It is 1867. The War Between the States has ended. The slaves have been freed, and Charleston, South Carolina remains in near ruin. Into this chaotic landscape. Eva Phillips journeys into the war-ravaged landscape of Reconstruction-era Charleston, South Carolina to search for the African mother who gave her away twenty-one years ago.
Excerpt Setting: Eva Simson first meets Chester Phillips, her future husband, at the mapmaker’s shop in Boston where she works...
“Thank you for your help, Miss Simson,” Chester stated, clearly enjoying saying Eva’s name. However, instead of reaching for the doorknob, Chester clasped his hands together and remained rooted where he stood, biting his bottom lip, hesitant to go. After an awkward pause, he asked, in a rush of words that tumbled from his mouth like pebbles falling over a ledge, “If you’re about to close the shop … would you like me to wait?”
“Wait?” Eva repeated.
“Yes, ma’am. It gets dark real fast these days ...”
The quizzical expression that Eva shot Chester pushed him to clarify, “I mean … I’d be happy to walk you home.
That’s if …”
“If I would like the company?” she finished, unable to disguise her pleasure.
“Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.”
After giving the offer a moment of thought, Eva answered, “That would be very nice of you, Mr. Phillips.”
Eva hurriedly cleared her workstation of the pots of paint and array of brushes she used in her work, extinguished the oil lamps burning throughout the shop, and then removed her shawl from the hook beside the door to wrap it around her shoulders.
“I’m ready to go,” she told Chester, and after locking the shop door behind her, they started down Beacon Street, fighting a brisk November wind that was sending a shower of colorful leaves whirling along the cobblestone walk.
“Now, which way do we go?” Chester asked.
When Eva looked over at him, he smiled, holding her eyes with his long enough for her heart to turn over and settle in her stomach. She exhaled, gathering her composure. “I live on Russell Street.”
“You live with your ma and pa?” he tentatively probed.
“No, I live with my aunt. Her name is Tully Simson. We’re not far from the African Meeting House … I’m sure you know where that is.”
“I do. I heard Frederick Douglass speak there … a week past … he had a lot to say about the war.”
“I wish I’d seen him,” Eva murmured, still regretting she had taken her aunt’s advice and stayed away from the abolitionists’ meeting. Too dangerous, Tully had decided. Too political. Too risky, even for a girl who had lived in the city as a free black woman most all of her life.
The anti-slavery issue was an extremely volatile topic, drawing orators and activists to Boston where they spoke to large crowds in meeting halls and churches
to inform and inspire Northern blacks and whites alike to speak out against the institution of slavery.
“What did Mr. Douglass talk about?” Eva asked, turning her thoughts back to Chester.
“He said black men oughta be allowed to fight for the Union … for the freedom of their enslaved brothers and sisters. He said there’s black men in the South actually fighting for the Confederates.”
“Yeah. Mostly free blacks who got it in their heads they have to defend their homeland. But they don’t carry guns. The just serve their masters and do the hard work in the soldiers’ camps. You can bet southerners not lettin’ their slaves really fight … well … not like real soldiers with muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets.” Chester grunted in disgust. “Mr. Douglass said black Union soldiers need to be in the field, with guns, fighting right alongside the white men. Let ‘em fight, he said. Sacrifices gotta be made.”
Chester stepped forward to walk slightly in front of Eva to clear her path through a knot of white men who were standing on the sidewalk, talking in an animated manner. As Eva followed him, she heard one of the men utter a derogatory comment that caused her to stare directly into his face. He made a motion, as if spitting on the ground, but his eyes never left hers. Straightening her back, Eva broke the connection and looked straight ahead, quickening her steps to catch up with Chester.
“Enough talk about the war,” Chester decided as they matched their strides and continued up the street, shoulders nearly touching. “It’s not a suitable subject to talk about with a lady, anyway.”
“But I think it is,” Eva insisted, eager to hear more of Chester’s thoughts on a war that would determine the fate of thousands of enslaved people. People like her mother, whom Eva hoped was still alive—the mother who might be thinking of the daughter she gave away.
“Would you join up and fight if you could?” she asked.
“Of course,” Chester was quick to answer. “It’d be my duty as a black man.”
“Yes, I agree … I guess it would,” Eva murmured, impressed with the ring of certainty in his words.
“Well … gettin’ off the subject of war,” he started, “what do you do when you’re not
workin’ for the mapmaker?”
