In the climate of the early 21st century, Southerners are likely to have mixed feelings about their Confederate ancestry. Controveries rage over the Confederate Battle Flag, and slavery ---and therefore the South---is considered the cause of all the nation's racial problems.
No rational person could deny that the "peculiar institution" was an abomination, but to hold the Southerners of the late 1800s solely responsible for the wrongs of centuries is simplistic. History did not start in 1861 with the Civil War, or 1789 when the Constitution was adopted, or even in 1619 when Dutch traders brought the first Africans to Virginia.
Today it is in vogue for academics and others to focus their attention solely on the evils and injustices of the past. Our young people are taught that all contact between antebellum whites and blacks was characterized by hatred and contempt. Southern soldiers are demonized, and our grandchildren are taught that our grandfathers were no better than the vilest member of today's Ku Klux Klan.
But Jacob Klodsloe described a different type of relationship between the races---not one of equals, to be sure, but one that could accommodate friendship, respect, and even love. If we can recognize that those emotions did exist in the 1850s South, maybe we can come closer to bridging that "impassable wall" that divided Jacob from Steve and others of his race, the same wall that divides so many of us today.
Here are excerpts from his story:
The social as well as the economic
life of the south was of a character all its own, made so by the
peculiar institution of slavery. The Negroes and the whites came
together on terms of the greatest familiarity and freedom and
yet with an impassible wall of separation between them. The
black and white children played together, wrestled, ran races, jumped,fought on occasion. They grew up and loved one another with a life time affection, and still there was the gulf between as wide as the PacificOcean. These two relations of intimate, trustful, almost brotherly association on the one hand, with the infinite distance of separation on the other warped the character of both races. The whites, perfectly self satisfied in their superior vantage, and sure of their position, even
encouraged these close relations, calling the old darkies uncle and aunt, and leaving the children largely to their care, to romp with their little ones and imbibe their ways.
From early childhood Jacob was sorry for the Negro and felt like there was a wrong somehow in his situation. Looking back to the old days through the mellowing years, he feels sure that slavery was bad for both races, but this story is not for the purpose of excusing or condemning. Slavery was and is here spoken of as it was in one locality, though the events are remembered like a dream, so far away and unreal do they now seem.
[Sometimes there was] the singing
of the old plantation songs. Their voices were pliant and
musical and hands, head and feet kept time to the music. At the exciting places one of the singers would bound to his feet, contort his body, leap,fall to the floor and go out in a groan of pretended exhaustion. Their songs were chiefly of a lively kind, even the plaintive retaining an element
of a smile.
The turns and twists and twirls and catches and stops they could give the air often made it comically serious. There was a song the words of which have been forgotten except two lines remembered only on account of the satirical humor they used to put in them, and the ha, ha, ha or derision that always followed their repetition. The lines were:
"That Old Virginia N______ when
he thought himself free,
was then right on the road to the penitentiar - ee"
Was this a heart longing cry for liberty, pathetic in the highest because concealed under a mocking laugh. It seems that way now, though very amusing then.
The race was not numerous in the region
round about Jacob's home. His father inherited a boy
that grew up with the children. He was some years Jacob's senior and took him on many a trip, or hunt in the woods, or search for chestnuts, grapes and berries, Steve, for that was his name, . . . was intelligent and a good worker.
Steve came to us in the division of paternal grandfather's estate.He was about fifteen years old, a trusty servant and good worker. Father and he did the farm work and cleared off new ground, adding a little from year to year. . . .
When the children had advanced sufficiently in their studies at school, they began to teach Steve and he soon learned to read quite well and write a very good hand. He took great delight in his studies and was as proud as he could be, of his writing, showing off among the neighboring black folks by writing letters for them.
The experience with Steve made it
clear that even a little education and slavery would not go together.
The limited book learning imparted to him by the children made
him discontented. It put his mind to unrest. He meditated of freedom
as he grew older though he did not talk much about it. His mind
brooded and spurred him to much going about at night and neglecting
his work in the day time, and doubtless he would have gone across the lines the first opportunity, had not his longings been anticipated by death just as the war opened. Yet he loved us and we loved him and trusted him entirely.
When Steve was in his last sickness
he was taken to mothers room and there upon the bed where her
own children had slept, was nursed as tenderly and watched over
by night and by day as
anxiously as if he had been an own child. And I remember how grieved I was, and how the tears gushed from my eyes when I knew that he was dying. He lies in the family graveyard not far from a dear little sister, and I have a good assurance of meeting both of them when the grave shall give up its dead.
Abraham Hoss Yeager