I went to North Carolina a few years after the war with some hopeful views in regard to the colored people. It was my idea that with the larger opportunities of freedom they would improve gradually and learn in due time to appreciate the responsibilities of citizenship. This opinion, based on simple faith in human nature, which is much the same the world over, I never saw any good reason to change.
There were a few of my dusky neighbors, however, who did not shake off readily the habits formed under the old system, and I suffered more or less, from petty thievery. So long as it was confined to grapes on the vine, or roasting-ears, hanging fruit, or an occasional watermelon, I did not complain so much; but one summer, after several raids upon my hen-house, I determined to protect my property. I therefore kept watch one night, and caught a chicken-thief in the very act. I locked him up in a strongly-built smokehouse, where I thought he would be safe until morning.
I made up my mind, before I went to sleep, that an example must be made of this miscreant. Knowing that the law in North Carolina, as elsewhere, was somewhat elastic, and the degree of punishment for crime largely dependent upon the vigor of the prosecution. I decided that five years in the penitentiary would be about right for this midnight marauder. It would give him time to break off the habit of stealing, and would strike terror to the hearts of other evil-doers.
In the morning I went down to the smokehouse to inspect my captive. He was an insignificant looking fellow, and seemed very much frightened. I sent him down something to eat, and told him I was going have him taken to jail.
During breakfast I turned the matter over in my mind, and concluded that five years' imprisonment would be a punishment rather disproportioned to the offence, and that perhaps two years in the penitentiary would be an equally effective warning.
One of my servants was going to town
toward noon, with a load of grapes for shipment to the nearest market, and I wrote a note to the sheriff, Mr. Weems, requesting him to send a constable out to take charge of the thief. The ink was scarcely dry before it occurred to me that over-severity in the punishment of crime was often productive of harm, and had seldom resulted in any good, and that in all probability, taking everything into consideration, a year in jail in the neighborhood would be ample punishment, and a more impressive object-lesson than a longer term in the more distant penitentiary.
During the afternoon I learned, upon inquiry, that my captive had a large family and a sick wife; that because of a trifling disposition he was without steady employment, and therefore dependent upon odd jobs for a livelihood. But while these personal matters might be proper subjects of consideration for the humanitarian, I realized that any false sentiment on my part would be dangerous to social order; and that property must be protected, or soon there would be no incentive to industry and thrift. I determined that the thief should have at least six months in jail, if I had to support his family during his incarceration.
I was sitting on the front piazza, indulging in a quiet smoke during the hot part of the afternoon, just after having arrived at the final conclusion, when old Julius came around the house, and, touching his hat, asked at what time my wife wished the rockaway brought round for our afternoon drive.
"I hardly think we shall go to-day," I replied, "until the constable has come and taken that thief to jail. By the way, Julius," I added with some severity, "why is it that your people can't let chickens alone?"
The old man shook his head sadly.
"It's a myst'ry, suh," he answered with a sigh, "dat ev'ybody doan understan'. Ef dey did, some un 'em mought make mo' 'lowance."
My wife came out of the house and took a seat in an armchair near me, behind the honeysuckle vine.
"I am asking Julius to explain," I said, "why his people are so partial to chickens."
"I think it unkind, John," returned my wife, "to charge upon a whole race the sins of one worthless individual. There are thieves wherever there is portable property, and I don't imagine colored people like chicken better than other people."
Old Julius shook his head dissentingly. "I is bleedzd ter differ fum you dere, ma'm," he said, with as much positiveness as he was capable of in conversation with white people; "cullud folks is mo' fonder er chick'n 'n w'ite folks. Dey can't he'p but be."
"Why so?" I asked. "Is it in the blood?"
"You's is hit it, suh, de fus' sta't-off. Yas, suh, dat is de fac', tooby sho', en no mistake erbout it."
"Why, Uncle Julius!" exclaimed my wife with some show of indignation. "You ought to be ashamed to slander your race in that way."
"I begs yo' pardon, ma'm, ef it hu'ts yo' feelin's, but I ain' findin' no fault wid dem. Dey ain' 'sponsible fer dey tas'e fer chick'n-meat. A w'ite man's ter blame fer dat."
