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James Suggs: ‘When the Car of Freedom Comes Along’

Eliza Suggs was not born a slave. In fact, she did not come into this world until over a decade after the war ended. Both of her parents, however, were slaves. Her mother, Malinda, was born in Alabama, while her father, James, was born in North Carolina. Both wound up in Mississippi, owned by the same enslaver. By the time they met, Malinda already had four children. Come the war, James ran away and joined the United States Army, enlisting in the 55th US Colored Troops, and then reenlisting in the 59th. Following emancipation, they were married, had four children together, and moved throughout the midwest.

Eliza was the last of four. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, then called Rickets, she suffered through much of her childhood. Through the help of friends, she was able to get an education. Upon adulthood, she became a leader in the temperance movement, often using her parents’ stories of slavery, her own suffering, and religion to convince others of the evils of alcohol.

In 1906, she published Shadow and Sunshine, a book telling of her parents’ and her own life, filled with warnings against drink. It is from this book that the account of her father and mother’s slavery days is taken. We’ll begin this week with James’ and next week we’ll meet Malinda.

My father and mother were slaves. Father was born in North Carolina, August 15th, 1831. He was a twin, and was sold away from his parents and twin brother, Harry, at the age of three years. This separation, at so tender an age, was for all time, as never again did he see his loved ones. In after years he had a faint recollection of his mother, and could remember distinctly the words of introduction with which he was handed over from his old master to his new: “Whip that boy and make him mind.”

A slave had no real name of his own, but was called by the name of his master; and whenever he was sold and changed masters, his name was changed to that of the new master. The parents gave his first, or Christian name, however, which was usually retained amid all his changing of masters. Father’s parents named him James. So at this time his name was James Martin. He was sold by Mr. Martin for a hundred dollars, and taken to Mississippi. Afterward he was sold to Jack Kindrick, and again to Mr. Suggs, with whom he remained until the war broke out.

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Father was a blacksmith by trade, and was considered a valuable slave. Mr. Suggs was a kind master, and as James was an industrious and obedient servant, he was allowed the privilege, after his day’s work was done, of working after night for himself. He made pancake griddles, shovels, tongs, and other small articles, the proceeds from the sale of which brought in many a small coin. He was also allowed, in odd moments, to cultivate a small garden patch, on his own responsibility, and it was surprising what that little patch was made to yield. Naturally proud and ambitious, the money thus obtained was usually spent upon his person, enabling him to dress better and appear to much better advantage than his less enterprising compeers.

Slaves were not allowed to have an education. Father said he had to “pick up” what education he got, much as a rabbit might be supposed to pick up some tender morsel with the greyhounds hot in pursuit. When the master’s children came from school, they would make letters and say, “Jim, you can’t make that.” But he would make it and find out what it was. Again he would say to them, “You can’t spell “horse, “or “dog,” or some other word he wanted to know. And they would reply, “Yes, I can,” and would spell it. All this time he was learning, while they had no idea that he was storing these things up in his mind. Yes, he had to steal what learning he got.

While James was still quite young, Mr. Suggs bought a little slave girl, named Malinda Filbrick. In time, Jame and Malinda came to love each other, and were married while yet in their teens. The same pride of heart which had manifested itself in his own stylish appearance, now prompted him to lavish his extra earnings on his young bride. One instance of his extravagant indulgence was the purchase of a $7.00 pair of ear-drops, which doubtless afforded him much gratification until the ill-fated day when they proved too strong a temptation to a party of Union soldiers, who carried them off as spoils. Another outlay of his surplus earnings was in the purchase, for his wife, of a remarkable quilt, made after the pattern known as “the chariot-wheel.” This was truly a masterpiece of skill, and was highly prized by my mother. It seemed about to share the same fate as the ear-drops and was in the hands of a Union soldier, when the earnest pleadings of my mother prevailed upon the kind-hearted officer in charge to give orders for its restoration.

While still in slavery, father was wonderfully converted. Before his conversion he was a wicked young man. Pride in dress was not his only besetment. He loved to dance and drink, and have as good a time, from a worldly standpoint, as any human being could who was held in bondage. Whenever a slave wanted to go out to spend the evening he had to get a pass from his master; for there were more men called patrolment, elected according to law, whose duty it was to seize and thoroughly chastise any slave who was so presumptious as to venture out without a pass. If a slave was caught out after nine o’clock at night, without a pass, he was stripped to the waist and beaten thirty lashes on his naked back. It was against the law to whip a slave over his clothing. One night these patrolment caught father out without a pass. He well knew what was to follow, and as they held him by the coat collar, he straightened back his arms and ran out of the coat leaving it in their hands. They got the coat, but James never got the whipping.

