Havre de Grace, MD 1965
"Mrs. Davis, I hate to tell you this, but that's impossible! Unless my great-great grandfather William Gordon came back, the rest of the family never would have existed!
"Now, chil', this is the bad part; William Gordon was never your great-great grandpappy. That's what folks want you to think. Truth is, he ain't no relation to you at all! And this is where the secret start.
"You see, when Miss Sarah told Mr. William to get out, she meant it. Folks always wondered what happened to ol' William. They never found out, but Miss Sarah knew. It be no one else's business.
"Darn it Mrs. Davis, that's just not possible! If William Gordon was no relation to me, then who was my great-great grandfather!! You're talking nonsense!
"Chil', I wish I be. But you wanted to know this secret, and they more than one, now you gonna find out."
I was chilled to the bone, and my heart was palpating. Wasn't it bad enough that my great-great grandfather was a murderer? And then she says we're not even related? Who was my great-great grandfather than! She must have married someone else, but what's so wrong with that. Her husband left her. Damn it, what is all this nonsense! I was getting very irritated.
"Now remember Obadiah be dead in the basement. They have to git him out of there. Sarah and Moses look down at his poor dead body, and his messed up uniform. They knew they gonna have to send him back to Virginia for proper bury. Sarah took the old bloody uniform offen' her dead brother, clean him up and put William suit on him. She never wanted to see the uniform again, so throw it in a corner. After she do that, she go upstairs, lock the cellar and never wanted no folks see it again. Too much bad happened there. She be mighty angry and sad. She knew she gonna have to face her Daddy, so she hired some people take Obadiah back to Virginia. She left on the next train back to Bedford. She let Moses look after the place.
"Her Daddy glad to see her, but he mixed up. Where was William and how did Obadiah get kilt?"
"She told him the story about William killin' Obadiah, and she sent William away. Oh chil…her Daddy be mad!! That no- account son-in-law done killed his son. He say he gonna find William to hang him. Sarah, her mind was confused. She love William, but he killed her brother, but she didn't want no hangin'. So she pleaded with her Daddy, if he catch him, make him go to prison, but no hangin'. Her Daddy say, no, hangin' was gonna happen. Sarah and her Daddy got into it again, and she take the next train back to Maryland.
I looked at Mrs. Davis with a very confused look. "I still don't understand, our family could never be without William. So he came back, right"
Mrs. Davis shook her head. "No chil, he don't come back, they find him and give him a proper hangin'. Miss Sarah found out later. So now she was a widow lady, couldn't go back to fambly, all she really had was ol' Moses. Moses, he a good man, stayed with her, help her on the farm, and take care of her. But then Miss Sarah and Moses did something never, ever shoulda happen. They fall in love. Back in the south in those days, they would have lynched ol' Moses good. They make a baby together.
"Most folks never thought that though, when her belly get big, they think she was like that when William left. They felt sorry for her, poor baby gonna have no Daddy. Miss Sarah just let them think like that, and when the baby be born, if it be light, they say it was William. If it dark, ol' Moses was gonna have to take the baby and go away. As it was, the baby very dark, so Moses took it away. Miss Sarah say she lose it while birthin'. Only her midwife knew the truth"
"One day, a man came to her door, and say he William's brother, and now that William be dead, the property be his. The man that gave the property to William, say in his will, if ol' William dead, it be his brother's. Sarah didn't know this, but the man showed her the paper. What she gonna do now? Everyone be gone and now she lose the house?? Mr. John, he be a nice man, and felt sorry for her, he say she could stay on the land. He knew what his brother done, and it weren't right to kick a poor widow lady out. The house plenty big, so he stay in one half the house, she stay on the other. It don't look right, but ol' John's property had burnt to the ground. They stay together, soon, they fall in love, and have three chil'rens. One of them be your great-granddaddy Hartwell. People don't want anyone to know about William, so they say throughout the many years, he was your great-great granddaddy."
"So you understand, chil', your fambly didn't no one finding out about one of they own havin' a black baby, or havin' a murderer in they past. But the past still here, because you see chil', the baby that Sarah had, that was me."
I was in shock. This was way too much to take in. But one thing, if all this was so secret, how did anyone find out. Mrs. Davis was my great-great grandmother's daughter! So why didn't they shun her and always say what a wonderful woman she was? A white woman having a black baby? And one more question.
"Mrs. Davis, I'm confused. All this secrecy back then….how did it all get out? Who knew about it, and why was it passed down."
"Aw chil', that weren't nothin'. You see, the one person know everythin' were my Daddy. He tell the story, and it go down through all time. Black folks always tell about they fambly, good or bad, most of us can't read nor write, so we tell stories to our chil'en and they pass it on. Now white folks they don't do that, if somethin' bad happen, they keep it hush, just like your Mama done. Your whole fambly know what happen, but your Mama wanted it stopped, and the secret to be buried forever.
Okay, I got what I came for, I think. I thanked Mrs. Davis for all her time. I stood up to leave, and shook Mrs. Davis' hand. But she fell over in the chair and grabbed her heart. I knelt next to her, and said,
"Oh, my God, Mrs. Davis! Just then Bessie came up the steps and I yelled at her to get an ambulance. She looked at her Mama and knowing how she was, she knew that was useless. She knelt next to her mother and I cried. "You aren't going to do anything?!" I then heard a faint whisper from Mrs. Davis and remembered what she had told me when we began. Her words rang in my head: "Well if I tell the story, at least I kin go to my Jesus with a clean heart and mind." She did.
Mary E. Lacey