Even when enslaved people had been freed, they were still in danger, as this true incident shows.
At eight years old, Eliza Jane Payne was used to work—she was born enslaved and had been helping with laundry and cleaning chores since before she could remember. In her early years, it was for Mrs. Mary Maddox, their old Massa’s wife. Eliza Jane could remember their Massa a little, but he had never had much to do with her. She was around Mrs. Maddox far more often, and early on, she had learned to haul laundry, clean floors, wash dishes, and pick up the kitchen. She mostly did these chores beside her mother, Kitty, but even by age five, she was good enough at them to be on her own sometimes.
And then, for some reason that Eliza Jane didn’t quite understand, they had moved north and left Rappahanock County behind. Mrs. Maddox had come with them, though Mama kept saying that they were free now. “The Lord bless the heart of Mrs. Maddox,” her mother would say. “You cain’t never forget that. Ain’t many women in the world like Mrs. Maddox.”
Eliza Jane, of course, had very little with which to compare Mrs. Maddox. Sometimes other white folk had come to the farm, but she had always been told to stay out of sight and not to talk. Then, for a while, they had moved suddenly a little further to the north, a place called Maria Furnace—a place that Mrs. Maddox had picked because “the lawyer of Gettysburg, Thaddeus Stevens, owns the iron foundry there.” Mr. Stevens was “an abolitionist,” Mama had said. What was that? “Someone who wanted to help black folk be free.”
Daddy was a free man in Virginia named Robert Payne, and he was finishing up a work contract before heading north. He wasn’t there when baby George, four months old, died, breaking all their hearts. Daddy arrived soon after, and it seemed like Catherine Payne’s promises would come true. Robert began looking for work in town, and they all boarded together. But Daddy also had a cough that wouldn’t go away. They thought it was nothing at first, but it became so hard and so persistent that they had a doctor check only to find that Daddy had consumption. And so, a year after rejoining them, Daddy also died and was buried near George.
Uncles Jim Green and Benjamin Roberts had headed further north. Soon after Daddy’s death, Kitty decided to follow, and it was on to Gettysburg and then to a settlement north of it called Menallen, which was near Bendersville. The trip had been thrilling—Eliza Jane had seen woods and mountains, rivers and fields, streams and ducks and deer. She had only known the Maddox farm to that point of her life.
They lived with other black folk—Amon and Rachel Jones. “Aunt Rachel” the kids all called her, and that’s where Eliza Jane moved from helping Mrs. Maddox to helping Aunt Rachel. Same types of work—laundry, kitchen chores, cleaning. It didn’t make a difference to Eliza Jane who it was for. Mama told her, “We free like these people, and some day, we also gonna have our own little house and kitchen.”
The Pennsylvania summers were about as hot as the Virginia summers, and that made the days and the work long and tiring. Eliza Jane remembered most summer days like a blur—like one long day that stretched over a whole season. That is, except for one summer day, or rather night, in particular.
In late July 1845, she was exhausted and asleep. Her back and legs were tired from scrubbing laundry most of the morning, then standing all afternoon to help prepare the evening meal. Of course, after that, there were animals to feed and shut up in coops, dishes to do, and floors to clean. She had gone to sleep next to her younger sister Mary and her younger brother Arthur James. The warm humid air hung heavy around them and she sweated as she breathed lightly and tried not to move.
Bam! The home’s door flew open as she jolted awake. Her eyes were bleary and her mind slow as lanterns cut through the darkness and men moved in a whirl into the room. White men with shotguns.
“Everybody up and move!” the man in front yelled as the others moved around him.
“No, you can’t!” her mother yelled. “Mrs. Maddox set us free! I gots my papers!”
“Get into the wagon!”
“We not going anywhere!” said Kitty.
Eliza Jane saw a man she knew . . . Samuel Maddox, Mrs. Maddox’s nephew from the farm in Virginia.
“Tom?” Samuel said and motioned with his head.
Tom turned to Mama and leveled his shotgun at her, as Samuel said, “Y’all are all my property. Aunt Mary broke the law, and y’all are coming back with us.”
Tom started toward Mama, and Eliza Jane looked at the door. There she saw Mr. Amon Jones who saw her looking and nodded at his own shotgun propped against the wall near the door. Was Aunt Rachel’s husband part of this?
Eliza Jane looked back at Mama who began to swat Tom as he got within range. Tom smacked her across the face, and Eliza Jane saw blood, but Mama stood her ground and kept swinging. Tom used the butt of his gun to bash her in the chest, and when she doubled over, he leaned down and hefted her onto his shoulder.
“You leave my kids alone!” she cried, as Tom turned toward them.
“Now be good kids and get to the wagon,” said Tom. “Don’t be like your insolent mother.”
Eliza Jane didn’t know what insolent meant, but she did know they had to get to the wagon. She looked at her two siblings who sat in stunned silence. “Come on now, Mary and Arthur James. On your feet and to the wagon.”
“I don’t wanna go!” Arthur James cried.
“Hush yo mouth or you’ll get worse than Mama,” Eliza Jane hissed at him.
He whimpered, but all three stood and started toward the door.
As Tom passed Samuel with Mama on his shoulder, Samuel said, “They tell me you lost a baby. We could work on replacing him. Help you out.”
Kitty let loose a full-throated scream as Mr. Jones stepped out of the doorway and looked away.
Tom swung Mama and mashed her head against the side frame of the door, and Eliza Jane saw blood spring from Mama’s forehead.
“Shut your mouth or I’ll do it again,” he said. Then he looked at Samuel. “You do whatever you want with her on your own time, but we don’t need her screaming and hysterical all the way to the border.”
Samuel gave him a half grin and spit tobacco juice from his cheek to the floor.
“Quick! Now!” Eliza Jane said, and she grabbed her siblings in each hand and rushed out the door just ahead of Tom and Mama.
Mama kept repeating, “We got our papers, we got our papers! You can’t do this!” But Tom ignored her, looked at the kids, and said, “All of you and your mother in the back seat of the wagon.”
Samuel and Tom took the front seat, and the other men, except Amon, mounted horses. And then, they were off at high speed, galloping down the hill and the highway, trying to stay clear of any citizens or law that might be up at this time of the morning.
Eliza Jane shuddered in the humid air. She had heard the word slavery a lot but hadn’t understood it. All she had known was Mrs. Maddox. But she sat next to her mother in the wagon watching her clean blood off her skin, thinking of Samuel’s hand going up her skirt, and seeing the horses pulling as hard as they could to some point south, and she thought, This! This is slavery! We going to slavery!
After reading the Introduction, teachers, parents, or learners may want to dive into more historical sources by visiting the Introduction resource page. Learners may also want to try some exercises to help them understand the economics of slavery in the United States in the 1840s. Resources for all chapters can be found at the book’s resources page. Or keep reading by going to American Crucible.