Before responding, Eva hurried over to the milliner’s shop window to peruse the display of ladies’ hats, and while admiring the decorative feathers and ribbons that adorned the hats, she considered Chester’s question. Working for Mr. Fitzgerald four days a week and helping her aunt with chores on her free days had been the pattern of Eva’s life for the last three years. There was nothing particularly exciting about how she spent her time; she was as content as she felt she deserved to be and had settled into a rhythm that suited her and her aunt. Turning slightly to face Chester, who had stepped up behind her, she settled on an answer. “I go to church.”
“Church?” he repeated, head tilted to the side as he sucked his teeth and sighed. “Truth be told, been a long while since I been in a church.”
Eva widened her eyes and grinned. “I’m going next Sunday.”
“Where do you go?” he wanted to know.
“The AME church on Grove Street.”
“What time?” he cautiously probed.
She lifted a shoulder, then returned to her examination of the hats in the window. “Service starts at nine o’clock…,” she said, keeping her back to Chester. “And … our Fall Potluck Dinner is next Sunday, directly after service. It’ll be outside on the church grounds if the weather holds. There’ll be food, and music too.” An uncertain moment passed before she turned around to face him. “You should come.” Then, Eva raised her chin and searched Chester’s face, wondering if she was inviting him to church because she wanted to see him again, or if she were simply making polite conversation. Either way, she hoped he would accept the invitation.
“Maybe I will come to your church next Sunday … but only if I can sit with you.”
“You can sit anywhere you want,” she teased.
“Oh, all right. I’m gonna be there, looking for you,” he jumped to say, rewarding Eva with a self-satisfied expression that clarified everything.
As they continued up the street, Chester lowered his head and counted the bricks in the pavement, consumed with thoughts of Eva Simson. The attractive young woman with burnished brown skin, inquisitive dark eyes, and thick black
hair had set his heart racing. He was twenty-three-years-old. Had never had feelings one way or another about any woman, at least not in a romantic way.
Nearly three months had passed since he fled the tobacco plantation in Virginia where he had been born. He’d left no family behind, and as far as he knew, no one, not even frail old Master O’Donal, who was nearly blind and dead broke, or the scrawny overseer who was too lazy to go looking for him, cared that Chester had run off.
Consumed with making it to a place where he could find refuge, Chester had fought stray dogs for scraps of food and hidden from patrollers by sleeping in trees. He had trusted no one, especially not the suspicious free blacks he encountered on the road, who were quick to run him off, fearing he might bring his troubles to them or rob them of the few possessions they had.
By the time Chester entered the city of Boston he was ragged, exhausted, and desperate for food and shelter. When he stopped to rest in the alley behind the home of Jeremiah Daniels, he had prayed he would be safe. And when the lawyer opened the back door of his Joy Street law office, where he also lived, preparing to toss trash into the alley, Chester’s circumstances improved. Daniels handed Chester a scrawny chicken leg and invited the starving fugitive inside. He gave him a bowl of broth and led him to an empty back room where he told Chester he could sleep. And for the first time in weeks, Chester slept without fear or hunger.
The encounter with the lawyer led Chester to believe that perhaps all men weren’t to be feared. Maybe everyone did not want to see him dead, or punished, or at the least, invisible and out of their sight. However, Chester soon learned that Jeremiah Daniels was not the magnanimous, sympathetic savior of the unfortunate
as he had first thought. The rotund man bluntly informed Chester, “Don’t think I hold to the ways of the raging abolitionists that preach freedom on street corners and in meeting halls. I don’t like them. I don’t like slavery, but I keep my thoughts about the messy situation to myself. I don’t care about what you been through and I don’t want to hear about your troubles. If you want to stay, I can use a young man like you, if you’re willing to do as I say.”
Chester placed his trust in the lawyer, an obese, arthritic, penny-pinching man who was only consumed with making and hoarding money. Advanced in age, his physical ailments prevented him from walking much farther than the one-hundred-fifty steps from the front door of his law office to the courthouse across the street, where he represented Negro clients who paid him whatever they could afford for his knowledge of matters related to buying and selling real property. Keeping Chester around cost the lawyer very little. He provided the boy meager sustenance, a decent amount of clothing, and protection from the slave catchers who roamed the city with “Wanted” fliers in their hands. Chester’s strong legs and bright disposition became the lawyer’s salvation.
Now, continuing on, Chester walked with Eva to the intersection where Spruce’s Bakery and Harold’s Feed Store faced each other across a narrow street. He helped Eva sidestep a puddle of dirty water lingering in the gutter and tucked Lawyer Daniel’s map more securely under his arm. He expelled a long breath to release the familiar tightness in his chest that kept him tautly wired and prepared for the dangers all black men walking the streets of Boston faced on a daily basis. But, with Eva at his side, he felt lighter, even oddly optimistic, an unfamiliar sensation that he attributed to having been lucky enough to meet this pretty girl.
