Chapter 8: Old Enough to Drive a Plow

Freed black man Jim Green stands near a farm house.

Content Warning: While nothing is portrayed graphically in the following, this chapter deals with some of the worst aspects of slavery in the antebellum South and the resulting trauma. The learning resources give additional background that parents and teachers can use to modify the discussion to the appropriate level for young readers.

Jim used to think that the incident had really happened, but then, as he got older, he couldn’t be sure if he had dreamt it. In the scene, he was somewhere between a boy and a man, “old enough to milk a cow but too young to drive a plow,” was how the driver said it. And there was a certain cow that he milked. Ole Miss Jane, they called her, and when you were young, you started on Ole Miss Jane because she never got cross and she gave up her milk with just the least bit of gentleness.

Jim was sure Ole Miss Jane liked him specially, and even when he was good enough to milk the other cows, Jim liked her best and she liked him best. If you asked him how he knew she liked him best, he couldn’t tell you except that she had knowing eyes, and on some mornings when he would cry, he swore that she cried too. He couldn’t be sure why she cried—had her mother been sold too? There wasn’t any Older Miss Jane, so probably yes.

One day, at least in the scene, Massa sold Ole Miss Jane, and another man came to pick him up. Jim watched the other man put Ole Miss Jane in a wagon to lead her away, and he clenched his jaw and ground his teeth to keep from crying. Massa came up next to him, a wad of money in his hand, and said, “Do you think I’ve made a mistake selling that old heifer?”

Jim didn’t want to say anything, but he did the right thing. “What you do, Massa . . . dat da best fo you and fo Ole Miss Jane.”

Massa put a hand on the back of his neck and said, “Here’s what I want you to remember, boy. I took the man’s money and he ain’t gettin it back. But ain’t no one else can own Ole Miss Jane. Just me.”

He was sure that a few days later the driver told him to milk Ole Miss Jane first in the morning and that had surprised him but sure enough in the morning she had been there. Had that all really happened? Or did he just dream it one day and Ole Miss Jane was always there all along? Was that a dream of something he was scared of? Was he scared of someone selling off Ole Miss Jane?

He didn’t know why he thought about such things now. Now, he was “too old for the plow, too stooped for the cow, and too soft on the sow.” The driver had told him back then, “That’s how you gets when you gets older. Soft on the pigs that gots to give up her babies.” What difference did it make what had happened with Ole Miss Jane?

He was old enough now that he often thought about the early years. And maybe he did that because he had become a father of sorts. After he came north, in the year where Kitty was back captive in Virginia, he had married the widow Esther Woods and become the father figure to her kids. It had not taken him long to feel for them as though they belonged to him. Each day, he worked on the farms of different Quakers in the area, then came home and saw those kids eat the fruit of his labors. He had watched Nancy and John grow from children to young adults, and he had taught them the lessons he thought a parent was supposed to teach. But he had also taught them lessons that white parents didn’t think about—how to talk to white people, how to hold your eyes and posture, what the slave catchers tended to look like, never to travel alone, always to travel with a man and preferably with him because he always had a gun on him.

Yes, a gun. When Mrs. Maddox had given them their freedom, he had assumed they were safe. And then, his sister and her children had been kidnapped. He had had a gun for years now and had vowed to die before being taken south and to kill any man who might take a family member.

As much as he felt for his family, as hard as he worked for them, he couldn’t turn off certain things, though he could quiet them when he drank. At night, the terrors came—the times when he was drifting to sleep and a whip’s crack would explode in his mind, and he would jump awake or the times when he would see the horse shoe flying at him an instant too late and he would jerk awake. Then, there were the longer nightmares, one in particular that recurred in various forms. The main version of it was the younger Samuel Maddox on his knees in front of Jim, and Jim wraps a rope around Maddox’s neck, but when he tries to tighten it to strangle Maddox, he can’t. And after he flails at it uselessly, Maddox stands up, pulls the rope off his neck, and says, “Let me show you how, you old fool.” Then Maddox ties the rope around Jim’s neck, and after several long moments of choking, Jim wakes up gasping for breath.

Then, there were the things he thought he had blocked out but were now coming back to the surface. Why were they coming back up? Nancy had been a home helper in a white Quaker family’s home, but Samuel Mars, a man who had escaped from Virginia years ago and was roughly Jim’s age, had offered her more to be housekeeper for him and his ailing mother. Nancy took the job.

