Richmond Read-along 73
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today we are reading a story by Charles W Chesnutt. One of the first black Americans to be acknowledged as a great writer, Chesnutt’s parents were free people of colour, and at least one grandfather was a white slaveholder. Chesnutt was able to “pass” as white but actively chose not to. He was a prominent activist and social commentator, advocating for himself and other black people. He was particularly vocal about laws enacted in the Southern states that effectively barred many black citizens from voting.
Chesnutt’s writing often reflected his activism, dealing with issues of race, passing, and social standing in complex and nuanced ways. As well as his non-fiction, Chesnutt produced novels and many short stories. His collection “The Conjure Woman” was his first book, and was a collection of short stories largely told in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The stories within leaned heavily on Southern superstitions, as well as depicting contemporary Southern life.
Today’s story is part of his second collection, that dealt explicitly with many of the racial issues of the time. A tender story, it shows the discrimination still faced by black people after the American Civil War, and weaves social commentary through a compelling tale.
Mary Myrover’s friends were somewhat surprised when she began to teach a colored school. Miss Myrover’s friends are mentioned here, because nowhere more than in a Southern town is public opinion a force which cannot be lightly contravened. Public opinion, however, did not oppose Miss Myrover’s teaching colored children; in fact, all the colored public schools in town—and there were several—were taught by white teachers, and had been so taught since the State had undertaken to provide free public instruction for all children within its boundaries. Previous to that time, there had been a Freedman’s Bureau school and a Presbyterian missionary school, but these had been withdrawn when the need for them became less pressing. The colored people of the town had been for some time agitating their right to teach their own schools, but as yet the claim had not been conceded.
The reason Miss Myrover’s course created some surprise was not, therefore, the fact that a Southern white woman should teach a colored school; it lay in the fact that up to this time no woman of just her quality had taken up such work. Most of the teachers of colored schools were not of those who had constituted the aristocracy of the old régime; they might be said rather to represent the new order of things, in which labor was in time to become honorable, and men were, after a somewhat longer time, to depend, for their place in society, upon themselves rather than upon their ancestors. Mary Myrover belonged to one of the proudest of the old families. Her ancestors had been people of distinction in Virginia before a collateral branch of the main stock had settled in North Carolina. Before the war, they had been able to live up to their pedigree; but the war brought sad changes. Miss Myrover’s father—the Colonel Myrover who led a gallant but desperate charge at Vicksburg—had fallen on the battlefield, and his tomb in the white cemetery was a shrine for the family. On the Confederate Memorial Day, no other grave was so profusely decorated with flowers, and, in the oration pronounced, the name of Colonel Myrover was always used to illustrate the highest type of patriotic devotion and self-sacrifice. Miss Myrover’s brother, too, had fallen in the conflict; but his bones lay in some unknown trench, with those of a thousand others who had fallen on the same field. Ay, more, her lover, who had hoped to come home in the full tide of victory and claim his bride as a reward for gallantry, had shared the fate of her father and brother. When the war was over, the remnant of the family found itself involved in the common ruin,—more deeply involved, indeed, than some others; for Colonel Myrover had believed in the ultimate triumph of his cause, and had invested most of his wealth in Confederate bonds, which were now only so much waste paper.
There had been a little left. Mrs. Myrover was thrifty, and had laid by a few hundred dollars, which she kept in the house to meet unforeseen contingencies. There remained, too, their home, with an ample garden and a well-stocked orchard, besides a considerable tract of country land, partly cleared, but productive of very little revenue.
With their shrunken resources, Miss Myrover and her mother were able to hold up their heads without embarrassment for some years after the close of the war. But when things were adjusted to the changed conditions, and the stream of life began to flow more vigorously in the new channels, they saw themselves in danger of dropping behind, unless in some way they could add to their meagre income. Miss Myrover looked over the field of employment, never very wide for women in the South, and found it occupied. The only available position she could be supposed prepared to fill, and which she could take without distinct loss of caste, was that of a teacher, and there was no vacancy except in one of the colored schools. Even teaching was a doubtful experiment; it was not what she would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done. “I don’t like it, Mary,” said her mother. “It ‘s a long step from owning such people to teaching them. What do they need with education? It will only make them unfit for work.”
