OUR FIFTH GRADE SCHOOL YEAR began in September 1968. That same year, integration began to really take root in our area. The black elementary school on The Hill was shut down and the students were bused five miles to Jess Rulam Elementary School. The high school would close the next year. The bittersweet irony was not lost on most of the residents of the town of Jess Rulam.
Between 1850 and 1880, Jess Rulam was the largest cotton farmer in the area. In 1859, he donated all the land and most of the money to start the school that would eventually bear his name. It was recorded that Mr. Rulam was also one of only two people in the entire county to have ever owned slaves. It was also recorded, if one dug through the hidden-away archives long enough, that Mr. Rulam was a bombastic bastard.
Most of the residents heard that the founder of their town had been rich, well-respected, a man of God, and that he had had an unsuccessful run for governor. Eighth grade students could read with pride about the life of Jess Rulam in the textbook Alabama History.
Like most men of renown, the public expects to find out, eventually, that once the veil of history is lifted, men are just men, women are just women, and all have foibles and shortcomings.
If you thought that most of the residents of Jess Rulam knew the real history behind the founder of their town, you would be wrong.
* * *
Jess Rulam was about to take a stroll on his nightly “constitution” as he called it. It was a way to walk off a big supper of fried chicken, collard greens, stewed potatoes, and a double portion of peach cobbler, of course. He was usually so full that he undid the top button of his trousers to accommodate an already distended and bloated belly pressed to the limit of its tensile strength.
Strolling along on his three-thousand-acre plantation with a seven-thousand-square-foot mansion—complete with everything including granite imported from far-off Rhode Island, a billiard table specially imported from even farther-off England, and his eight barns and fifty-six cabins housing two hundred and fifty-six slaves—made a man prideful.
In addition to surveying his own great accumulation of wealth and allowing supper to settle, Mr. Rulam had another purpose for his constitutional—a rather evil one. You see, Jess Rulam enjoyed a rather distasteful, repulsive but rather common consequence of slave ownership—a devilish fringe benefit if you will. It was one that almost all masters, from large plantation owners to the forty-acre sodbusters partook of, or so he thought. It was all justified in his mind of course, but evil nonetheless. And like all evil, it had to be punished. Retribution must be paid and accounts settled, and, the hand that rises to settle the accounts can sometimes cast a long shadow.
* * *
Minnie was startled when she heard the rather forceful knocking on her cabin door.
“Whose dar?” Minnie asked almost too quietly to hear.
“Why it’s Jess, Minnie,” said Mr. Rulam, amused that Minnie would pretend not to know.
“Please, sir, not tis evening. Don’t be studin’ me tis evening. I don’t feel good right now.” Minnie often pleaded this way. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Slave women were always expected to submit to the sexual advances of their owners. It was part of the job description. They were property owned by their master, just like the land or a mule. Part of the right to ownership of property is to do whatever you like with it. This was clearly understood by all parties. Mr. Rulam merely thought of Minnie and the others as concubines, bought and paid for.
“I be sick today, Massa Rulam,” she said, almost frantic.
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ,” said Mr. Rulam, raising his voice slightly with a touch of aggravation. This was one of Mr. Rulam’s favorite quotes from the Bible he used whenever Minnie or any of the other wenches protested servicing him. He wielded it like a sword.
“Please, Massa, pass by me tonight. I accepted the Lord Jesus at the revival meetin’ last Thursday. It not be right for me, Massa. You had that ’vangelist come preach to us. I got the spirit in me, Massa. I done what I was compel by the Holy Ghost. Preacher say it not be right to lay wid menfolk until we had rightful matrimony.” Minnie was crying.
Minnie wished she knew more of the Bible. She just knew that somewhere in it there had to be something to combat this bondage. Why would the Lord allow this to happen? she wondered. If only she could get the master’s daughter, Miss Deborah, to give her some more Bible lessons. She wished that the Lord would hear her prayers and seek vengeance on Jess Rulam someday.
Minnie made her way to the door and let her master in. He pushed her back a little as he entered the tiny cabin.
“I hope you freshened yourself this morning, Minnie, as you were told.”
“I didn’t hap time to, Massa. Sorry.”
“Well, that’s all right, Minnie. You look fresh enough to me.” A smile briefly appeared on his face then vanished as he saw the sorrowful look in Minnie’s eyes.
“I don’ want to give myself to you anymore, Massa!” exclaimed Minnie. “You can give me a whippin’ if it be your will.” Minnie turned defiant.
“It be my will all right,” growled Rulam harshly, slapping her face with his hand. He grabbed her cheeks and squeezed her lips together, hard.
Minnie pulled his hand down with both of hers and said, “My man George don’t like it when you comes ’round here, Massa. We gonna be in matrimony soon.”
“You’re not going to be in any matrimony soon or any other time, Minnie,” Rulam said savagely.
He took one step back for leverage and backhanded Minnie so hard she landed on the floor. She jarred the bed so violently that her four-year-old son, Jeremiah, was startled out of his sleep and began crying, “Mama, Mama.”
Rulam turned and stormed out of the cabin, slamming the door while Minnie tried to comfort the little one.
A few moments later, the cabin door was kicked in with a bang so loud that Jeremiah jumped in Minnie’s arms. Two overseers dragged George, who was semiconscious and wearing chains around his wrists, into the cabin. Then Rulam followed in. Two more overseers followed in behind him.
“Bind one arm to that rafter and one arm to this one here,” Rulam said, pointing. Blood and spit made a thick mixture oozing from George’s bloody mouth. One eye was completely shut and swollen; the other had a large knot above the brow. Bruises peppered his face.
Fully stretched out and bound, he looked like a half-dead bird with its wings spread out. He willed his feet to support him, but they could not. He could only manage to bob his head up for a second or two.