As they threaded through the throng of people walking along the street, he mentally chanted, Eva Simson, Eva Simson. She will be at church on Sunday. She will be there. I will be there too. However, Chester’s thoughts of Eva were completely shattered when he absently stepped off the sidewalk and into the path of a horse drawn carriage moving briskly down the street.
Instinctively, Eva jumped in front of Chester and pulled him to safety, forcing the large gray bay to skitter to the side and clamor away.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her hands firmly clamped around his arm.
“Yes. I think so,” he told her, feeling ashamed of his inattention, but making no move to disentangle himself from the taut hold she had on his jacket. In fact, Chester deliberately held still, savoring her closeness, entranced by the clean, citrusy smell of her clothing and her hair. “That coulda been bad,” he finally conceded, loosening himself from her grip.
Eva let go, breaking their connection. “Yes, but at least, you didn’t get hurt.” Smiling in a satisfied manner, she allowed him to cup her elbow as they started up the hill toward the North Slope of the city.
After walking in silence for a few minutes, Chester halted and pointed toward a knot of people gathered at the upcoming intersection. It was evident that something of importance was going on. “Look, up there. I wonder what’s happening.”
“Let’s go see,” Eva advised, curious to find out what the people, both black and white, were doing.
Approaching the gathering, Eva could hear the people talking among themselves in a variety of tones. Some seemed to infer approval of whatever they
were watching, while others grunted in disgusted, subdued anger. Drawing closer, she saw a tall black man wearing a Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat. He was standing on an overturned crate and delivering an impassioned speech while clutching a crumpled copy of The North Star in a hardened fist as he decried the evil, unpopular Fugitive Slave Act.
Cautiously, Chester guided Eva to the outer fringes of the onlookers, anxious to get a better view of the man.
“Why, it’s Minister Pennworth,” Eva whispered to Chester. “He’s the preacher from my church. He’s delivering another one of his fiery speeches about liberating the slaves.”
The fact that the outspoken religious leader had taken to the streets of Boston and was actively recruiting sympathetic souls to the anti-slavery movement did not surprise Eva at all. Even though Bostonians had actively created a haven in their city for slaves fleeing from their masters, there still remained a large number of northern citizens who sympathized with Southerners and believed in the right for southern men to hold onto their “property.”
The city was a hotbed of activity for abolitionists eager to further their cause, even though men who hunted other men to put them back in chains still roamed the streets with warrants in their hands.
With both arms raised and his narrow, ebony jaw jutting forward, Minister Pennworth addressed his audience in an urgent tone. “As Frederick Douglass said, ‘We cannot have a republic or a genuine democracy without African-Americans who are full and equal citizens in every aspect of their lives’.” His authoritative tone shushed the restless audience, providing space for him to continue. “People
of Boston, you must realize that the intention of the abolition movement is not simply to end slavery, but to further the goal of black citizenship and equality while ridding society of all claims of racial inferiority.”
Murmurs of support, along with grunts of opposition, filtered through the crowd. A white woman wearing a bright blue bonnet raised a flowered handkerchief and waved it in the air. The man standing beside her quickly grabbed her arm and sharply pulled it down.
Caught up in the minister’s message, Chester tugged Eva forward, putting them at the very front of the crowd, directly facing the minister.
“How can we, as a rational people, feeling the blessings of a God who loves us, form a valid, welcoming Union? How? Through the grace and blessings of one God, a Savior who is revered. Do not trust the words of a man who says slaves are held as chattel for their own good. Or that liberty is a curse to the free people of color, their circumstances no better than that of slaves. Do not fall for such falsehoods and words of evil trickery! There can be no true Union without freedom for all people. Citizens of Boston! Stand up! Demand the unfettered emancipation of all slaves. Now!”
His charge to action elicited shouts of approval that brought a wide grin to Minister
Pennworth’s mouth, which was still gaping open, exposing a great number of his square white teeth, when a white man wearing rough seaman’s clothing and carrying a large metal pail, sprang from the crowd. Heaving the pail high, he splashed its contents into the preacher’s face, releasing the putrid smell of horse manure into the crowd. The slimy mass splattered the brim of the preacher’s tall
hat, slid across his stunned expression, and darkened the man’s light shirt. It also stained the sleeve of Chester’s tan jacket and dripped onto the toes of his polished brown boots.
