One week had passed since the funeral and Maggie Mae didn’t want to wait any longer to address the elephant in the room. It was a known fact that when the head of a household died, the plantation needed to be passed down to a male heir. In her case, the male heir also died so she was now the successor of her parent’s plantation. She was afraid that before long, the neighboring plantation owners would be offering to buy out her plantation along with the slaves that went with it because a woman couldn’t possibly take care of running a plantation. That was a man’s job.
“I am not going to let that happen.” She said quietly talking to herself in the mirror. “I will not sell what is rightfully mine.” She finished pulling her hair up as she did every day. “Lord only knows where the slaves will go. They could be sold to other slaveowners or kept here, or they could even be separated.” She plunged her soft puff pad inside the pink powder and lightly dabbed it on each cheek. She made sure not to overdo it as it was not proper for a well-to-do woman to put too much color on her face. “Oh, my! I just can’t let that happen.” She headed down to the parlor and sat in the wing chair. “Chesney!” she shouted.
“Yes, Missy Maggie Mae?”
“Can you kindly gather all the servants in here? I need to talk to all of ya.”
Chesney bowed slightly. “Yes, missy Maggie Mae.” She quickly ran off.
While Maggie Mae waited patiently for the servants to assemble, she thought about what to say and how to say it. None of them were educated at all but she was determined to change that.
One by one, the male servants reached the front door, they removed their shoes or boots, removed their hats and walked in. “Mornin’” many of the men greeted their mistress as they bowed slightly. The room was slowly filling with servants, so much so, that she had some of the cleaner ones, the women mostly, sit on the sofas and chairs. They were very uncomfortable doing that because they had never been invited to do so by Mr. Moon nor by the old folks.
“Are we lettin’ in the children too, missy Maggie Mae?”
“Yes, yes, everyone, please.”
Flora collected all the servant’s children and had them sit crossed-legged on the rug, in a row. While Maggie Mae’s two children pulled out a dining room chair and made themselves comfortable.
Once everyone was settled in, she cleared her throat to speak. “Thank y’all for coming here today.” she took a deep breath. “As some of you may already know, with the passing of my husband, I am now in charge of this plantation.” She looked up to see if there were any reactions. Nothing. “Some of you have been here since before I was born and some of you grew up with me and some of you youngins grew up with my children.” She looked at the children who gave her large smiles with pearly whites. “Well, before you know it, some of my neighbors will be interested in buying this property from me because they believe that a woman does not have the ability to run a plantation the way it should be run.”
“Well, I beg to differ, missy Maggie Mae. While your husband was fightin’ in the war, why you took care of things ‘round here just fine.” Charlie said loudly.
“Yes, Charlie, you’re absolutely right and this is the reason why you’re here today. I have two choices to offer y’all at this time. The first is to let you go with your free-man papers so you can go up north and live your own free lives.” Most everyone gasped. “OR you can stay here with me and help me run this plantation the way it should be run. But before you make your decision, I want y’all to know how I feel about slavery: I loathe it. I have never been able to suffer the indecency of it. Treatin’ y’all like you’re nobody, well, in my eyes and in the eyes of our Creator, you are his children just as much as I or my children are. I am in total agreement with President Lincoln when I say that I have never supported slavery and I never will.”
To her pleasant surprise, everyone started clapping loudly. She smiled and waited patiently for everyone to stop clapping and pay attention once again.
“So, I have a proposal for y’all. If you agree to stay here and help me run this plantation, I will pay all the adults here a fair wage.”
“A wage? But missy, but you ain’t allowed to pay us black folk.” Charlie exclaimed.
“I know that well, Charlie, but let me explain how I think this is gonna work.”
“Well, all right, missy…”
“I asked around and found out that a fair wage is about five dollars per week for adults. Will that suit y’all?”
Each adult murmured yes or nodded. Charlie was more vocal. “Yes, missy, that is a fine wage. I ain’t never been paid ever in my life.”
“Good to hear. Now, I’d like to pay the older children as well…I was thinkin’ two dollars a week and once they are of age, they will receive the five. Is that all right for y’all?” she looked at the older children who mimicked the adults by simply nodding. “Very good. So, now comes the hard part. First, I need a commitment from each and every one of y’all that you’ll stay here and work for me. I will prepare a contract and once you sign it, there’s no turning back. Ya hear?”
“Well, I can’t sign my name. I never learned how to write.” Flora said.
“Never you mind, Flora, all you need to mark is an X and that will make it legal.”
“That’s easy. I can write an X.”
“Now, the second part of my proposal, and I’m gonna warn ya, this is the most difficult part.” She looked around the room and everyone seemed to say “hurry up now.” With their looks. “You will need to act like you’re still my slaves. Can you do that?”
“I don’t understand, missy, what would you pay us a wage but keep us as your slaves?” This time Rose asked the question.
Luella stood up. “Because, if any of my neighbors or the other plantation owners or town folk found out that I’m paying my slaves, they would lynch me along with each and every one of y’all.” She looked at her children. “And my children will be sent to an orphanage and they would confiscate and divide every acre of this property among themselves. I’m sure that the Carson’s would love to possess my home especially since theirs is much smaller in size and their family is larger.”
“We can’t have that missy!” Charles exclaimed.
“No, Charles, we cannot.” She paused. “You see, I respect y’all as human beings and I love y’all. You are my family. Many of you grew up with me. I will not tolerate anyone treating you like slaves. I refuse! Therefore, in order to keep up appearances, you must keep acting like my slaves. The only difference is that you’ll be paid for your labor. You must also hide your earnins until the North wins this war and slavery will be abolished once and for all.”
“Miss Maggie Mae, I know I speak for everyone when I say that we all love you too, very much. You been kind ta us and even your parents ‘n your husband, God rest his soul, has never treated us bad. They was good people, they was.” Flora said with tears in her eyes.
“Precisely the reason why we need to keep up appearances. If anyone finds out that I’m paying my slaves, it will be the end of Magnolia Blossom Plantation.”
“Thank you for understanding. Now, on to my third condition: I will educate your children along with mine. They will do their morning chores and in the afternoon, I will teach them readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.”
“But why? We ain’t never needed no education.” Charles asked.
“Because, when the south is free, and mind my words IT WILL BE FREE, all children will need an education. Y’all will need to be able to write, read and perform simple math. This way the southern white man will not try and swindle y’all.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“I know I’m right, Flora, and when your children begin to read you the stories they learn, or read you the bible, you’ll be very proud of them. I believe that to be true.”