"Well," I said, "that statement is interesting. Sit down and tell us all about it."
Julius took a seat on the top step, and laying his ragged straw hat beside him, began:
"Long yeahs befo' de wah dey wuz a monst'us rich w'ite gent'eman, name' Mars Donal' McDonal', w'at useter lib down on de yuther side er de Wim'l'ton Road. He had n' alluz be'n rich, fer w'en he fus' come ter dis country he wuz po', en he wukked fer a yeah er so as oberseah fer ernudder w'ite man, 'tel he had save' money 'nuff ter buy one er two niggers, en den he rented a place on sheers, en bimeby he had bought a plantation en bought some mo' niggers en raise' some, 'tel he 'mence' ter be so well-off dat folks mos' fergot he had eber be'n a nigger-driber. He kep' on gittin' richer en richer, 'tel fin'lly he wuz one er de riches' men in de county.
"But he wa'n't sat'sfied. He had a neffy, name' Tom, en Mars Donal' had be'n lef' gyardeen fer dis yer neffy er his'n, en he had manage' so dat w'en young Mars Tom growed up dey wa'n't nuffin at all lef' er de fine proputty w'at young Mars Tom's daddy had had w'en he died.
"Folks said Mars Donal' had rob' his neffy, but dey wa'n't no way ter prove it. En mo'd'n dat, Mars Donal' did n' 'pear ter lak Mars Tom a-tall atter he growed up, en turnt 'im out in de worl' ter shif' fer hisse'f widout no money ner nuffin.
"Mars Tom had be'n co'tin' fer lo! dese many yeahs his secon' cousin, young Miss 'Liza M'Guire, who useter lib on de yuther side er de ribber, en young Mars Tom wanter ter marry Miss 'Liza monst'us bad. But w'en Mars Tom come er age, en Mars Donal' say all his proputty done use' up on his edication, Miss 'Liza's daddy say he would n' 'low her ter marry Mars Tom 'tel he make some money, er show her daddy how he wuz gwine ter suppo't Miss 'Liza ef he married her.
"De young folks wa'n't 'lowed ter see one ernudder ve'y often, but Mars Tom had a batteau down on de ribber en he useter paddle ober sometimes ter meet Miss 'Liza whuther er no.
"One eb'nin' Mars Tom went down ter de ribber en ontied his batteau en wuz startin' ter cross w'en he heared somebody holler. He looked roun' en he see hit wuz a' ole nigger 'oman had fell in de ribber. She had sunk once, en wuz gwine down ag'in, w'en Mars Tom cotch 'er en pull't' er out, en gin er a drink er sump'n he had in a flas', en den tied his boat en he'ped 'er up de bank ter de top, whar she could git 'long by herse'f.
"Now, dis yer 'oman w'at Mars Tom pull't out'n de ribber des happen' ter be ole Aun' Peggy, de free-nigger cunjuh 'oman w'at libbed down by de Wim'l'ton Road. She had be'n diggin' roots fer her cunj'in', en had got too close ter de ribber, en had fell in whar de water wuz deep en strong, en had come monst'us close ter bein' drownded. Aun' Peggy knowed all 'bout Mars Tom en his uncle ole Mars Donal' en his junesey Miss 'Liza, en she made up her min' dat she wuz gwine ter do sump'n fer young Mars Tom de fus' chanst she got. She wuz wond'rin' wot kinder goopher she could wuk fer Mars Tom, w'en who should come ter see her one day but ole Mars Donal' hisse'f.
"Now, w'y Mars Donal' come ter go ter see ole Aun' Peggy wuz dis erway. Mars Donal' had be'n gittin' richer en richer, en closeter en closeter, 'tel he'd got so he'd mos' skin a flea fer his hide en taller. But he wa'n't sat'sfied, en he kep' on projickin' wid one thing en fig'rin' on ernudder, fer ter see how he could git mo' en mo'. He wuz a'ready wukkin' his niggers ez ha'd ez dey could stan', but he got his 'count-book out one day en 'mence' ter cackilate w'at it cos' 'im ter feed his niggers, en it 'peared ter be a monst'us sum. En he 'lowed ter hisse'f dat ef he could feed his niggers fer 'bout half er w'at it had b'en costin' 'im, he'd save a heap er money ev'y yeah.
