19th c. Race Relations > Night Funeral of a Slave
THE NIGHT FUNERAL OF A SLAVE
By Viator, Reprinted from the Commercial Review, February 1856 Vol. XX
DeBow constantly looked for articles that revealed the genial side of slavery. Viator, a pseudonym meaning wayfarer, recounts, in this piece taken from the Home Journal, a New York magazine, his visit to a plantation during the funeral of a trusted slave. Written with 19th century sentimentality, this essay undoubtedly appealed to DeBow and his readers, who could see in this account by a man who had once opposed slavery, additional justification for the peculiar institution.
"Our southern readers familiar with such scenes as the following will be pleased with the description which is given of one of them in the late number of the Home Journal --DeBow"
My request brought the proprietor himself to the door, and from thence to the gate, when after a scrutinizing glance at my person and equipments, he inquired my name, business, and destination. I promptly responded to his questions, and he invited me to alight and enter the house in the true spirit of southern hospitality.
He was apparently thirty years of age, and a man of education and refinement. I soon observed an air of gloomy abstraction about him; he said little, and even that little seemed the result of an effort to obviate the seeming want of civility to a stranger. At supper the mistress of the mansion appeared, and did the honors of the table in her particular department; she was exceedingly ladylike and beautiful, only as southern women are, that is, beyond comparison with those of any other portion of this republic I have ever seen. She retired immediately after supper, and a servant handing some splendid Havanas on a small silver tray, we had just seated ourselves comfortably before the enormous fire of oak wood, when a servant appeared at the end door near my host, hat in hand, and uttered in subdued but distinct tones, to me, the startling words:
"Master, de coffin hab come."
"Very well," was the only reply, and the servant disappeared.
My host remarked my gaze of inquisitive wonder, and replied to it:
"I have been very sad," he said, "to-day. I have had a greater misfortune than I have experienced since my fathers death. I lost this morning the truest and most reliable friend I had in the world, one whom I have been accustomed to honor and respect since my earliest recollection; he was a playmate of my fathers youth, and the Mentor of mine; a faithful servant, an honest man, and a sincere Christian. I stood by his bedside to-day, and, with his hands clasped in mine, I heard the last words he uttered; they were, "Master, meet me in heaven."
His voice faltered a moment, and he continued, after a pause, with increased excitement:
"His loss is a melancholy one to me. If I left my home, I said to him, John, see that all things are taken care of, and I knew that my wife and child, property and all, were as safe as though they were guarded by a hundred soldiers. I never spoke harsh words to him in all my life, for he never merited it. I have a hundred others, many of them faithful and true, but this loss is irreparable."
I come from a section of the Union where slavery does not exist, and I brought with me all the prejudices which so generally prevail in the free States in regard to this "institution." I had already seen much to soften these, but the observation of years would have failed to give me so clear an insight into the relation between master and his servant as this simple incident. It was not the haughty planter, the lordly tyrant, talking of his dead slave as one of his dead horse, but the kind-hearted gentleman, lamenting the loss and eulogizing the virtues of his good old friend.
After an interval of silence my host resumed -
"There are," said he, "many of the old mans relatives and friends who would wish to attend his funeral. To afford them a opportunity, several plantations have been notified that he will be buried to-night; some, I presume, have already arrived; and desiring to see that all thing are properly prepared for his internment, I trust you will excuse my absence for a few moments."
"Most certainly, sir; but," I added, "if there is no impropriety, I would be pleased to accompany you."
"There is none," he replied; and following him to a long row of cabins, situated at a distance of some 300 yards from the mansion. The house was crowded with negroes, who all rose on our entrance, and many of them exchanged greetings with mine host, in tones that convinced me that they felt he was an object of sympathy from them. The corpse was deposited in the coffin, attired in a shroud of the finest cotton materials, and the coffin itself painted black.
The master stopped at his head, and laying his hand upon the cold brow of his faithful bondsman, gazed long and intently upon the features with which he had been so long familiar, and which he now looked upon for the last time on earth; raising his eyes at length, and glancing at the serious countenances now bent upon his, he said solemnly and with much feeling
"He was a faithful servant and a true Christian; if you follow his example, and live as he lived, none of you need fear, when the time comes for you to lay here."
A patriarch, with the snow of eighty winters on his head answered
"Master, it is true, and we will try to live like him."
There was a murmur of general assent, and after giving some instructions relative to the burial we returned to the dwelling.
About nine, a servant appeared with the notice that they were ready to move and to know if further instructions were necessary. My host remarked to me, that by stepping into the piazza, I would probably witness, to me, a novel scene. The procession had moved and it route led within a few yards of the mansion. There were at least 150 negroes, arranged four deep, and following a wagon in which was placed the coffin; down the entire length of the line, at intervals of a few feet on each side were carried torches of the resinous pine, and here called lightwood. About the center was stationed the black preacher, a man of gigantic frame and stentorian lungs, who gave out from memory the words of a hymn suitable for the occasion. The southern negroes are proverbial for the melody and compass of their voices, and I thought that hymn, mellowed by distance, the most solemn and yet the sweetest music that had ever fallen upon my ear. The stillness of the night and strength of their voices enabled me to distinguish the air at the distance of half a mile.
It was to me a strange and solemn scene, and no incident of my life has impressed me with more powerful emotions than the night funeral of the poor negro. For this reason I have hastily and most imperfectly sketched its leading features. Previous to retiring to my room, I saw in the hands of a daughter of the lady at whose house I stopped for the night a number of the Home Journal, and it occurred to me to send this to your paper, perfectly indifferent whether it be published or not. I am but a brief sojourner here. I hail from a colder clime, where it is our proud boast that all men are free and equal. I shall return to my northern home, deeply impressed with the belief that, dispensing with the name of freedom, the negroes of the south are the happiest and most contented people on the face of the earth.