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African American Fiction Historical Fiction

“You have to admit, it is a great story! Proof of a personal connection of a freed slave to US president!”

“Rumblings of an old man with dementia-”

“These books are over 150 years old, and first editions of President Grant’s memoirs!” Kiara said, trying to pass her optimism over to her boyfriend Terrence. “I looked them up on the internet. The dark leather editions can bring $5 to $6,000 depending on condition.  And-  with what I showed you, and the story Grandpa told me,  I think we can get 10 times that.” Kiara said. 

“OK!”  Terrence laughed at her naivety. 

“Well, I guess I can spend my holiday joy-riding with you.” Terrence had said when Kiara had set an appointment to get the books valued by an expert. 

“Since when is a random Wednesday in June a holiday?” Kiara said.

“Oh my goodness!  You West Coast folks do not know your black history!”  Terrance just shook his head.

Kiara knew she was going to get a lecture, Terrence loved to give black history lessons to her, especially when he was in his happy place, driving his lifted Ford F150 pick up truck with the personalized plates, 'BLK 365'.

“It is our holiday, Juneteenth. It should be a national holiday! The celebration of the Union Army coming to Texas to free our people. My family celebrates every year with a picnic at Jackson Park on Lake.  We were going to go last year, remember, but you had a test in your Torts class and couldn't take the time off.”

Kiara only remembered wanting to avoid a weekend with Terrence’s overbearing family, but nodded along.  

“I take it off every year, Black American Independence Day.    My damn company doesn't care, or even acknowledge the day, for all the diversity initiatives they talk about.  But it is fine,  I am just a cog in the machine."

“You are a software engineer!” Kiara said

“More like manual labor, just instead of moving bricks around I am a keyboard monkey slinging code.” Terrence shook his head. “Treated like it anyway, though paid better.” 

“Well at least you got a job, '' Kiara said, frustrated at his lack of appreciation for his steady paycheck.  

“I'm down to part time at the Magazine, and freelance writing pays crap. My law school loans are just piling up.  I hope these books are worth something, I need the money.” 

“You know books are not worth much-'' Terrence said, trying not to disappoint her. 

They parked in front of the downtown shop. Most of the neighboring businesses were shuttered, the gentrification of the inner City had not reached this block yet.

The short, thin, white man who opened the door was wearing a maroon silk vest over his baggy dress shirt and suit pants. His thin, drawn face was haloed by his wispy gray hair.  

“Hello, you are Kiara, with the Grant books?” He smiled. “Call me Larry.” He welcomed Kiara and Terrance into the small store, Rare & Antiquarian Booksellers.

“Thank you for bringing the books, I am looking forward to taking a look, glad we are able to meet.” 

Kiara gripped the wooden box enclosing the books tightly to her chest, the reality of what she was about to do suddenly weighing on her.  The book store was dimly lit, light from the overcast morning penetrating only a few feet through the dusty storefront windows. What will she find inside about these books, about her grandfather's stories?

Kiara was hoping to finally get an answer about these books beloved by her grandfather, and the truth. The stories she had been told about these books seem unbelievable, and at the same time if they do prove true, maybe they could be valuable. She needed the money. 

Grandfather Cleaver was an enigma. She has seen pictures of him holding her when she was small; she had the same eyes and nose of the light-skinned black man.  However her mother rarely spoke of him, a rupture never resolved. Her mother fled the Midwest for a better job in Santa Clara, California. There  with only her and mother, any other family, including her grandfather did not exist. When Kiara’s mother passed, Kiara moved back partly to find the family she never knew. She reconnected with her grandfather, but she had only visited him twice before he too fell sick, and then gone.  He was her last connection to her family, and now she felt adrift, floating outside history. The friends in California were too far away and had grown apart. Terrence had a huge sprawling family he was close to, but she had a hard time connecting to them; in Chicago they had a shared experience of black culture which Kiara did not experience in California. 

She heard her grandfather’s voice, tired and hoarse, when he gave her the box, “This is your legacy.”  She did not understand what she was missing until the physical presence of these books, and their story, made her ancestors real. She was desperate to have a family to share it with.  

Once they arrived, Terrence of course paid no attention to her or her concerns,  immediately connecting with the bookseller on a shared love of the past.  His dark skin and thick build contrasted sharply with the small man.  Kiara knew Terrence’s interest in arcane history made him the perfect partner for this trip.  He had even planned sightseeing afterwards at Griot’s wax museum of black history.  Still deciding whether to go through with this or not,  Kiara stood at the threshold listening to Terrence talking inside.

“I've been looking into President Grant, and he is much different than the reputation I had heard about - the raging alcoholic who was corrupt and turned Reconstruction into a joke. None of it is true! He was a good president, didn't drink much, and fought the Klan! He signed the 15th amendment giving Blacks, the men anyway, the vote, and used the Army to support blacks voting in the South.” 