"Co'se ev'ybody knowed, en Mars Donal' knowed, dat a fiel'-han' had ter hab so much bacon en so much meal and so much merlasses a week ter make 'im fittin' ter do his wuk. But Mars Donal' 'lowed dey mought be some way ter fool de niggers, er sump'n; so he tuk a silber dollar en went down ter see ole Aun' Peggy.
"Aun' Peggy laid de silber dollar on de mantelpiece en heared w'at he had to say, en den she 'lowed she'd wuk her roots, en he'd hafter come back nex' day en fetch her ernudder silber dollar, en she'd tell 'im w'at he sh'd do.
"Mars Donal' sta'ted out, en bein' ez Aun' Peggy's back wuz tu'nt, he 'lowed he'd take dat silber dollar 'long wid 'im, bein' ez she had n' tole 'im nuffin, en' he'd gin it ter her nex' day. But w'en he pick' up de silber dollar, it wuz so hot it bu'nt 'is han', he laid it down rale quick en' went off rubbin' his han' en' cussin' kinder sof' ter hisse'f.
"De nex' day he went back, en Aun' Peggy gun 'im a goopher mixtry in a bottle.
" 'You take dis yer mixtry,' sez she, 'en put it on yo' niggers rashuns de nex' time you gibs 'em out, en den stidder 'lowin' yo' han's a poun' er bacon en a peck er meal en a qua't er merlasses, you gin 'em half a poun' er bacon en half a peck er meal en a pint er merlasses, en dey won' know de diffe'nce. Fac', dis yer goopher mixtry 'll make de half look des lak de whole, en' atter de niggers has once eat some er dat conju'd meat en meal en merlasses it's gwine ter take dey ap'titeserway so dey'll be des ez well sat'sfied ez ef dey had a side a bacon en a bairl er flour.'
"W'en Mars Donal' sta'ted erway Aun' Peggy sez, sez she:
" 'You done fergot dat yuther dollar, ain' you, Mars Donal'?'
" 'Oh, yes, Peggy', sezee, 'but heah it is.' En Mars Donal' retch' down in his pocket en pull 't out a han'ful er gol' en silber, en picked out a lead dollar en handed it ter Aun' Peggy. Aun' Peggy seed de dollar wuz bad, but she tuk it en did n' let on. But ez Mars Donal' wuz turnin' ter go 'way, Aun' Peggy sprinkle' sump'n on dat lead dollar, en sez she:
" 'O Mars Donal' kin I get you ter change a twenty-dollar gol' piece fer me?'
" 'Yas, I reckon,' sezee.
"Aun' Peggy handed him de lead dollar, en he looked at it en bit it en sounded it on de table, en it 'peared ter be a bran'-noo gol' piece; so he tuk'n pull't out his pu'se an gun Aun' Peggy th'ee five-dollar gol' pieces en five good silber dollars, en den he tuk his goopher mixtry en went 'long home wid it.
"W'en Mars Donal' had gone, Aun' Peggy sont a mawkin'-bird fer ter tell young Mars Tom ter came en see her.
"Mars Tom wuz gwine 'long de road one eb'nin' w'en he heared a mawkin'-bird singin' right close ter 'im, en' de mawkin'-bird seem' ter be a-sayin':
" 'Go see ole Aun' Peggy,
She wants ter see you bad,
She'll show you how ter git back
De lan' yo' daddy had.'
"Mars Tom wuz studyin' 'bout sump'n e'se, en he did n' pay no 'tention ter w'at de mawkin'-bird say. So pretty soon he heahs de mawkin'-bird ag'in:
" 'Go en see Aun' Peggy,
She wants ter see you bad,
She's gwine ter he'p you git back
The gol' yo' daddy had.'
"But Mars Tom had sump'n e'se on his min', en he wuz gwine on down de road right pas' whar Aun' Peggy lib w'en de mawkin'-bird come up en mos' pe'ched on his shoulders, en sez, des ez plain ez ef he wuz talkin':
" 'Go see ole Aun' Peggy,
Er e'se you'll wush you had;
She'll show you how ter marry
De gal you wants so bad.'