“They ‘re free now, mother, and perhaps they ‘ll work better if they ‘re taught something. Besides, it ‘s only a business arrangement, and does n’t involve any closer contact than we have with our servants.”
“Well, I should say not!” sniffed the old lady. “Not one of them will ever dare to presume on your position to take any liberties with us. I ‘ll see to that.”
Miss Myrover began her work as a teacher in the autumn, at the opening of the school year. It was a novel experience at first. Though there had always been negro servants in the house, and though on the streets colored people were more numerous than those of her own race, and though she was so familiar with their dialect that she might almost be said to speak it, barring certain characteristic grammatical inaccuracies, she had never been brought in personal contact with so many of them at once as when she confronted the fifty or sixty faces—of colors ranging from a white almost as clear as her own to the darkest livery of the sun—which were gathered in the schoolroom on the morning when she began her duties. Some of the inherited prejudice of her caste, too, made itself felt, though she tried to repress any outward sign of it; and she could perceive that the children were not altogether responsive; they, likewise, were not entirely free from antagonism. The work was unfamiliar to her. She was not physically very strong, and at the close of the first day went home with a splitting headache. If she could have resigned then and there without causing comment or annoyance to others, she would have felt it a privilege to do so. But a night’s rest banished her headache and improved her spirits, and the next morning she went to her work with renewed vigor, fortified by the experience of the first day.
Miss Myrover’s second day was more satisfactory. She had some natural talent for organization, though hitherto unaware of it, and in the course of the day she got her classes formed and lessons under way. In a week or two she began to classify her pupils in her own mind, as bright or stupid, mischievous or well behaved, lazy or industrious, as the case might be, and to regulate her discipline accordingly. That she had come of a long line of ancestors who had exercised authority and mastership was perhaps not without its effect upon her character, and enabled her more readily to maintain good order in the school. When she was fairly broken in, she found the work rather to her liking, and derived much pleasure from such success as she achieved as a teacher.
It was natural that she should be more attracted to some of her pupils than to others. Perhaps her favorite—or, rather, the one she liked best, for she was too fair and just for conscious favoritism—was Sophy Tucker. Just the ground for the teacher’s liking for Sophy might not at first be apparent. The girl was far from the whitest of Miss Myrover’s pupils; in fact, she was one of the darker ones. She was not the brightest in intellect, though she always tried to learn her lessons. She was not the best dressed, for her mother was a poor widow, who went out washing and scrubbing for a living. Perhaps the real tie between them was Sophy’s intense devotion to the teacher. It had manifested itself almost from the first day of the school, in the rapt look of admiration Miss Myrover always saw on the little black face turned toward her. In it there was nothing of envy, nothing of regret; nothing but worship for the beautiful white lady—she was not especially handsome, but to Sophy her beauty was almost divine—who had come to teach her. If Miss Myrover dropped a book, Sophy was the first to spring and pick it up; if she wished a chair moved, Sophy seemed to anticipate her wish; and so of all the numberless little services that can be rendered in a schoolroom.
Miss Myrover was fond of flowers, and liked to have them about her. The children soon learned of this taste of hers, and kept the vases on her desk filled with blossoms during their season. Sophy was perhaps the most active in providing them. If she could not get garden flowers, she would make excursions to the woods in the early morning, and bring in great dew-laden bunches of bay, or jasmine, or some other fragrant forest flower which she knew the teacher loved.
“When I die, Sophy,” Miss Myrover said to the child one day, “I want to be covered with roses. And when they bury me, I ‘m sure I shall rest better if my grave is banked with flowers, and roses are planted at my head and at my feet.”
Miss Myrover was at first amused at Sophy’s devotion; but when she grew more accustomed to it, she found it rather to her liking. It had a sort of flavor of the old régime, and she felt, when she bestowed her kindly notice upon her little black attendant, some of the feudal condescension of the mistress toward the slave. She was kind to Sophy, and permitted her to play the rôle she had assumed, which caused sometimes a little jealousy among the other girls. Once she gave Sophy a yellow ribbon which she took from her own hair. The child carried it home, and cherished it as a priceless treasure, to be worn only on the greatest occasions.
