This is a short story based on the life of Mary Minus Biddle, a real woman who lived in my home state of Florida about the time slaves were being emancipated. Ann
Mary Minus Biddle shifted her bony behind on the hard pew, sweat soaking the back of her best dress. The scent of orange blossoms floated through the window and she sneezed. Sometimes she thought her body didn’t care ‘tall for Pensacola, even if she was born and raised here.
Up front the preacher, with skin white as eyeballs, lifted his chin, his gaze peering past all the white folks until they landed on the last three rows where she sat with the rest of the coloreds. “Mind your masters,” he said. “Show them your respect.”
Mammy Hamilton said under her breath, “Yeah, we is just as good as they is, only they is white and we is black, huh.”
Pappy Hamilton poked a sharp elbow into Mammy’s side to shush her.
Used to be, Mary didn’t take no never mind to that kind of talk. Lancaster Jamison had owned her family—Pappy, Mama, Sissy, ‘Lil Tom, and herself—forever. He was a kind man. Hadn’t she and her sister and brother called him, “Fa,” nearly since they were birthed? When she was still a young’un they’d helped Mama get the breakfast on at Fa’s boarding house. When everyone was done, they’d eat the potatoes Pappy had roasted in the fire the night before, then play all the way till lunch time.
But ever since Mrs. Jamison—the first one—had departed to Jesus and Fa had found himself a new Mrs. Jamison—who was kin to the Devil himself—Mary wanted to say things like Mammy Hamilton said. Only she wouldn’t be sayin’ them quiet like.
The next day Mary stood beside Mama, kneading bread, both of them so dusty with flour they’d pass for white folks. Mary smiled at the ridiculousness of the idea. What would her life be like if she could do whatever she wanted all day long? It was beyond thinkin’.
Mrs. Jamison smacked open the kitchen door and it banged against the wall so hard the dishes rattled on the shelf. “Mary, why haven’t you washed those sheets yet? You lazy goat. You don’t understand anything but the whip? That’s what I keep telling Mr. Jamison.”
Mary’s hackles went up like a barn cat’s. She’d tell that ‘ol she-devil what was what. But her words sounded whiney as a frightened kitten’s. “I always help with the bread on Mondays, then I start the wash—”
Mrs. Jamison’s leathery face mottled with red. She aimed to backhand Mary, but Mary was too quick and jumped out of the way. Mrs. Jamison’s eyes went plum crazy, twitching every which way. She whirled around, grabbed a rag, and pulled the boiling kettle from the flames in the fireplace. “I’ll learn you a lesson but good.”
I’m gonna get kilt. Mary’s feet stuck fast to the floor with fright. Then her thinker kicked awake and she hightailed it out of the kitchen and kept on running till she got to the neighbor’s root cellar. Her heart banged against her chest in the dimness. Did the Missus see which way she’d run? Gradually, her breath calmed. She kicked a clod of dirt across the small floor with a flare of temper. “Yeah, I sure told her what was what.” She stayed put until Sissy came looking for her.
“Mr. Jamison done give that woman the tongue lashing o’ her life.”
Mary followed her sister’s wide back across the yard, taking little pleasure in the news. “I should have stood up for myself.”
Sissy plunked a hand on her hip and threw her a look. “That being before or after she scald you to death?”
The day before Thanksgiving, Sissy tore through the house like she was lit on fire. “Everybody, Mrs. Jamison done get shot dead.”
Mary’s head jerked around from the dishes she was washing. Mama stood up from tending the fire. Pappy and Lil’ Tom rushed in the back door from the garden.
Sissy leaned on her knees to catch her breath while the family peppered her with questions. Finally she said, “Her son-in-law Jackson must a had one too many servings of her nastiness.”
“God’s justice,” said Pappy.
Part of Mary was glad the woman was dead. And part of her was mad that she never got the gumption to tell the lady what was what.
Come the first of the year, 1863, a negro rode into the yard on a mule, his feet touching the ground with each step of the beast. Mary watched through the window, curious. “The slaves have been freed,” he declared in a loud voice—as though he knew the house had ears.
Mary’s heart puffed up with joy. Now she’d have to imagine freedom!
Lancaster Jamison wasn’t a man given to cursing, but the string of words spillin’ onto the porch could have fried eggs.
Mary thought about how Fa had once told Pappy to let him know if the second Missus Jamison’s meanness got so bad they fixed to run away. Fa would leave his wife rather than loose them. “You’re my people,” he’d said.
But when it came right down to it, Mr. Jamison was still white and they were still colored.
Mr. Jamison left off cursing and broke down sobbing like a whipped slave. When he got all done he came inside and stood in front of us. “Phyliss and Sandy, children, I got no more to do with you. You are free. If you want to stay with me, I’ll give you a third of the crop.”
But when the crops were brought in, he gave them nothing. Nothing.
Mary mounted Mustang, their old mule and made for Newnansville to see the Union captain.
This time, she told the captain what was what.
That day Mary’s words won the Minuses their share of the crop and their freedom.