"Dat happen' ter be des w'at Mars Tom wuz studyin' erbout, en he 'mence' ter 'low dey mought be sump'n in w'at dis yer mawkin'-bird say, so he up'n' goes ter see Aun' Peggy.
"Aun' Peggy say how glad she wuz ter see 'im, en tol' 'im how she'd be'n wantin' ter do sump'n fer 'im. En den she 'splained 'bout Mars Donal', en tole Mars Tom sump'n w'at he mus' go en do.
" 'But I ain' got no money, Aun' Peggy,' sezee.
" 'Nemmine', sez Aun' Peggy, 'You borry all de money you kin rake en scrape, en git all de credit you kin, en I ain' be'n cunj'in' all dese yeahs fer nuffin, en I'll len' you some money. But you do des ez I tell you, en doan git skeert, en ev'ything'll tu'n out des exac'ly ez I say.'
"Ole Mars Donal' sprinkle' de goopher mixtry on his niggers' rashuns, nex' Sunday mawnin', en den sarved out half rashuns, des ez Aun' Peggy say, en sho' 'nuff, de niggers did n' 'pear ter notice no diffe'nce, des ez Aun' Peggy say. En all de week none er de han's did n' say nuffin 'bout not habbin' 'nuff ter eat, en dey 'peared ter be des ez well sat'sfied ez ef dey 'd got dey reg'lar rashuns.
"Mars Donal' figgered up his books at de een' er a week er so en foun' he had sabe' so much money dat he 'mence' ter wonder ef he could n' sabe some mo'. En bein' ez de niggers wuz all gittin' 'long so nice, en de cotton had be'n laid by, en de fiel'-han's would n' hab ter wuk so tarrable ha'd fer a mont' er so, Mars Donal' 'lowed he'd use Aun' Peggy's goopher some mo', en so he tuk'n sprinkle' some mo' er de mixtry on de nex' week's rashuns en den cut de rashuns in two once mo'; stidder givin' de han's a half a peck er meal en a pint er merlasses en half a poun' er bacon, he gun 'em a qua'ter er a peck er meal en half a pint er merlasses en fo' ounces er meat fer a week's rashuns. De goopher wukked des de same ez it had befo', en de niggers did n' 'pear ter notice no diffe'nce. Mars Donal' wuz tickle' mos' ter def, en kep' dis up right along fer th'ee er fo' weeks.
"But Mars Donal' had be'n so busy fig'rin' up his profits en' countin' his money, dat he had n' be'n payin' ez close 'tention ter his niggers ez yushal, en fus' thing he knowed, w'en de ha'd wuk begun ag'in, he 'skivered dat mos' er his niggers wuz so weak en feeble dat dey could n' ha'dly git 'roun' de plantation; 'peared es ef dey had des' use' up all de strenk dey had, en den des all gun out at once.
"Co'se Mars Donal' got skeert, en 'mence' ter gib' em dey reg'lar rashuns. But somehow er nuther dey did n' 'pear ter hab no ap'tite, en dey would n' come fer dey rashuns w'en dey week wuz up, but 'lowed dey had 'nuff ter las' 'em fer a mont'. En meanw'iles dey kep' on gittin po'er an po'er, en weaker en weaker, 'tel Mars Donal' got so skeert he hasten' back ter see ole Aun' Peggy en ax' her ter take dat goopher off'n his niggers.
"Aun' Peggy knowed w'at Mars Donal' had done 'bout cuttin' down de rashuns, but she wa'n't ready to finish up wid Mars Donal' yit; so she did n' let on, but des gun 'im ernudder mixtry, en tol' 'im fer to sprinkle dat on de niggers' nex' rashuns.
"Mars Donal' sprinkle' it on, but it did n' do no good, en nex' week he come back ag'in.
" 'Dis yer mixtry ain' got no power, Peggy,' sezee. 'It ain' 'sturb' de yuther goopher a-tall.'
" 'I doan unnerstan' dis,' sez Aun' Peggy; 'how did you use dat fus' mixtry I gun you?'
"Well, den Mars Donal' 'lowed how he had sprinkle' it on de fus' time, en how it wukked so good dat he had sprinkle' it on de nex' time en cut de rashuns in two ag'in.