After he was converted, he would go to his master and ask to be allowed to go to meeting, and permission having been given, he would say, “And please, sir, may I have a pass?” At these meetings he would talk and exhort his fellow-slaves, until Mr. Suggs would say, “If James keeps on like this, he will surely make a preacher.”

Father loved freedom; or at least he thought he should enjoy it. He never had been a free man, and hardly knew how it would seem to be free. But it is natural to every man, of whatever race or color, to want to be free. He used often to say to his young wife, “When the car of freedom comes along, I am going to get on board;” meaning that if he got a chance he was going to the war.

One day the news came that the “Yankees” were within four miles of Ripley, the village near which Mr. Suggs lived. They were reported as having a heavy force of both calvary and infantry. Mr. Suggs was a very wealthy man and had a large number of fine horses and carriages, as well as great herds of cattle and sheep. All these he must hide, as best he could, from the “Yankees,” for they were very destructive to the property of the southerners. So he called his men to gather up his belongings, as far as possible, and take them to the cane-brake to hide them. The canes grow so thickly together, and the leaves so interwoven, as to make it impossible to see any object at a distance of even a few feet. So a cane-brake was a fine place for hiding.

Mr. Suggs called James and told him to take his sheep and go at once to the cane-brake, which he did. Little did my mother think, as she saw him go, that this would be the last she would see of James for three years and nine months. But so it was to be. When the “Yankees” came, a colored man took them and showed them where these treasures were hidden, together with the belongings of several neighbors. The soldiers helped themselves to whatever they wanted; and told the slaves that any who wanted to do so might go with them. Father thought his time had come to strike for liberty. He went into the war and fought for his freedom and that of his family, and obtained it as a well-earned victory.

Many of the slaves, in making their escape north with the Union army, took with them their wives and children. So father fondly hoped he could get some soldiers to come back with him to get mother and the four children. He knew but little of army life and discipline, and so was bitterly disappointed in never getting back.

When the excitement was over and the soldiers gone, and some of the slaves came back to the plantation, father did not appear. Mr. Suggs came to mother and said, “Malinda, where is James?” “I don’t know,” said mother. “Didn’t you send him off with the sheep?” But he would not believe her when she said she didn’t know. He blamed her for father’s going away, and thought she had put him up to go.

Father enlisted in 1864, but was wounded shortly after and discharged from active service and sent to the hospital. After recovering from his wound, he joined the regular service and continued until the close of the war, part of the time acting as corporal of his company. When the war was over, he came north with his captain, Mr. Newton. The thought uppermost in his mind, was how to get his family from the south. For him to have gone after them, in person, at that time, would have been at the risk of his life. Mr. Newton, having business in the south, and being a kind-hearted man, father begged of him to go and find his family and bring them to him. This Captain Newton did, finding them not far from where father had left them.

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Father now went to work with great zeal at his trade to earn money for the purpose of getting a home for his family. He was at last a free man, with his dear family–a free family, and living in his own free country. The slaves could not be married as white people were; for there was a clause in the marriage ceremony which gave the slave-holder the right to separate husband and wife whenever he chose to do so. I have heard my mother say that she has known instances where husband and wife have been separated after having been married only a few weeks, or even only a few days. My father said that seeing he was now a free man, he wanted to be married like other free people. So on the fifth day of June, in 1866, father and mother were married again according to the Christian rites, or according to the white man’s law.

Father continued to work at his trade until God called him to preach the Gospel. He had a great struggle over his call to preach. He had worldly ambitions and was making money, and it was hard for him to give up all and follow Christ. Finally he consented to preach, but did not go at it with his whole heart. He would preach occasionally, but still worked at his blacksmithing, until one night the Lord spoke to him plainly. He said it was like an audible voice saying, “Either preach the Gospel or work at your trade.” He was to make his choice, but it meant to him heaven or hell. Which would he take? He trembled as he felt the responsibility of leading lost souls to Christ. But he made his choice and said, “Yes,” to God. He began preaching around in school houses. Large crowds gathered to hear him, and from that time on, it was the business of his life to minister Divine truth to dying men and women.

You can read the entire volume of Shadow and Sunshine here.

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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