Sophy had a rival in her attachment to the teacher, but the rivalry was altogether friendly. Miss Myrover had a little dog, a white spaniel, answering to the name of Prince. Prince was a dog of high degree, and would have very little to do with the children of the school; he made an exception, however, in the case of Sophy, whose devotion for his mistress he seemed to comprehend. He was a clever dog, and could fetch and carry, sit up on his haunches, extend his paw to shake hands, and possessed several other canine accomplishments. He was very fond of his mistress, and always, unless shut up at home, accompanied her to school, where he spent most of his time lying under the teacher’s desk, or, in cold weather, by the stove, except when he would go out now and then and chase an imaginary rabbit round the yard, presumably for exercise.
At school Sophy and Prince vied with each other in their attentions to Miss Myrover. But when school was over, Prince went away with her, and Sophy stayed behind; for Miss Myrover was white and Sophy was black, which they both understood perfectly well. Miss Myrover taught the colored children, but she could not be seen with them in public. If they occasionally met her on the street, they did not expect her to speak to them, unless she happened to be alone and no other white person was in sight. If any of the children felt slighted, she was not aware of it, for she intended no slight; she had not been brought up to speak to negroes on the street, and she could not act differently from other people. And though she was a woman of sentiment and capable of deep feeling, her training had been such that she hardly expected to find in those of darker hue than herself the same susceptibility—varying in degree, perhaps, but yet the same in kind—that gave to her own life the alternations of feeling that made it most worth living.
Once Miss Myrover wished to carry home a parcel of books. She had the bundle in her hand when Sophy came up.
“Lemme tote yo’ bundle fer yer, Miss Ma’y?” she asked eagerly. “I ‘m gwine yo’ way.”
“Thank you, Sophy,” was the reply. “I ‘ll be glad if you will.”
Sophy followed the teacher at a respectful distance. When they reached
Miss Myrover’s home, Sophy carried the bundle to the doorstep, where
Miss Myrover took it and thanked her.
Mrs. Myrover came out on the piazza as Sophy was moving away. She said, in the child’s hearing, and perhaps with the intention that she should hear: “Mary, I wish you would n’t let those little darkeys follow you to the house. I don’t want them in the yard. I should think you ‘d have enough of them all day.”
“Very well, mother,” replied her daughter. “I won’t bring any more of them. The child was only doing me a favor.”
Mrs. Myrover was an invalid, and opposition or irritation of any kind brought on nervous paroxysms that made her miserable, and made life a burden to the rest of the household, so that Mary seldom crossed her whims. She did not bring Sophy to the house again, nor did Sophy again offer her services as porter.
One day in spring Sophy brought her teacher a bouquet of yellow roses.
“Dey come off’n my own bush, Miss Ma’y,” she said proudly, “an’ I didn’ let nobody e’se pull ’em, but saved ’em all fer you, ’cause I know you likes roses so much. I ‘m gwine bring ’em all ter you as long as dey las’.”
“Thank you, Sophy,” said the teacher; “you are a very good girl.”
For another year Mary Myrover taught the colored school, and did excellent service. The children made rapid progress under her tuition, and learned to love her well; for they saw and appreciated, as well as children could, her fidelity to a trust that she might have slighted, as some others did, without much fear of criticism. Toward the end of her second year she sickened, and after a brief illness died.
Old Mrs. Myrover was inconsolable. She ascribed her daughter’s death to her labors as teacher of negro children. Just how the color of the pupils had produced the fatal effects she did not stop to explain. But she was too old, and had suffered too deeply from the war, in body and mind and estate, ever to reconcile herself to the changed order of things following the return of peace; and, with an unsound yet perfectly explainable logic, she visited some of her displeasure upon those who had profited most, though passively, by her losses.
“I always feared something would happen to Mary,” she said. “It seemed unnatural for her to be wearing herself out teaching little negroes who ought to have been working for her. But the world has hardly been a fit place to live in since the war, and when I follow her, as I must before long, I shall not be sorry to go.”
