“Elizabeth Kilham” was the pseudonym of a teacher from New England who taught freed slaves at the end of the Civil War. Her experiences formed the basis for several pieces in Our Young Folks. Along with the triumphs of young people with few physical and economic resources, “Freed Children in Virginia” features the unintended humor of malapropisms and unexpected situations. The piece is dense with dialect.

It’s also dense with condescension. Kilham’s sympathy for her students doesn’t keep her from highlighting their apparent shortcomings. Their names are amusing; their clothing is amusing; the substitution of a racial slur for a word in a bible verse is amusing. Interestingly, the humorous anecdotes tend to feature boys.

The editor of Our Young Folks may have intended readers to sympathize with the children in Kilham’s piece, who show how an individual can overcome great odds to triumph. But what readers more likely took from it are the trivializing anecdotes. Kilham’s work is rarely mentioned letters from subscribers that were printed in the magazine. Interesting as Kilham’s pieces are for later historians, the emphasis on humor makes most of the people she wrote about into caricatures.

“Freed Children in Virginia,” by “Elizabeth Kilham” (from Our Young Folks, December 1870; pp. 723-727)

I have heard children tell about “feeling funny,” but I never knew exactly what they meant until the first time that I stood up before a school of little black children down in Virginia. I “felt funny” then, sure enough. They had never been to school before, they scarcely knew what a school was; and they all sat with their great, shining black eyes fixed on me,—the blacks so very black, the whites so very white, like huckleberries in a bowl of milk, somebody said,—that I grew so nervous that I felt as if I must either laugh or cry, and could n’t quite make up my mind which it should be.

Taking their names decided me. It was a long time before I could keep from laughing whenever I heard them. When the colored people were slaves they had no family names as we have; they were just called Jim or Tom or Sally; sometimes they added the name of their master or mistress, but often they had only the one.

One little boy gave his name as “Dandy Jim.”

“What is your other name?” I asked.

“Ain’t got no oder name.”

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Name Aunt Polly.”

“What is your father’s name?”

“Name Uncle Jake.”

“And have n’t you any name but Jim?”

“Done tole yer my name Dandy Jim. Mammy ca’ me Jim, ole mass’ ca’ me Dandy Jim. Likes dat ar de bes’.”

Then I came to another who called himself “Pres’den’ Linkum.”

“Why,” I said, “you are not President Lincoln.”

“Is too. My mammy say so.”

I asked his mother about it, and sure enough all the name he had was President Lincoln, or, as she called it, “Pres’den’ Linkum.” Truth compels me to acknowledge that “President Lincoln” did not always behave in just the manner that would have been expected from a personage with such a distinguished name.

Another had never been called anything but “Buster.” There was one pretty, bright-looking little fellow, about five years old, with just enough of a lisp to make him as cunning as possible. When I asked his name he said, “I ’th Mahala Thpriggth’s boy.”

“But what is your name?”

“Dat ar my name.”

“What does your mother call you?”

“Ca’ me Boy.”

“What do other people call you?”

“Ca’ me Mahala Thpriggth’s boy.”

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So there was nothing to be done but to put him down as “Mahala Spriggs’s boy.” Then there was “Gin’al Butler,” and “Jim Crow”; as black as a crow, and as full of mischief as the Jim Crow who the old song says used to cut such queer capers. I don’t believe there was ever another school register like that one. When I called the names they ran something in this way: “Dandy Jim,” “President Lincoln,” “Buster,” “Mahala Spriggs’s Boy,” “General Butler,” “Jim Crow.” And the owners of these names answered to them as seriously as if there was n’t anything funny about it. And there was n’t to them; they did n’t see that their names were at all out of the way.

They had been accustomed to running wild out of doors all their lives, and it was very hard for them to sit still for two or three hours in school. It would not have been quite so hard if our school-room had been more comfortable; but we had no nice brick school-house; we had to use an old barrack, or a barn, or whatever we could get. And we had no desks or chairs; only long benches,—some of them without backs,—where the children had to sit packed as close as herrings in a box. They could not very well help getting into trouble under such circumstances, and every few minutes some one would call out, “Teacher, dis yere boy a chunkin’ ”; by which they meant pushing with his elbows; or, “Teacher, please make dis yere gal ’have herse’f”; or, “Teacher, make dis yere boy stop rollin’ he eyes roun’ at me.” Nothing troubles them so much as to have “eyes roll’ roun’ ” at them. Sometimes matters were more serious, and I would hear, “Boy, I ’ll mash yer mouf ef yer don’ lemme ’lone.” When they are very angry they always want to “mash” somebody’s “mouf.”