" 'Uh huh, uh huh!' 'spon' Aun' Peggy, 'look w'at you gone en done! You wa'n't sat'sfied wid w'at I tol' you, en now you gone en got ev'ything all mess' up. I knows how ter take dat fus' goopher off, but now you gone en double de strenk, en I doan know whuther I kin fin' out how to take it off er no. Anyhow, I got ter wuk my roots fer a week er so befo' I kin tell. En w'ile's I is wukkin, you mought gib yo' niggers sump'n a little better ter eat, en dey mought pick up a little. S'posen you tries roas' po'k?'
"So Mars Donal' killt all 'is hawgs en fed his niggers on roas' po'k fer a week; but it did n' do 'em no good, en at de een' er de week he went back ter Aun' Peggy ag'in.
" 'I's monst'us sorry,' she sez, 'but it ain' my fault. I's wukkin' my roots ez ha'd ez I kin, but I ain' foun' out how ter take de goopher off yit. S'pos'n you feed yo han's on roas' beef fer a week er so?'
"So Mars Donal' killt all 'is cows en fed de niggers on roas' beef fer a week, but dey dis n' pick up. En all dis time dey wa'n' wukkin', en Mars Donal's craps wuz gittin' 'way behin', en he wuz gwine mos' 'tracted fer fear he wuz bleedst ter lose dem five hund'ed niggers w'at he sot so much sto' by. So he goes back ter ole Aun' Peggy ag'in.
" 'Peggy,' sezee, 'you is got ter do sump'n fer me, er e'se I'll be in de po'-house fus' thing I know.'
" 'Well, suh,' sez Aun' Peggy, 'I's be'n doin' all I knows how, but dey's a root I's bleedzd ter hab, en it doan grow nowhar but down in Robeson County. En I got ter go down dere en gether it on a Friday night in de full er de moon. En I won't be back yer fer a week or ten days.'
"Mars Donal' wuz mos' out'n his min' wid waitin' en losin' money. 'But s'posen dem niggers dies on my han's w'iles you er gone,' sezee, 'w'at is I gwine ter do?'
"Aun' Peggy studied en studied, en den she up en sez, sez she:
" 'Well, ef dey dies I reckon you'll hatter bury 'em. Dey is one thing you mought try, en I s'pec's it's 'bout de only thing w'at'll keep yo' niggers alibe 'tel I gits back. You mought see ef dey won' eat chick'n.'
"Well, Mars Donal' wanted ter sabe his niggers. Dey wuz all so po' en so skinny en so feeble dat he could n' sell 'em ter nobody, en dey would n' eat nuffin' e'se, so he des had ter feed 'em on chick'n. W'en he had use' up all de chick'ns on his place, he went roun' ter his nabers ter buy chick'ns en dey say dey wuz sorry, but dey'd sol' all dey chick'ns ter a man in town. Mars Donal' went ter dis yer man, en he say dem chick'ns doan b'long ter him but ter ernudder man w'at wuz geth'in' chick'ns fer ter ship ter Wim'l'ton, er de No'f, er some'ers. Mars Donal' say he des bleedzd ter hab chick'ns, en fer dat man to see de yuther gente'man en ax 'im w'at he'd take fer dem chick'ns. De nex' day de man say Mars Donal' could hab de chick'ns fer so much, w'ich wuz 'bout twicet ez much ez chick'ns had be'n fetchin' in de mahket befo'. It mos' broke Mars Donal's hea't, but he 'lowed dem chick'ns would las' 'tel Aun' Peggy come back en tuk de goopher off'n de niggers.
"But w'en de een' er de week wuz retch', ole Aun' Peggy had n' come back, en Mars Donal' had ter hab mo' chick'ns, fer chick'n-meat des barely 'peared ter keep de niggers alibe; en so he went out in de country fer ter hunt fer chick'ns. En ev'ywhar he'd go, dis yuther man had be'n befo' 'im en had bought up all de chick'ns, er contracted fer 'em all, en Mars Donal' had ter go back ter dis man in town en pay two prices ter git chick'ns ter feed his niggers.
