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Told By

James Whitcomb Riley 1849 (Greenfield) – 1916 (Indianapolis)



Coming, clean from the Maryland-end
Of this great National Road of ours,
Through your vast West; with the time to spend,
Stopping for days in the main towns, where
Every citizen seemed a friend,
And friends grew thick as the wayside flowers,--
I found no thing that I might narrate
More singularly strange or queer
Than a thing I found in your sister-state
Ohio,--at a river-town--down here
In my notebook: _Zanesville--situate
On the stream Muskingum--broad and clear,
And navigable, through half the year,
North, to Coshocton; south, as far
As Marietta._--But these facts are
Not of the _story_, but the _scene_
Of the simple little tale I mean
To tell _directly_--from this, straight through
To the _end_ that is best worth listening to:

Eastward of Zanesville, two or three
Miles from the town, as our stage drove in,
I on the driver's seat, and he
Pointing out this and that to me,--
On beyond us--among the rest--
A grovey slope, and a fluttering throng
Of little children, which he 'guessed'
Was a picnic, as we caught their thin
High laughter, as we drove along,
Clearer and clearer. Then suddenly
He turned and asked, with a curious grin,
What were my views on _Slavery? 'Why?'_
I asked, in return, with a wary eye.
'Because,' he answered, pointing his whip
At a little, whitewashed house and shed
On the edge of the road by the grove ahead,--
'Because there are two slaves _there_,' he said--
'Two Black slaves that I've passed each trip
For eighteen years.--Though they've been set free,
They have been slaves ever since!' said he.
And, as our horses slowly drew
Nearer the little house in view,
All briefly I heard the history
Of this little old Negro woman and
Her husband, house and scrap of land;
How they were slaves and had been made free
By their dying master, years ago
In old Virginia; and then had come
North here into a _free_ state--so,
Safe forever, to found a home--
For themselves alone?--for they left South there
Five strong sons, who had, alas!
All been sold ere it came to pass
This first old master with his last breath
Had freed the _parents_.--(He went to death
Agonized and in dire despair
That the poor slave _children_ might not share
Their parents' freedom. And wildly then
He moaned for pardon and died. Amen!)

Thus, with their freedom, and little sum
Of money left them, these two had come
North, full twenty long years ago;
And, settling there, they had hopefully
Gone to work, in their simple way,
Hauling--gardening--raising sweet
Corn, and popcorn.--Bird and bee
In the garden-blooms and the apple-tree
Singing with them throughout the slow
Summer's day, with its dust and heat--
The crops that thirst and the rains that fail;
Or in Autumn chill, when the clouds hung low,
And hand-made hominy might find sale
In the near town-market; or baking pies
And cakes, to range in alluring show
At the little window, where the eyes
Of the Movers' children, driving past,
Grew fixed, till the big white wagons drew
Into a halt that would sometimes last
Even the space of an hour or two--
As the dusty, thirsty travelers made
Their noonings there in the beeches' shade
By the old black Aunty's spring-house, where,
Along with its cooling draughts, were found
Jugs of her famous sweet spruce-beer,
Served with her gingerbread-horses there,
While Aunty's snow-white cap bobbed 'round
Till the children's rapture knew no bound,
As she sang and danced for them, quavering clear
And high the chant of her old slave-days--

'Oh, Lo'd, Jinny! my toes is so',
Dancin' on yo' sandy flo'!'

Even so had they wrought all ways
To earn the pennies, and hoard them, too,--
And with what ultimate end in view?--
They were saving up money enough to be
Able, in time, to buy their own
Five children back.

Ah! the toil gone through!
And the long delays and the heartaches, too,
And self-denials that they had known!
But the pride and glory that was theirs
When they first hitched up their shackly cart
For the long, long journey South.--The start
In the first drear light of the chilly dawn,
With no friends gathered in grieving throng,--
With no farewells and favoring prayers;
But, as they creaked and jolted on,
Their chiming voices broke in song--

''Hail, all hail! don't you see the stars a-fallin'?
Hail, all hail! I'm on my way.
Gideon am
A healin' ba'm--
I belong to the blood-washed army.
Gideon am
A healin' ba'm--
On my way!''

And their _return!_--with the
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

3:57 min read
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James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best-selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the "Hoosier Poet" and "Children's Poet" for his dialect works and his children's poetry respectively. more…

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    "Told By" Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2022. Web. 24 Jan. 2022. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/21157/told-by>.

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