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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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Easter left the cottage the next morning as Mr. Reynolds walked through the gates of the plantation, accompanied by several soldiers. Everyone else had already gathered in front of the big house. Julius had told her a few minutes before the superintendent's arrival that a regiment was waiting farther down the road in case there was trouble.

She heard her own heart pounding as she prayed that the people would get something for all of their hard work. Rose stood next to her, a dull, faraway look in her eyes. Jason and some of the other children sat under the dogwood trees near the big house. He watched Little Ray for Rose.

Mr. Reynolds stepped before the crowd. “First, let me tell you that I am sorry that Rayford is dead. We didn't intend for anything like that to happen. The family wishes me to inform you that they regret the bloodshed. They want to make amends.”

“We don't want to hear all that,” Gregory called out. “What about our land?”

The superintendent's large hands trembled as he took a piece of paper from his inside pocket and put on his
spectacles. “The Williams family,” he read, “will sell you fifteen hundred acres of their land, in fifty-acre plots at ten dollars an acre. You will also be given the amount of acreage that you cultivated this year. Your acreage and the land for sale will be the unused land beginning at the edge of the woods.”

Easter gazed past the pastures and the cultivated fields toward the thick woods. “It's goin' to be a lot of work clearing that land,” she whispered to Rose.

Mr. Reynolds continued. “You will receive the free land based on the amount of crops you bring in at the end of this year.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute.” Elias waved his hands excitedly while everyone else talked and murmured. “You mean, if we work five acre other years but only four acre this year, then we receive four acre?”

“I'm afraid so. That's the way it has to be—based on this year's work.”

“That's not fair!” Elias shouted.

Tempers and voices began to rise. About a dozen people left. “Let the massa pick he own cotton,” one said angrily. “I gone.”

Julius faced the group. “Quiet folks, maybe this ain't so bad. Some people only work two and three acres. Now that we know we gettin' this land, you could work more.”

“An' I hear that some of the people on Riverside plantation try to buy land and nobody would sell to them. This may be the only way for us to get a piece of earth,” Aunt Louise said.

“How we know that we get our land?” Paul asked Mr. Reynolds.

“You have our word.”

“Your word change like the wind.”

They forgetting to ask for the one important thing,
Easter said to herself. She stepped closer to the front, where Mr. Reynolds could see her. “We have to have this promise in
writing,” she said, surprised at the firmness of her own voice.

A chorus of shouts went up behind her. “Yes, yes, Easter. That's right.”

Then it was Rose's turn. “And we not givin' up these keys until we get the land.”

There was another chorus of shouts. Mr. Reynolds raised his hands for order. “There will be an agreement drawn up. However, if you do not keep your part of the bargain you will receive no land, either as a gift or to buy.”

Samuel, stooped and with his arm in a sling, walked slowly up to Mr. Reynolds. “Excuse me, suh, but all that land we gettin' has to be cleared. The family's keepin' the land we been cultivatin'. But we go along with the plan. Have no choice. Main thing is we get some land and have the chance to buy more. But we want you to know that we know that this ain't no Christmas gift.”

They all clapped in agreement with Samuel. Easter had never heard him say so much at one time. Julius spoke quietly to her. “Mr. Reynolds messenger is here, and he tell me that the family owe money to people all over the state. That's why they sellin' this land. This way they make money instead of losin' their land to people they owe. Samuel be about right.”

Rayford was buried that evening at the edge of the woods, where their lands would begin. When the funeral ended, people went to Rose and Rayford's cottage to offer Rose their condolences. People came and went all evening. Rose's eyes reflected her pain, even though her mouth tried to smile. Easter knew that there was little that she could say to Rose to make her feel better, so she sat quietly near her all evening as Jason and Little Ray lay curled on the pallet in front of the fireplace, fast asleep. Finally, Easter and Aunt Louise were the only visitors still there. “Rose, don't go tryin' to work all them fields by yourself,” Aunt Louise said.

