swollen eyes from so much crying. She steeled herself, put on one of Mama’s three dresses, and went to the big house fully expecting to be caught and whipped. When she saw Anna, she curtsied and said, “Miss Anna. How may I help today?”
“Mary! You look awful. What happened to you?”
Juliana didn’t know what to say but replied, “I got some bad news last night.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Come on up to my room. I have some chocolates that’ll make you feel better.” Juliana had no idea what chocolates were, but she would come to realize over time just how kind Anna was.
Several weeks later, Mama still had not returned. Juliana resolved not to grieve because to do so, she thought, would acknowledge that Mama might never come back. She was terrified that Cyrus would realize that she’d begun to work in the big house for Anna, and that he would beat her for such a presumption. A tiny part of her was pleasantly surprised that Mama’s trick had worked, so far. Even the other slaves praised her, and were secretly glad that Juliana could work inside, out of the Georgia heat.
Each morning, Juliana tidied up Anna’s rooms, including the parlor, bedroom, dressing room, and music room. As she dusted in the dressing room, she noticed a book with a scene of a black woman and children outside a shack. Miss Anna was sitting at her dressing table and saw Juliana behind her in the mirror. She rushed over to her.
“Oh Mary!” she whispered. “I’ve been reading this book called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Please don’t tell Cyrus! I’m all tied in knots! Do you hate us for having you work for us? You have to tell me, do they treat slaves this bad?”
Juliana was off her guard. She quickly tried to remember Mama’s warnings to be silent unless it was necessary to speak, but how could she answer honestly and not upset Anna?
As Anna looked at her with pleading eyes, suddenly her eyes grew wide. “Oh my! You aren’t my Mary! Who, who are you?” Her look was one of more surprise than anger, and Juliana knew that she had to risk everything to avoid being found out by Cyrus.
“Miss Anna,” she began to tremble as she spoke. “I am Mary’s daughter, Juliana. Please don’t be angry. They took my mama away. She trained me to do everything you need in case anything happened to her. I didn’t know what else to do!” Juliana’s effort to be steady like a tree was failing. She fell at Anna’s feet, and a dam burst in her heart. All the grief she’d bottled up came gushing out, and Anna sat down on the floor and held her. “They took her, they took her, they took her,” was all she could say.
Anna gave Juliana her handkerchief, and after what seemed like an eternity she said, “Sweet little one, your mama was the best person I’ve ever known. An angel she was. Now, we won’t tell anyone about this. If Cyrus asks why you are helping me, I’ll tell him I chose you because you have the skills I need, which is certainly the truth. I would choose you a hundred times over.” She lowered her voice to barely a whisper, “I’ve been reading about how slaves are escaping through the Underground Railroad, a kind of passage to freedom. Folks work together to help you go north where white people don’t believe anyone has the right to own another person.”
Juliana’s eyes widened, and she pulled quickly away. “I’ve heard what happens to them’s who is runaways, Ma’am!” she whispered.
Just then, Anna noticed the scar on Juliana’s hand. It still hadn’t fully healed. “Oh, my darling! I know why you did this.” She touched Juliana’s hand as tears coursed down her cheeks. She whispered as though to herself while holding Juliana’s hand, “It’s not right. It’s just not right!”
Few people experience an epiphany that utterly changes them as Miss Anna had. Through the years that passed, Anna not only helped Cyrus’ slaves escape, but she hid slaves from neighboring plantations who were making their way north. No one could say whether her charity or her cunning was the greater blessing, but Cyrus never once suspected her. It had been thirty long years since that day on the floor of Anna’s dressing room until, on a bright morning in late May, Juliana and her husband, John, met Anna at a café in New York. Anna’s dark brown hair was now white, and she walked with a cane. She made many trips to speak at abolitionist meetings, and when Juliana and John learned she would be speaking locally, they invited her to meet them for tea. It was a merry gathering as they reminisced and talked of their grown children. Anna was a widow now but had led a busy but happy life with three children and a kind husband who shared her views on abolishing slavery. Just before it was time to leave, John asked a question he’d wanted to ask for a very long time.
“Ma’am,” he began.
“Please, call me Anna.”
“Anna, what I want to know is, how many others besides Juliana did you help to freedom?”
Anna smiled, the wrinkles around her eyes becoming more visible. “Oh John, all I know is that it was never enough. The truth is, I have to keep fighting. I can’t stop until my body gives out.”
“Why? Why do you do it?” asked John.
“You know, all these years and no one has ever asked me that.” She thought for less than three seconds and replied, “Oh well, there’s an easy answer to that. It was Juliana’s mother Mary. When I think of what she did to help her daughter survive, of the sacrifices she made, I realize I can’t stop until slavery is gone forever. What I want most in life is to find her and tell her I am sorry. If I’d realized the wrong of it all sooner, I could have started with her. I could have gotten her to freedom before, well, before she was gone. Yes, I need to tell her I’m sorry. The whole of the country needs to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ for all of it.”
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I loved this story ❤