"De nex' week it wuz de same way, en Mars Donal' 'mence' ter git desp'rit. He sont way off in two er th'ee counties, fer ter hunt chick'ns, but high er low, no matter whar, dis yuther man had be'n befo', 'tel it 'peared lak he had bought up all de chick'ns in No'f Ca'lina.
"But w'at wuz dribin' Mars Donal' mos' crazy wuz de money he had ter spen' fer dese chick'ns. It had mos' broke his hea't fer ter kill all his hawgs, en he had felt wuss w'en he hatter kill all his cows. But w'en dis yer chick'n business begun, it come mighty nigh ruinin' 'im. Fus', he spen' all de money he had saved feedin'
de niggers. Den he spent all de money he had in de bank, er sto'ed away. Den he borried all de money he could on his notes, en he des 'bout retch' de pint whar he'd hatter mawgidge his plantation fer ter raise mo' money ter buy chick'ns fer his niggers, w'en one day Aun' Peggy come back fum Robeson County en tol' Mars Donal' she had foun' de root she 'uz lookin' fer, en gun 'im a mixtry fer ter take de goopher off'n de niggers.
" 'Dis yer mixtry'; sez she, ' 'll fetch yo' niggers ap'tites back en make 'em eat dey rashuns en git dey strenk back ag'in. But you is use' dat yuther mixtry so strong, en put dat goopher on so ha'd, dat I 'magine its got in dey blood, en I's feared dey ain' nobody ner nuffin kin eber take it all off'n 'em. So I 'spec's you'll hatter gib yo' niggers chick'n at leas' oncet a week ez long ez dey libs, ef you wanter git de wuk out'n 'em dat you oughter.
"Dey wuz so many niggers on ole Mars Donal's plantation," continued Julius, "en dey got scattered roun' so befo' de wah en sence, dat dey ain' ha'dly no cullu'd folks in No'f Ca'lina but w'at's has got some er de blood er dem goophered niggers in dey vames. En so eber sence den, all de niggers in No'f Ca'lina has ter hab chick'n at leas' oncet er week fer ter keep dey healt' en strenk. En dat's w'y cullu' folks laks chick'n mo'd'n w'ite folks."
"What became of Tom and his sweetheart?" asked my wife.
"Yas'm" said Julius, "I wuz a-comin' ter dat. De nex' week atter de goopher wuz tuk off'n de niggers, Mars Tom come down ter Aun' Peggy, en paid her back de money he borried. En he tol' Aun' Peggy he had made mo' money buyin' chick'ns en sellin' 'em ter his Uncle Donal' dan his daddy had lef' 'im w'en he died, en he say he wuz gwine ter marry Miss 'Liza en buy a big plantation en a lot er niggers en hol' up his head 'mongs' de big w'ite folks des lak he oughter. En he tol' Aun' Peggy he wuz much bleedzd ter her, en ef she got ti'ed cunj'in' en wanter res' en lib easy, she could hab a cabin on his plantation en a stool by his kitchen fiah, en all de chick'n en wheat-bread she wanter eat, en all de terbacker she wanter smoke ez long ez she mought stay in dis worl' er sin en sorrer."
I had occasion to visit the other end of the vineyard shortly after Julius had gone shambling down the yard toward the barn. I left word that the constable should be asked to wait until my return. I was detained longer than I expected, and when I came back I asked if the officer had arrived.
"Yes," my wife replied, "he came."
"Where is he?" I asked.
"Why, he's gone."
"Did he take the chicken-thief?"
"I'll tell you, John," said my wife, with a fine thoughtful look, "I've been thinking more or less about the influence of heredity and environment, and the degree of our responsibility for the things we do, and while I have not been able to get everything reasoned out, I think I can trust my intuitions. The constable came a while after you left, but I told him that you had changed your mind, and that he might send in his bill for time lost and you would pay for it."
"And what am I going to do with Sam Jones?" I asked.
"Oh," she replied, "I told Julius he might unlock the smokehouse and let him go."
CHARLES W. CHESNUTT.
Chesnutt, Charles W. "A Victim of Heredity; Or. Why The Darkey Loves Chicken," Self Culture Magazine 11 (July 1900): 404-409.