“Auntie, I use to field work now. I make do.”

Easter hadn't even thought of that. Now that the granting of land would be based on this year's work, Rose could lose the land that Rayford had been cultivating.

Aunt Louise stood up stiffly, rubbing her leg. “Daughter, you can't do all that work alone. It impossible.”

When the old woman left, Rose turned to Easter. “You and Jason sleep here tonight. I don't want me and Little Ray to be alone.”

Easter rose with the birds and slipped out of the cottage the following morning. She rushed to her hut as the sun was rising. Melissa was still sleeping. Easter got her pen, ink, and a sheet of paper and sat at the table. She began to write rapidly.

My Dear Miss Grantley,

I have made a decision. I will never go to the North. The Yankees, except for you, are awful people. I cannot live among them. This is a very sad story that I have to tell you, then you will know why I will stay here for the rest of my life.

Easter told Miss Grantley what had happened. She'd send Jason to the general store later so that he could mail the letter. She then tiptoed quietly to her bed and changed to her old field dress, which was now too snug and too short. She wrapped her head in an old piece of blue cloth, took off her slippers, and left the hut.

The sky was a pale pink, and the clean morning air smelled of flowers and pine. Easter was pleased with her decisions as she ran to the cottage. She started a fire so that she could prepare grits for their breakfast. Little Ray and Jason still slept.

Rose walked into the kitchen wearing her field apron over her shift and carrying her straw hat. She frowned when she saw Easter.

“Where your schoolteacher dress and your slippers? Why you dress like that? And barefoot.”

“School close until a new teacher come.”

Rose rested her hat on the rocking chair. “I thought you was the teacher until then.”

“Maybe I teach Sunday School. Remember Brother Thomas say the children should have a Sunday School? I give them reading then.” She poured the grits into the boiling water as Rose stared at her incredulously. “I going to help you. Me and some of my students help you bring in the crop from Rayford field so you get all the land he work for.”

“Easter, I can't ask you to—”

“You didn't ask.”

“No, Easter. The children need school. And you know how you hate field work. I manage.”

“Tell me who love field work? Yes, I hate it, and I will always hate it.”

Rose took the dishes off the mantel. “Don't you worry about me. I get that land Rayford work for.”

Easter put her hands on her hips and faced Rose. “Rosie, you couldn't make me stay in them fields when I didn't want to, and you can't keep me out if I want to help you.”

In June Easter received a letter from Miss Grantley:

My Dear Easter,

I was very disturbed by the terrible news. I do not in any way blame you for feeling the way you do. I too am ashamed at the way some of my fellow citizens have comported themselves.

Easter, one of the greatest lessons of our sojourn on earth is that we must not let the wrongdoings of a few people cause us to become bitter ourselves. There are many good people in the Northern Missionary Society who want to help you.

Please do not close your mind to ever coming north and continuing your studies. It would be a loss to the numerous students who will not receive the gift of your love.

I have some further news. A new teacher will be coming to the plantation in September to continue the school. She is a wonderful young colored woman who graduated from the Philadelphia School for Colored Youth.

I know that you will welcome her and help her to settle in. Easter, please think about your decision and reconsider.

With Much Affection,
Amy Grantley

Easter read the letter twice. She was always happy to get a letter from Miss Grantley, but her mind was set. Miss Grantley didn't understand. Easter couldn't forget the day the Union soldiers rode onto the plantation. She couldn't forget Rayford or Brother Thomas, who still could not speak. She folded the letter and put it away, glad that the children would be getting a real teacher.

As Easter walked toward the cotton fields, she closed her mind to Miss Grantley's letter and advice, having learned how to shut her mind like a door when she worked in the fields. The only thing that she reminded herself of was her promise to help Rose keep the land.

Chapter
Fourteen

Had my first regular teaching experience … it was not a very pleasant one. Part of my scholars are very tiny … it is hard to keep them quiet and interested while I am hearing the larger ones. They are too young even for the alphabet.