Larry nodded. “Yes, Grant’s reputation is much different than reality.  Now where are those books you wanted me to look at?” 

 Both men turned and saw Kiara still on the outside step,  hugging the box tightly,  indecision gripping her.  The money she had been focused on seemed so much less important now that Kiara might be giving up the one connection she had to her Grandfather.  She couldn’t take the step to enter the store. 

“I understand.”  Larry said, walking back to Kiara and opening up his arms. “Giving up personal mementos from loved ones is hard. Remember, I am not going to take the books from you, I will look at it and put a price on it. You can take it or leave it.”

Kiara wanted vindication for her grandfather, and his stories that he told her from what he learned from his own Grandmother of their ancestors. About a famous writer, some poet, and personal connections to Grant. There was only one way to get it.  Kiara stepped inside the store and reluctantly put the box down on a table in front of Larry.  Larry, Terrence and Kiara stood over the old wooden box, looking expectantly, as if it would tell its stories on its own.

Ok,  Larry said, “let’s take a look.”

Kiara opened the box to a loud creak; the rusted hinges were loath to disclose their contents. Inside the box, tucked in snugly were two volumes in  battered dark leather. Each book had a gold seal, faded on the front, of Grant sitting profile, and his title. ‘Major General Ulysses S Grant’.

Larry leaned over  and looked, using a wooden baton so he did not have to touch the volumes. 

“If it is OK, I am just going to speak out loud what I am seeing, so you can know what goes into the valuation.”

“This is just like Antiques Roadshow!”  Terrance said, leaning over just as far. Kiara felt sick, how can this man put a price on her Grandfather's prized possession? She suddenly understood what is meant by 'priceless'. These books value were beyond a monetary number, no price was worth her connection to these old books. She committed to herself then no matter what this man offered she would not, could not sell. 

Larry  put plastic gloves on and slowly drew out one of the volumes and placed it on the table.  

“Moderate deterioration; some bubbling on the cover. I can see some tears here, and here.”  He pointed with his baton at the edges of the book. He lifted the cover, and turned the first two blank pages.  

“There are some water marks here on the edges.  A date is written on the top corner of a page, ‘1887’, do you know what this date is referring to?”

 Larry asked Kiara, giving her a penetrating stare. 

Her stomach dropped, she knew very little about the books actually.  She felt like she did in her law school class when the Professor asked a question and she didn't know the answer.  This was not being graded, she thought, and shook her head quickly. 

Larry nodded, "It really doesn’t matter.”

On the third page was a list of dates and names, in different inks and handwriting:

1887- Mary Robinson

1895- John Lee Stevens

1905- Silver Stevens

1935- Bailey Johnson

1950- Marguerite Annie Johnson

1960- Clyde Johnson 

 1972- Delia Whitehead

1985- Kingston Cleaver

“Who are these names?”

“Those are, -were  the owners of the book-my family. Kingston, she pointed at the page, is my Grandfather.”

“There is something familiar about those names-” Terence muttered, and pulled his phone out to look at it.

“This book has a lot of your family history in it.”  Larry looked closely at Kiara. 

He turned the next page to see a drawing of a young US Grant. He paused for a moment and then turned the page to the publishers page, listing the title, and publisher, ‘Charles L Webster & Company -1885’. 

The next was the copyright page, listing US Grant's name, and the year, 1885. 

“Well, like you said, this is the first edition.”

Larry turned the page back. "Here you can see the publishing company and the year. Do you know about this publisher?” He looked at Kiara. 

Kiara, again, stumped, wished she had studied for this test, or even knew there was going to be a test. 

“What about you Terrence, any idea?”

"Well, it was the 1880’s in New York, so a bunch of rich white dudes?”

“Yes! Larry laughed. “However, a recognizable white dude- you have heard of Mark Twain? This was his publishing firm. And he had a unique approach too, using every trick he could think of to market his books. He was well known at the time, but thought the New York publishers had it in for him, which they did, so he started his own company to do subscription sales, door to door.   He sold Huckleberry Finn this way, and then worked out a deal with US Grant to publish his book. Which was good for Grant because he was dying of throat cancer and needed the money." Larry turned toward Kiara.

"Mark Twain sent out thousands of agents throughout the country, at least the north of the country, US Grant was not popular in the south, then, or now.  Twain had these salesmen dress in their old uniforms, playing on the reputation Grant had earned in the Civil War. They sold hundreds of thousands of these two-volume sets, priced depending on the binding. Now this binding,” Larry closed the book back up,” is the top of the line, full Morocco.” 

Larry took out the other volume, glanced at it quickly and then opened the cover, turned a few pages without comment and then closed it up. 

“Fortunately there are both volumes here, with only one book it wouldn’t be worth much at all.  Now if the condition was Fine, or no damage at all, it would be worth ~$5,000. In Very Good condition, maybe $2,000. But in this, how should I say it, well-read condition, I can offer you,  $800.” 

