Slave in cabin door'

Monticello Slave

            Thomas Jefferson was a gentle master.  He believed in the human dignity of his slaves.  Some, he paid for their extra work with his animals; some for the care they took in his gardens.  Some were able to buy their freedom.  But he did not believe in freedom for these Africans enslaved in America: were they all freed at the same time, the economy would collapse, they would compete for scarce resources, they would fall into conditions even worse than slavery.
            One of his slaves, known only as Hiram, son of Hiram, worked a patch of ground among the plots Jefferson set aside near the slave cabins that lined the ridge on which Monticello was built.  Hiram could grow anything, and once Lewis and Clark returned from their years of traversing the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson set Hiram with the task of tending the new seeds and plants the explorers brought with them.  Hiram was illiterate, so Jefferson brought him each week to the sunny porch where he sat reading or writing.  Hiram stood, hat in hand, for Jefferson’s questions.  His master might be asking about the Arikara beans, from the High Plains of Dakota.  How long to germinate?  How long from germination to flower?  From flower to fruit?  How many fruit for each plant?  How many seeds in each slender bean?  Had Hiram eaten the bean, boiled the seed?  Could Hiram try for a second planting given the long growing season of Virginia? 
            Hiram was used to such questions, and he answered freely, sure of himself in his life in his garden.  Jefferson wrote down Hiram’s answers as meticulously as he wrote down his impressions of the wines he drank, and the purchases and sales of all his goods, including slaves.
            When he finished with Hiram, Jefferson stood and nodded.  Hiram started for the door.  Jefferson cleared his throat.  “Hiram,” he said, and the slave turned to his master.  “I wish all the men had your skills.  Your wit with plants.  I wish they were all more like you.”
            Hiram nodded and hurried away.  Outside, he shook his head.  His master surely could not want all the men to hate him as Hiram did, to make up the details their master thought of as science, to know that his own heart could know animals well, could make anything grow, while his master’s heart could only ask questions.  Someday, Hiram knew, the man would have to answer for himself.

"Monticello Slave" first appeared in Blue Ships








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