Jim had been down at Charles Myers’s tavern a few times, and when he had gotten fairly into a good whiskey, he had told Charles, “I don’t like that Mars fella. Ain’t got no wife and kids of his own and his mama don’t know which end is up. What he want with my daughter?”

“Sam doesn’t seem so bad to me,” said Charles. “He’s done some work around here now and again. Stops in for a pint once in a while.”

“Ain’t natural for him to be after her. She half his age,” Jim had said. “And there ain’t no woman around the house to make sure he stay on the up and up.”

“What else should he do? Like you said, his mom is in a bad way.”

“Find hisself an older woman. A family woman. They’s plenty of those around.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Charles had said. “I hope it all works out okay.”

Jim had opened his coat, revealing the handle of a pistol. “He might ought to let it go afore I have to put this ole thing to work.”

Charles had shaken his head. “I’ve told you for years that it isn’t good to carry that around on you.”

“Ain’t goin back south,” Jim had said. “I don’t mind you sayin. You don’t know how it is. But I ain’t goin back south and I ain’t let no one harm my kin, neither.”

It was around then that the other dreams and memories started. Sometimes, if he went into a barn and the light coming in was just so, he would be back to that barn where the overseer had taken him. Sometimes, when the hay had aged just so and the smell was a certain way, he would be back in that barn from years ago, his senses wildly alive and tense.

Back in those days, he had gotten old and strong enough to drive a plow, and both the driver and the overseer had told him that he was a strong buck, that he did good hard work, that someone in his line must have been strong as a bull. Then one evening, after work, the overseer told him, “Don’t go out to the field in the morning tomorrow. Wait for some men to come get you. I got another job for you. You’ll like it. You earned it.”

When those men came for him the next day, they didn’t tell him what job he would be doing. They took him to a barn and told him they wanted more like him and now all he had to do was what they said and what felt natural.

They put a bag over his head and tied it shut loosely around his neck. They stripped him naked and led him into the barn. There were different voices, shuffling of feet, hands leading him and pushing him this way and that, directions on what he was to do. Once, he heard the voice of one of the black girls, followed by a smack and a man saying, “I done tole you not to say a word.”

He heard sniffling and what sounded like a whimper when he finally did what the men told him he must do. They said in church not to do things like this. They said in church that Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife. He couldn’t run. He was too ashamed to ask any of the other field hands. He guessed that he was called upon once a month or every other month for a span of three or four months, then would go a year or more, then be called on again. He saw women become pregnant, have babies. At first, he tried to look at their features to see if they were his, but when some of the young ones were sold to other plantations, he figured it was best not to know.

These memories, these nightmares . . . they stirred up tears and shuddering, pacing at night, irrational anger with people during the day. He found they happened less when he drank, so he drank more. And one day, when he was delivering a load of hay to another farm, he ran across Sam Mars, told him he didn’t want Nancy working for him, and Sam told him he didn’t have nothing to say about it—she was old enough to earn and old enough to make her own decisions. And then Sam had said something like, “She seems very happy in my service,” and those words had stuck with Jim and he saw memories he wished he could forget, felt guilt he wished he could cleanse.

In early spring, Sam’s adult stepson, John, was moving from Yellow Hill to a bigger piece of land a bit further north. Jim had shown up and was helping to move furniture. Nancy was there, too, and Sam Mars also showed up. Sam kept a jug of whiskey in his wagon. He drank from it periodically as the day wore along. He watched Sam interact with Nancy, thought of her working and him coming upon her, and his rage burned hot. Finally, he went into the house on the pretext of getting a last few things out. He saw Sam and bellowed at him, “I don’t fear any man, Mars. What about you?”

Sam turned around and stepped toward him, coming almost chest to chest. He was bigger than Jim, and he looked at him sharply and said, “I don’t fear no man, neither.”

Jim poked Sam in the chest hard with his index finger. “Stay clear of me. Stay clear of my family. No cause for you even to be here today.”

Sam pressed the back of his hand against Jim’s chest, pushed him, and said, “Stay out of my way.”

In a flash, Jim whipped out the pistol from his waist, pointed it squarely at Sam’s chest, and fired twice. Then, he turned and walked swiftly to his wagon. “Green!” he heard Sam’s voice behind him. A stick landed in the grass near him. He stopped for a moment, turned, and saw Sam standing just past the front step. Sam wavered, another stick in his hand, then toppled to the ground.


After reading Chapter 8, teachers, parents, or learners may want to dive into more historical sources by visiting the Chapter 8 resource page. Resources for all chapters can be found at the book’s resources page. Or keep reading by going to American Crucible.

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