She gave strict orders that no colored people should be admitted to the house. Some of her friends heard of this, and remonstrated. They knew the teacher was loved by the pupils, and felt that sincere respect from the humble would be a worthy tribute to the proudest. But Mrs. Myrover was obdurate.
“They had my daughter when she was alive,” she said, “and they ‘ve killed her. But she ‘s mine now, and I won’t have them come near her. I don’t want one of them at the funeral or anywhere around.”
For a month before Miss Myrover’s death Sophy had been watching her rosebush—the one that bore the yellow roses—for the first buds of spring, and, when these appeared, had awaited impatiently their gradual unfolding. But not until her teacher’s death had they become full-blown roses. When Miss Myrover died, Sophy determined to pluck the roses and lay them on her coffin. Perhaps, she thought, they might even put them in her hand or on her breast. For Sophy remembered Miss Myrover’s thanks and praise when she had brought her the yellow roses the spring before.
On the morning of the day set for the funeral, Sophy washed her face until it shone, combed and brushed her hair with painful conscientiousness, put on her best frock, plucked her yellow roses, and, tying them with the treasured ribbon her teacher had given her, set out for Miss Myrover’s home.
She went round to the side gate—the house stood on a corner—and stole up the path to the kitchen. A colored woman, whom she did not know, came to the door.
“Wat yer want, chile?” she inquired.
“Kin I see Miss Ma’y?” asked Sophy timidly.
“I don’t know, honey. Ole Miss Myrover say she don’t want no cullud folks roun’ de house endyoin’ dis fun’al. I ‘ll look an’ see if she ‘s roun’ de front room, whar de co’pse is. You sed down heah an’ keep still, an’ ef she ‘s upstairs maybe I kin git yer in dere a minute. Ef I can’t, I kin put yo’ bokay ‘mongs’ de res’, whar she won’t know nuthin’ erbout it.”
A moment after she had gone, there was a step in the hall, and old Mrs.
Myrover came into the kitchen.
“Dinah!” she said in a peevish tone; “Dinah!”
Receiving no answer, Mrs. Myrover peered around the kitchen, and caught sight of Sophy.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I-I ‘m-m waitin’ ter see de cook, ma’am,” stammered Sophy.
“The cook is n’t here now. I don’t know where she is. Besides, my daughter is to be buried to-day, and I won’t have any one visiting the servants until the funeral is over. Come back some other day, or see the cook at her own home in the evening.”
She stood waiting for the child to go, and under the keen glance of her eyes Sophy, feeling as though she had been caught in some disgraceful act, hurried down the walk and out of the gate, with her bouquet in her hand.
“Dinah,” said Mrs. Myrover, when the cook came back, “I don’t want any strange people admitted here to-day. The house will be full of our friends, and we have no room for others.”
“Yas ‘m,” said the cook. She understood perfectly what her mistress meant; and what the cook thought about her mistress was a matter of no consequence.
The funeral services were held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where the Myrovers had always worshiped. Quite a number of Miss Myrover’s pupils went to the church to attend the services. The building was not a large one. There was a small gallery at the rear, to which colored people were admitted, if they chose to come, at ordinary services; and those who wished to be present at the funeral supposed that the usual custom would prevail. They were therefore surprised, when they went to the side entrance, by which colored people gained access to the gallery stairs, to be met by an usher who barred their passage.
“I ‘m sorry,” he said, “but I have had orders to admit no one until the friends of the family have all been seated. If you wish to wait until the white people have all gone in, and there ‘s any room left, you may be able to get into the back part of the gallery. Of course I can’t tell yet whether there ‘ll be any room or not.”
Now the statement of the usher was a very reasonable one; but, strange to say, none of the colored people chose to remain except Sophy. She still hoped to use her floral offering for its destined end, in some way, though she did not know just how. She waited in the yard until the church was filled with white people, and a number who could not gain admittance were standing about the doors. Then she went round to the side of the church, and, depositing her bouquet carefully on an old mossy gravestone, climbed up on the projecting sill of a window near the chancel. The window was of stained glass, of somewhat ancient make. The church was old, had indeed been built in colonial times, and the stained glass had been brought from England. The design of the window showed Jesus blessing little children. Time had dealt gently with the window, but just at the feet of the figure of Jesus a small triangular piece of glass had been broken out. To this aperture Sophy applied her eyes, and through it saw and heard what she could of the services within.