As the agitated crowd, which immediately turned loud and angry, erupted in a frenzy of outrage, men began pushing and shoving one another, anxious to escape the commotion. Women and children squealed in horror, covering their noses with handkerchiefs and gloved hands to fend off the offensive odor.
“Oh, no!” Chester wailed, kicking at the foul mass that landed on his foot. Frowning, he glanced at Eva and shook his head, then looked around to find the man who had caused the awful mess. However, when Chester’s eyes met those of the attacker, he immediately sensed trouble. The man sprinted toward Chester with tightened lips and a lowered chin, as if zeroing in on a target he’d long been searching for.
Acting quickly, Chester yanked Eva by the arm and pulled her toward a narrow side street. Holding her firmly, he shouted, “I gotta run! I gotta run! You go home!” Dropping Lawyer Daniels’s map in the street, Chester fled, racing away from Eva and the man who had attacked the preacher.
Eva hesitated only a second before chasing after Chester, shouting at him to wait for her. But he continued on, his boots slapping the cobblestones as he raced down one alley, then another before slipping into a slim passageway that separated the fish market from the local beer tavern. Eva remained right behind him, their footsteps bouncing off the walls of the red brick buildings, echoing those of their pursuer, who rushed to gain on them. When Eva finally caught up with Chester, he
stopped running, turned, gripped her by the shoulders and shook her sternly, his face hard in anger.
“Go home! Now! Don’t follow me!” he ordered.
But before Eva could utter a word of protest, the man tackled Chester and brought him down, face first, to the ground. After jamming a booted foot in the middle of Chester’s back, the attacker reached out and grabbed Eva by the arm. When she struggled to get free, he slapped her so hard she collapsed next to Chester, the taste of blood in her mouth. Chester looked over at Eva and moved his head back and forth, as if to tell her he was sorry for what was happening.
The man yanked a piece of paper from inside his shirt, bent down, and waved it in front of Chester’s face. “Charlie O’Donal!” he growled. “You goin’ back home to Virginny.”
Eva struggled to sit up, angry, and not about to back down from whatever misery this encounter might bring. She had been a fighter all her life, fighting to be looked upon and accepted as a person who deserved to be treated fairly. Her aunt had raised her to demand respect without being insolent, to express herself while tempering her words in order not to be thought of as rude. Early on, she had learned to accept the fact that she might be punished for speaking her mind or allowing her curiosity to lead her into a situation others might avoid, but in her opinion, not doing so, was a far worse attitude to adopt.
Now, every fiber in her petite body was taut with rage and on alert. Clearly, the man had made a mistake, and she was not about to let him get away with whatever evil he was about to inflict.
“His name is Chester Phillips,” she protested in a most indignant tone. However, her protest was rewarded with another hard smack to her head, which hurt, but did not prevent her from continuing to express her outrage. “You’ve got the wrong man!” she snapped, silently daring the man to hit her again. “I told you! His name is Chester Phillips.”
The man laughed at Eva as he ripped off Chester’s jacket and tore away the sleeve of his shirt. Grabbing Chester by the elbow, he smiled in satisfaction and leered at Eva with an expression of triumph on his face. “So what’s he doing with this on his arm?”
Eva scooted closer to Chester and looked at his forearm, where the letter “O” had been branded into the soft skin just inside his elbow. The raised scar, all dark brown and puckered told Eva all she needed to know about the life Chester had lived before he walked into hers. Her eyes shifted to his, and he whispered, “I’m sorry.”
She stood, then whispered, “I’m sorry, too.”
The bounty hunter placed heavy metal cuffs on Chester’s wrists, gave him a hard kick to his side. “You’re goin’ back to Virginny where your name is Charlie O’Donal. Mr. Tom wants his property back.”
“Leave him be!” Eva shouted, deciding there was little to lose by continuing her protest. She yanked on the man’s dirty jacket, desperate to make him listen.
Turning his attention to Eva, he wrapped one arm around her shoulders and brought her face close to his. “Not a chance, missy,” he sneered as he clasped both her wrists in his large grip. “He’s not getting’ away from me. And neither are you.”
“Let her go!” Chester yelled. “You’re right! I am Charlie O’Donal, but you gotta let her go!” Chester shot to his feet. “She’s a free woman…you’ve got no right to hold her!”
The man laughed in a sinister gruffness that seemed to come naturally. “She’s with you ain’t she?”
“Then she’s an accomplice. That’s against the law, she knows that.”
“She don’t know anything about me! I just met her! Let her go!”
“Too bad for her. She oughta be more careful ‘bout who she takes company with ‘cause she’ll be goin’ back to Virginny with you.”