One day a bench full of girls in front of one of the boys’ benches was overturned, and the girls rolled in a heap on the floor. “How did this happen?” I asked.

“Dis yere Charlie,” they all screamed in a breath, “he done did it; done chunk de bench, an’ dash we all on de flo’.”

“Why, Charlie,” I said, “what made you do that?”

I does hate girls,” said Charlie; and he seemed to consider that good and sufficient reason for upsetting a bench full of them.

But they very soon got over all this, and became as quiet and orderly as any one could desire; and I never saw any children at the North so eager to learn, or who tried so hard as these. Their parents were all very poor, and but few of them were able to get books for their children, so many of the boys used to work after school hours and earn money to buy their own books. One little fellow only seven years old had looked with longing eyes, as day after day one and another came with a primer. At last I missed him. He was gone a week, then came with a primer which he showed in triumph. “Done got my book,” he said. He was such a little fellow that I never thought of his having bought it himself, so I said, “I am very glad. Who gave it to you?” He drew himself up with offended dignity as he answered, “Did n’t nobody gub it to me. Dar don’t nobody buy my books; buys um myse’f.”

p. 725

“Where did you get your money?” I asked.

“Done kotch bait fer it.”

He had caught small fish which he sold to the fishermen for bait, and saving up the pennies he earned in this way, at last had enough to buy a book. The boys had all sorts of ways of making money, and knew quite well how to take care of their own interests. One boy ten years old, as soon as he could read in the primer, started a night school. There were several men who wanted to learn to read, but as they were at work all day they had no chance to go to school. They engaged little Dick to teach them in the evening, paying him five cents a week each. He always insisted upon being paid in advance. I asked him why that was.

“Well,” he said, “I dunno noffin’ ’bout dem ar men; dey mout go off any time, an’ ef dey ’s got dar week’s larnin’ fus’, I mout whistle fer my money. But I ’se on’y a chile, I can’t go nowhars widout my mammy, an’ ef dey pays dar money, dey ’s sho’ nuff ter git de larnin’.”

I thought that was bright enough for a Yankee boy. He earned money in this way to buy all the books he needed, and put quite a little sum into the savings-bank besides.

These children would spend their last cent for a book, if they went without anything to eat in consequence. They did care more to learn than to eat. Often they would come to me late in the day and say, “Please, ma’am, kin I run home jes’ a few minutes when my class if froo? I ain’t had noffin’ ter eat to-day.”

“Why,” I would ask, “what made you come without your breakfast?”

Had work ter do dis mornin’, an’ when I got froo it wor late, an’ I ’se feared I be late fer school, so I did n’t wait fer no breffus.”

They had no clocks; their only way of telling the time was by the sun; and on cloudy days, when they had no guide at all, they were so afraid of being late that it was a very common thing for them to bring their breakfast to school and eat it there. There was one little girl who lived more than a mile from the school. The roads were very bad in wet weather, and she had to cross a brook where there was no bridge, only stepping-stones. After a heavy rain the water would rise so that the stones were entirely covered, and she had to wade through as best she could. She used to come through storms that would have kept many grown people in the house, and often came into school wet to the skin, and with the water running in streams from her clothes. For one whole year this little girl was neither absent nor tardy.

Whenever any of the children happened to be late, they were sure to bring some very good excuse, though sometimes it would be very comical. One morning about ten o’clock a boy came rushing, all out of breath, into the school-room, exclaiming, “ ’Deed, ma’am, I could n’t he’p bein’ late dis mornin’ not ter save my life. My mammy done got a cow, an’ de cow done got a calf, an’ de calf done runned away, an’ de cow done gone af’er de calf, an’ I done gone af’er de cow, an’ I spec I be late ebery mornin’ now, gwine af’er dis yere.”

p. 726

My class in Sunday school consisted of a dozen boys between the ages of eight and twelve; most of them bright, and one a real original,—a sort of boy Topsey; unlike anything in the wide world but just himself. He belonged also to my day school, and on entering gave his name as “Chris.”

“Chris what?” I asked.

“Name Chris,” he repeated.

“But have you no other name?”

“Done tole yer my name ’fore; name Chris”; and he looked at me in amazement at my stupidity. So as “Chris” he was registered, and that melodious monosyllable was the only name he ever acknowledged.