Kiara looked at Larry, suspiciously. “But you didn’t get to the important page! Go back to volume one!”

Kiara, having handled the book regularly for the past week with no concern, was now scared to touch it and so she just pointed, excitedly.

Larry, using his baton to open the book, got to the copyright page again, and then with encouragement from Kiara, turned one more page to a dedication.

Terrence, excited too cut off Kiara to read what was scrawled in loose handwriting.

" It says, These volumes are dedicated to the American Soldier and Sailor. There is his signature, and below it New York City,  May 23rd, 1885."

“That has got to increase its value! I read signed books can double in value!” Kiara said, her eyes ablaze with excitement.

Larry smiled, “well of course, though  it depends who signs the book.” 

Kiara interrupted, “- my Grandfather said what was in this box was incredibly valuable because it showed the family history. He called it my legacy. My great,, great, great…- well, a lot of greats, my ancestry, the name listed first on the page, Mary Robinson. My grandfather said she knew Grant, she was an enslaved person on his wife’s farm where he lived before The Civil War. His wife’s family of course wanted him to fight for the South but Grant wouldn’t do it.  I think this was signed for her sons, one a soldier and one who was in the navy, freed to fight for the Union army!” Kiara needed this story to be true, somehow it would prove her family's value, her own value.

 “That is an amazing story.” Larry said softly.  “But, I am sorry to say, this signature isn’t real. Remember I told you Mark Twain was into gambits to increase book sales?  US Grant died of throat cancer before the book was printed.  This dedication was printed in every edition. A nice touch by Mark Twain. So sorry, but not real.”  

Kiara went numb, the story she had internalized and believed so thoroughly popped in an instant.

"Regardless of the truth of the story, the history of these volumes and the names written inside, these can not be valued by a collector. I think you should keep these, and pass them down to your children, or the next generation of your family." Larry said.

Terence was on his phone, looking in amazement.

"I thought I recognized that name- Marguerite Annie Johnson and her son!  That is Maya Angelou!  She is from this area. She must be related to you!” He looked at Kiara with amazement. 

“The poet?” Kiara asked.

“Yes, that is the name she was born with!” He hugged Kiara who was overwhelmed with the emotion of the day. 

 Larry looked at the now empty box.  “This box the books came in, do you know anything about it?

“It is just an old box that my grandfather kept the books in.” Kiara said, trying to read the small print of the article on Terrence's phone through tears. 

“There might be something," Larry used his baton to lift one side of the box up to look at it, and then looked inside the box again,

“Can I look at this material at the bottom?”

Kiara nodded. 

He lifted up the bottom felt, and then pulled out several yellow papers.  He carefully put them on the table, “Here is something interesting, your great…, your ancestor was named Mary Robinson?”

“Yes!” Kiara said, rubbing the tears from her eyes to see better. 

“Well here is her name in this newspaper clipping, an interview with the St. Louis Republican, she speaks about her connection with President Grant. What your Grandfather said was true!”

Kiara, claps her hand over her heart and feels relief wash over her.

Larry continues through the papers, and stops on the last one. He lifts up to look at Kiara. 

“Now this, this is amazing. This document, dated  Jan. 1, 1863, in the third year of the Civil War. Do you now what this is?”

Kiara looks over and sees in large letters, ‘A Proclamation’. 

"Uh, no?"

“I do- and of all days to find this!” Terrence’s large eyes got even bigger. “Do you think that is real, an original?”

"What?" Kiara looked back and forth between the men, perplexed.

“How much is that worth?” Terance asked

“It looks real. Worth?  In monetary value 2, probably 3.” Larry could not take his eyes off the faded paper.

“Million.” Terrence said.

“Yes,  Larry said. “But in the importance to American history, to humanity?  It is truly priceless.” 

Kiara looked at them both, “I don’t understand?”

Terrance began to read, 

A Proclamation, …  that on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” 

“This is a true legacy, the Emancipation Proclamation.” Larry said, and sat down in shock. 

Kiara felt her feet on the ground, a feeling of connection and roots. Now she had a history, deep and long and connected integrally to her country. She felt alive for the first time in a long time. 

July 15, 2022 18:41

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4 comments

Cheryl Martin
22:07 Jul 21, 2022

Very nice story, Marty! You did, however, switch from past to present tense and I was taken out of the story.

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Marty B
17:30 Jul 22, 2022

Thanks for pointing that out. I need to tighten up my final edits

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Katy Borobia
20:11 Jul 19, 2022

I really enjoy historical fiction. Thank you for sharing this piece that reveals some of the history of the Civil War, and ties it back into the legacy of the present in the context of Juneteenth. Well done!

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Marty B
05:39 Jul 21, 2022

Thanks, I am a historical fiction fan too, but havent tried before to combine history with a story. I recently read Ron Chernow's biography of Grant and was blown away by all he accomplished. Appreciate your good words!

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