The Journal of Charlotte Forten
Teacher, 1862–1864, Port Royal, South Carolina

September 1865
The cotton bolls began to blanket the fields. Easter and Jason, with sacks hanging from their shoulders, picked the soft, white bolls. Jason worked a few feet ahead of Easter. She noticed that he'd grown a little taller and fuller without her knowing when it happened. He'd been unusually quiet too for the past four months.
Still thinkin about Rayford and what happened,
she supposed.
Nobody been feeling too right.
Usually Jason kept up a stream of chatter while he worked, and when he was tired of talking, he'd sing, sometimes songs he'd made up himself.

When she and Jason stopped to eat lunch, Jason ate with her instead of sitting with the other youngsters. They found a shady spot under a tree at the edge of the fields.

“When you goin' back to the Bureau?” Jason asked.

“Never. No sense goin' back there. They can't help me find Obi.”

“When you leavin' here? Thought you want to find Obi so bad and leave here?”

“When Rose get settle with her land, we go and look for Obi. I glad you want to find him too.” She took a bite of cornbread.

“I want to leave, Easter. I hate these field. I hope you find Obi soon.”

“What? You comin' with me, Jason.”

“I want to go with Dr. Taylor.”

“Who?”

“The man with the show, remember?”

“Jason, I thought you forget all that. Suppose that man is evil?”

“Then I leave him and come back.”

Easter stared at Jason, seeing for the first time that he was losing his baby face and beginning to look like a young man. He ate his rice slowly and seemed to be deep in thought. Suddenly he said, “You remember my real mother?”

She was surprised. He'd never asked about his mother before. “I tell you while we work. Make the time go fast.”

People were heading back to the fields. A flock of sea gulls flew toward the ocean. They picked up their sacks and walked back to the cotton fields. Jason worked steadily as Easter related his story. “You beginnin' to look like your ma. She was pretty, and our old mistress like her a lot. …”

While they ate supper that evening, Paul, who now managed the plantation, visited them.

“Paul,” Rose greeted him, “have supper with us.”

He sat down, and stretched his legs out before him. “No thanks, Rosie. Just come to bring you good news. We get a letter from the missionaries.” He handed Easter the letter. “You can read it. They sendin' us a teacher is what it say. And I want you to go to the ferry landing in Elenaville to meet her, since you been our teacher when we had none.”

So a week later Easter, dressed in her good violet dress and her worn brown leather slippers, waited at the plantation
gates for James to bring the carriage around. They were going to meet the ferry that was carrying Miss Emmaline Fortune, their new teacher. She'd traveled by train from Philadelphia to Charleston and would continue on to Santa Elena by ferry.

Although it was early Saturday morning, Easter heard hammering in the forest. The men were at work clearing the land that would soon be theirs. The first building would be a church and the next a school. She heard James's rickety carriage approaching the gate. He'd purchased the carriage from a planter who was selling his lands and other property. James provided carriage service to the blacks in the area. They didn't use the regular carriage line because either the drivers wouldn't stop for black passengers or there'd be a fight between blacks and whites before they reached their destination. For short trips James still used his mules and wagon.

Easter was glad James arrived before Jason woke up and discovered she was going to Elenaville. When the carriage pulled up, she was surprised to see Julius jump out. “Miss Easter, I joinin' you on your trip. A lady shouldn't travel alone.”

“Well, what James be? A ghost?” she asked as he helped her into the carriage.

“James have to worry with them old horses. See that they get us there.” Six other people were already in the carriage, which wasn't supposed to hold more than that comfortably.

Easter squeezed in beside a heavy-hipped woman. “Julius, if you stay, then we have more room.”

“Can't let you go alone.” He smiled playfully, squeezing in beside her.

As soon as they started off down the road, the heavy woman popped out of her seat like a cork out of a bottle. A thin little man sitting next to her was almost knocked down. “Mercy, what caught you?” he asked.

BOOK: Out From This Place
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