His dress was the most wonderful thing that ever was seen, and was arranged without the least consideration of times and seasons. On a stormy winter day when the cold seemed to pinch one’s very bones, and an Esquimaux suit of furs would have been comfortable and suitable, Chris would dawn upon the school in smiling satisfaction, attired in the thinnest possible summer clothes, and usually barefooted. On a warm spring day when every one else threw aside extra wrappings, he would frequently appear with two suits of woollen clothes, one over the other, and an overcoat that reached to his heels, the tatters dragging on the ground, and collecting a mud fringe around the edge of the garment. With this costume he wore usually one boot and one shoe, or if he so far conformed to fashion as to wear a pair of boots, one leg of his pantaloons was sure to be tucked in, and the other left hanging down. Uniformity was something that his soul abhorred. Surmounting this varied attire was a hat,—but that must have a paragraph all to itself.

No description can do justice to that hat; it was without its like in the wide world. His mother had made it out of some black material, quilted. It was immensely large, of no particular shape, and the binding was sewed so tightly round the edge that the rim—broad enough for a Quaker—was drawn down almost straight, and rested on his shoulders. This article he wore wrong side out through the week,—“so ’s ter keep toder side clean fer Sundays,”—he explained; and as the lining was of bright-colored calico, he looked, at a little distance, as if his head had turned into a big sunflower.

Every Sunday I read to the class some part of Bible history, and the next week questioned them as to what they remembered of it. On one occasion I had taken the story of Adam and Eve. Chris seemed particularly interested, and abandoned his usual occupation of pinching his neighbors for fully five minutes to listen. The next Sunday when I asked who could tell me anything about our last reading, his hand went up instantly.

“Can you tell me about it, Chris?” I asked.

“Yaas’m, kin tell a heap. Boy, I ’ll mash yer mouf ef yer don’t quit foolin’ wid me. Guess I knows as much as you does.” This last was addressed to one of the class who audibly expressed his doubts as to Chris telling anything about a lesson. It was the first time he had attempted such a thing, and the children were astonished beyond measure. Having

p. 727

quieted them, I said, “Now, Chris, let us hear how much you can remember.”

“Yaas’m. De Lord done made Adam an’ Eve, an’ put ’em in de garden ob Evil. (Boy, I ’ll choke yer eyes outen yer head ef yer don’t quit rollin’ ’em at me.) Dey got ’long well nuff till Eve done eat de apple, den she carry one to Adam an’ cuss at him to eat it, an’ den dey done druv ’em outen de garden, an’ put an’ ingine at de gate to keep ’em from comin’ back.”

“What kind of an engine was it, Chris?” I asked, when he paused breathless.

Fire-ingine, ma’am,” responded Chris, triumphantly. He had understood angel as engine, and this accounted for his interest in the story. He had once seen a fire-engine that had greatly interested him, and nothing could persuade him that it was not the very same article that had barred the gates of Eden against the return of the exiled pair.

Almost a match for Chris in oddity was his neighbor Peter; but there was this difference,—Peter learned readily, and as a rule understandingly, and was a remarkably intelligent boy for his age and advantages, or rather disadvantages. Whatever question was asked of Peter was sure to receive an answer of some kind, whether he knew anything about the subject or not. He utterly disdained to ask for assistance or explanation, and this disposition, together with his unbounded confidence in himself, frequently led him into comical, and to him rather mortifying, mistakes.

One Sunday the class was repeating in concert Psalm 103. In the fifth verse,—“he satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s,”—Peter said something that sounded strangely. I could not make out just what it was, but surely something not in the text. I stopped the class and told him to repeat the verse alone; and evidently considering this a distinction awarded to his superior merits, he shouted out with great emphasis, “He satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like a nigger’s.”

At one of the monthly concerts he undertook to recite the third chapter of Matthew, and told about the “Parisees and the Paducees,” and burning the chaff with “unsquenchable fire”; and once when the hymn “I want to be an angel” was sung, Peter sang, apparently pouring out his whole soul in the words, “I wants to be an eagle, an’ wid de eagles stan’.”

Was it any wonder that they should have made many and great mistakes, kept as they had been in ignorance as complete as that of heathen lands? Was it not the greater wonder that they so eagerly and readily applied themselves to study; that they learned so rapidly and remembered so well?

Many pleasant days we spent together in that old school-house, and when the time came that we must say “good by,” it was hard for us all; very hard I know for me, for dearly had I grown to love my little Virginia freed children.

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