Before the chancel, on trestles draped in black, stood the sombre casket in which lay all that was mortal of her dear teacher. The top of the casket was covered with flowers; and lying stretched out underneath it she saw Miss Myrover’s little white dog, Prince. He had followed the body to the church, and, slipping in unnoticed among the mourners, had taken his place, from which no one had the heart to remove him.
The white-robed rector read the solemn service for the dead, and then delivered a brief address, in which he dwelt upon the uncertainty of life, and, to the believer, the certain blessedness of eternity. He spoke of Miss Myrover’s kindly spirit, and, as an illustration of her love and self-sacrifice for others, referred to her labors as a teacher of the poor ignorant negroes who had been placed in their midst by an all-wise Providence, and whom it was their duty to guide and direct in the station in which God had put them. Then the organ pealed, a prayer was said, and the long cortege moved from the church to the cemetery, about half a mile away, where the body was to be interred.
When the services were over, Sophy sprang down from her perch, and, taking her flowers, followed the procession. She did not walk with the rest, but at a proper and respectful distance from the last mourner. No one noticed the little black girl with the bunch of yellow flowers, or thought of her as interested in the funeral.
The cortege reached the cemetery and filed slowly through the gate; but Sophy stood outside, looking at a small sign in white letters on a black background:——
“Notice. This cemetery is for white people only. Others please keep out.”
Sophy, thanks to Miss Myrover’s painstaking instruction, could read this sign very distinctly. In fact, she had often read it before. For Sophy was a child who loved beauty, in a blind, groping sort of way, and had sometimes stood by the fence of the cemetery and looked through at the green mounds and shaded walks and blooming flowers within, and wished that she might walk among them. She knew, too, that the little sign on the gate, though so courteously worded, was no mere formality; for she had heard how a colored man, who had wandered into the cemetery on a hot night and fallen asleep on the flat top of a tomb, had been arrested as a vagrant and fined five dollars, which he had worked out on the streets, with a ball-and-chain attachment, at twenty-five cents a day. Since that time the cemetery gate had been locked at night.
So Sophy stayed outside, and looked through the fence. Her poor bouquet had begun to droop by this time, and the yellow ribbon had lost some of its freshness. Sophy could see the rector standing by the grave, the mourners gathered round; she could faintly distinguish the solemn words with which ashes were committed to ashes, and dust to dust. She heard the hollow thud of the earth falling on the coffin; and she leaned against the iron fence, sobbing softly, until the grave was filled and rounded off, and the wreaths and other floral pieces were disposed upon it. When the mourners began to move toward the gate, Sophy walked slowly down the street, in a direction opposite to that taken by most of the people who came out.
When they had all gone away, and the sexton had come out and locked the gate behind him, Sophy crept back. Her roses were faded now, and from some of them the petals had fallen. She stood there irresolute, loath to leave with her heart’s desire unsatisfied, when, as her eyes sought again the teacher’s last resting-place, she saw lying beside the new-made grave what looked like a small bundle of white wool. Sophy’s eyes lighted up with a sudden glow.
“Prince! Here, Prince!” she called.
The little dog rose, and trotted down to the gate. Sophy pushed the poor bouquet between the iron bars. “Take that ter Miss Ma’y, Prince,” she said, “that ‘s a good doggie.”
The dog wagged his tail intelligently, took the bouquet carefully in his mouth, carried it to his mistress’s grave, and laid it among the other flowers. The bunch of roses was so small that from where she stood Sophy could see only a dash of yellow against the white background of the mass of flowers.
When Prince had performed his mission he turned his eyes toward Sophy inquiringly, and when she gave him a nod of approval lay down and resumed his watch by the graveside. Sophy looked at him a moment with a feeling very much like envy, and then turned and moved slowly away.
Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!