The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859
The main character and author of the diaries published in this book is Clotee Henley, a slave girl on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. The diary begins in March 1859 as Clotee describes her job as a fanner for the young Mas’ William and Miz Lilly, her mistress, during their study time. She is there to chase away the flies and gnats while Miz Lilly teaches her son William. For three years the twelve year old Clotee has been fanning young William and Miz Lilly but doesn’t mind because while William is learning so is she. Clotee has learned to read and write but has managed to keep her precious secret to herself. Discovery of her academic abilities could lead to terrible consequences. Clotee’s mother is dead and her Aunt Tee has raised her. Aunt Tee is Mas’ Henley’s cook. Aunt Tee is an older woman who also serves as the midwife on the plantation for the other slaves. She is a knowledgeable woman regarding different herbs and homemade medicines. Uncle Heb is Aunt Tee’s husband; he is the gardener on the plantation. Aunt Tee and Uncle Heb were married many years ago during the Christmas Big Times when Mas’ Henley announced that they were going to “jump the broom.” After many years they have grown to love each other very much. Hince is Clotee’s “brother-friend.” Although no one speaks of it, it is assumed that because of his very light skin and resemblance to the master, Hince is Mas’ Henley’s son. Hince tends to the Mas’ horses and soon becomes a jockey winning nearly every race he is entered in. He is the “bread and butter” for Mas’ Henley. Spicey joins Clotee in the big house after Mas’ Henley buys her from another plantation. She is a beautiful young lady with a lifetime full of pain with both physical and emotional scars that make it difficult for Clotee to befriend her. After some time, Clotee wins Spicey’s trust and the two become inseparable. When Miz Lilly decides that William needs a tutor Clotee becomes fearful that her job fanning will be eliminated and her education will stop.
Everything at Belmont is put on hold when William is severely injured. A few weeks earlier Mas’ Henley had purchased a horse named Dancer and declared that it was for his son William. However, everyone is aware that the horse is too much for young William to handle and Hince will be the Dancer’s caretaker. After Clotee overhears William telling Hince how much he wants to ride Dancer, Clotee warns her mistress who dismisses it quickly. A short while later with both Miz Lilly and Mas’ Henley away, William convinces Uncle Heb to saddle up Dancer for him. William rides off only to return hours later, unconscious, dragging behind the horse with his foot still stuck in the stirrup. William’s recovery looks bleak and in a fit of rage Mas’ Henley kills Dancer with one shot to the head and walks off to find Uncle Heb who he blames for his son’s condition. Mas’ Henley beats uncle Heb so badly that a few hours later he dies. After the burial Mas’ Henley decides that he doesn’t trust Aunt Tee to cook for him anymore, fearful that she will poison his food. Aunt Tee is promptly moved out of the big house and down to the fields. During this time William’s tutor, Mr. Harms arrives. As William’s health improves Mr. Harms begins to work with him while Clotee continues to fan. One day during a lesson Clotee lets on that she knows how to read. Certain that Mr. Harms is going to reveal her secret, she is very surprised when he does not. Eventually, it becomes clear to Clotee that Mr. Harms is not who he appears to be. When she spots Mr. Harms meeting with one of the slaves after dark, she realizes that he is an abolitionist. Shortly there after Clotee receives a note from Mr. Harms saying that he will speak with her soon. When he finally does talk to her, her suspicions are confirmed.
As Clotee develops a relationship with Mr. Harms, he slips her literature written by abolitionists from Boston. She has had to share her reading and writing secret when a valuable Bible belonging to Spicey is stolen. Clotee has hidden her diary in the same place as Spicey’s Bible. When the Bible is taken and Mr. Harms announces that he has found it, Clotee must tell Aunt Tee and Spicey everything, including her knowledge of Mr. Harms so that Aunt Tee and Spicey will not accuse her of setting up Spicey. Mr. Harms has taken the Bible to throw off Miz Lilly who is becoming suspicious of him after finding out that his uncles are well known abolitionists. He successfully gains their trust while still communicating with the plantation slaves. Spicey’s bible is eventually returned unharmed. Mr. Harms tells Clotee that Belmont is the first station on the Underground Railroad in that area. The runaways meet their first conductor in the Belmont woods and are taken on to the next point.
Things continue uneventfully until one day Clotee overhears another plantation owner offer to buy Hince for his jockey skills. Mas’ Henley declines the offer but instead makes a bet. He bets Hince against the horse he’d be racing. Hince wins and Mas’ Henley takes the horse, Hince loses and they can take Hince. January first Hince loses the race after his horse has been drugged. Rather than be taken to the Deep South, Hince tells on Mr. Harms to try and get his freedom. Mas’Henley had offered any slave freedom in return for information regarding the abolitionists. With Mr. Harms in dire trouble, Clotee and Spicey devise a plan to save him. After convincing the sheriff that there is not enough evidence to arrest him, Mr. Harms prepares to leave Belmont.
Hince’s freedom is denied because he already belonged to someone else when Mas’ Henley granted him his freedom. It is decided that Spicey and Hince, who have fallen in love, will run away together. Clotee figures out a way for them to disguise themselves as they travel the Underground Railroad. A short while later Clotee meets up with Mr. Harms to get an update on Spicey and Hince. After finding out that they were fine, Mr. Harms begins to discuss Clotee’s plan for leaving. She has decided, however that she would rather stay and be a conductor leading other slaves on to freedom.
In the epilogue of the book the readers are able to discover what happened to Miss Clotee Henley. Clotee served as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, helping over one hundred and fifty slaves to freedom. From 1862-1865 she served as a spy for the Union army and was awarded a commendation for her valor. In 1875 Clotee returned to Virginia where she attended Virginia Colored Women’s Institute, and then devoted her life to education.
In 1619 the first indentured servants were brought to the Virginia colony. By the 1850s slavery was accepted and encouraged. Virginia legislators, usually wealthy planters, passed laws that protected the slave owners. Hundreds of slave laws or “Black Codes” were passed. These laws forbade slaves to run away, hold public meetings, marry interracially, testify against a white man in court, or receive an education. Slaves who were suspected of violating a law were dealt with severely.
Slaves resisted in many ways. Work slow downs, arson, murder, suicide, and rebellions were all used to gain freedom. If the opportunity to run presented itself, most ran. Runaways always presented a problem for the slaveholders. Anyone who assisted runaways was penalized. Most slaves who reached a free state were allowed to live as a free person. However, the revised Fugitive Slave law of 1850, allowed slaveholders to go into a free state and recapture their property.
In 1688 the first written document protesting slavery marked the beginning of a formalized abolitionist movement. One of the largest and most effective anti-slavery organization was the American Anti-Slavery Society. New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were considered the centers of the movement, but anti-slavery groups could be found across the U.S.
To help runaways make the trip from the south to the free states the abolitionists formed a network that consisted of conductors on the Underground Railroad. Many upstanding citizens in the community endangered their own lives to assist the runaway slaves. One of the best known conductors of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. As a fugitive slave, with a price on her own head, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom. In 1857, after Dred Scott sued his master for taking him to live in free territory, the Supreme Court ruled that a slave could not sue for his freedom because he was considered “property.” The court added, “No black man had rights that a white man had to respect.” Essentially, this said that African-Americans were not considered citizens.
Many abolitionists wanted to end slavery through peaceful endeavors. There were some, however who felt the only way to achieve freedom was by force. In October of 1859, John Brown, along with five blacks and thirteen whites led an attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Although most of the men were killed, John and several others were captured and hung. After this heroic attempt, many sympathizers revered him as a hero.
Conditions on the plantations were desolate and miserable. The master of the plantation ruled his wife, children, workers, and slaves. He had the authority to treat any one of these people as he chose, so long as he did not disobey the law (the laws were always in the slaveholder’s favor). The master’s wife was usually considerably younger than her husband. Girls as young as fourteen were permitted to marry and encouraged to have children as soon as possible. The children were left to be cared for by a slave woman who acted like a nanny. Many times slave children were half brothers and sisters to the white children, having the same father. In 1859 most slaveowners had twenty-five to thirty field workers and four or five household servants. The lives of the field slaves were filled with violence, exhaustion, hunger, and overall misery. The work was backbreaking and never-ending. Health was poor and their diet was meager. Death came early to many slaves and those who didn’t die were turned out to fend for themselves when they were too old and no longer needed. The living conditions were no better. Slaves were forced to live in huts that were dirty and extremely small. Broken doors, dirt floors, no beds, and little heat in the winter were some of the atrocities that were endured. Overcrowding created other problems. Those who lived in the “Big House” had a few advantages but the disadvantages were much bigger. House servants were expected to do all the work in the house-cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing, caring for the children, toting bath water, and fanning. House servants were on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write and efforts were taken to keep slaves illiterate. Discovery could lead to various punishments, one of the worst being sold to the Deep South where escaping was almost impossible. Regardless of the risks, many slaves did learn to read and write and taught the others.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was nominated to run for presidency on the Republican ticket. He supported the abolition of slavery in the United States. A few months after Lincoln was elected president, the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Five years later, in 1865, the war was over. Four million slaves living in the United States and a quarter of a million fugitive slaves were finally free.