“Take her and stretch her over this table. Now bind her hands with the rope to those two legs of the table,” Rulam said, pointing again.
The overseers roughly bent Minnie at the waist and slammed her hard against the table. Her teeth cut her lips and blood gushed out. With her feet on the floor, bent at the waist, both arms stretched to their fullest and tied, her mouth bleeding profusely, she groggily slipped in and out of consciousness. Rulam ordered the men out of the room. He was ready to do what he came to do.
“What about the boy?” one of the men asked quickly.
“Leave him!” Rulam ordered. “He can watch. It will be good for him.”
Minnie heard the cabin door as the men shut it behind them. The one lit lantern cast silhouetted shadows on the floor and walls of the winged George and the slavemaster as he stood menacingly over Minnie.
By now, little Jeremiah was standing in front of the table. He joined his mother in synchronized sobbing. Tears left a wet trail down his tiny cheeks and dripped silently to the floor.
Rulam undid his trouser buttons with one hand and lifted Minnie’s raggedy dress with the other. As he raped her she could only turn her head toward her hysterical son and cry uncontrollably.
“Nooo, noooo, nooo!” she screamed.
She shook her head and pulled on the ropes trying to get away with each thrust. All that George could do was raise his head long enough to see his woman being raped. His head drooped down, and he whispered inaudibly, “No, Massa, noooo, Massa.”
Little Jeremiah shouted at the top of his shrill voice, “Mama! Mamaaaa! Maaaaama!”
After a few agonizing minutes of what Minnie envisioned hell to be, it was over and the slavemaster left the one-room cabin.
Looking back inside, Rulam said to the men waiting there, “Take him down and dispose of him,” nodding at George. “Your services are no longer required at this establishment,” he laughed. “Unbind Minnie so that damn bastard child will shut up.”
“Where should we dump him?” asked one of the overseers.
Rulam lit a cigar. “Take him to the ravine near the bottoms, you know the one. We’ll let the varmints dispose of the carcass.” He paused then said, “Wait a minute.” Rulam had an epiphany. “I’ll sell him to that crazy Frenchman that’s coming here tomorrow. He’s coming to look at some breeding Hereford stock. That’s it—I’ll sell him George and throw in that scowling bastard over there for free. Don’t that child ever shut up?!”
“No, Massa. No, Massa,” screamed Minnie, wrapping herself around her master’s leg. “I’ll be good, Massa. From now on I be real good to you, Massa.”
Minnie pleaded, squeezing the master’s leg tighter and tighter. “He be yo’ son, Massa. Yo’ own son, Massa. Yo’ own flesh and blood.”
“Get her off me! Take George out front and stake him out for the night. I’ll see you tomorrow, Minnie.”
Minnie was left with an inconsolable Jeremiah for a sleepless night.
* * *
The bright morning Alabama sun caused Minnie to hold her hand in front of her face to shield her eyes. They were tender and sensitive after the beating she took. She saw her master’s horse cantering toward the cabin. He was accompanied by a distinguished looking gentleman riding in a small carriage.
They alighted and approached George, who was staked and shackled nearby. She was going to make one last intercession on his behalf. She was positive her master was not serious about sending Jeremiah away. As heartless a master as Jess Rulam was, nobody could sell his own son.
She was awake all night planning every word. She was going to offer to be his best wench. She’d bathe and perfume herself twice a week if necessary to please her master. She’d promise no back-talk, no unpleasant looks, no more pretend sick nights, just a willingness to serve him however he wanted, just the way he wanted.
“I’ll have those Hereford cows and the bull shipped out of the stockyard if you would be so kind as to get them to Huntsville for me, Monsieur Rulam,” said the French gentleman.
“I think we can do that,” Rulam answered pleasantly.
“Now where is the buck slave you wish to make me a bargain of, Monsieur Rulam?”
Approaching George, the French gentleman stopped and looked somewhat puzzled at the shackled and severely beaten slave.
“Is he so troublesome as to cause all this, monsieur?”
“He got out of hand a little last night, but we have adjusted his attitude.”
Minnie came running over to make her well-rehearsed speech, carrying Jeremiah in her arms. Rulam snatched the child from her and tossed him toward the Frenchman. The gentleman caught the toddler, looking at Rulam for an explanation.
Rulam motioned for the overseer to take Minnie away. She struggled hard but was silent. She realized she’d suffer even more later if she made a sound. She felt her heart breaking and her will giving up.
“There you are. A free gift just for taking George off my hands.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say, messieurs,” he said, astonished.
“I will let you have George for …” Rulam hesitated, fondling his chin, then picked up, “for five hundred dollars.”
“Five hundred dollars, well that is a bargain, monsieur. I’ll have a bank draft for the cattle and the buck sent to your bank first thing in the morning.” He was anxious to close the deal and get on his way.
He motioned for his carriage, which pulled alongside. The gentleman handed the squirming, screaming child to a maidservant inside the carriage. Minnie heard the cries and tore loose from the overseer. She ran frantically at the two men, her arms waving. She was tackled and finally subdued by three overseers.
“Please, Massa, don’t take my baby, Jeremiah. Please, pleeease, God in heaven. I pray to you, oh Lord.” Minnie dropped to her knees and placed her two trembling hands together.
“Now see here, messieurs, I will not separate a child from its mother. We do not do such things on my plantation!” the Frenchman said angrily.
“Well, we do here.”
“Take the child back. I don’t want it.”
“Very well. As you wish.”
Rulam turned to the overseer and said, “Bash this little bastard’s head in and dispose of him.”
“Hold it, messieurs!” the gentleman said, agitated. “Will you sell me its mother as well as the buck?”
“I like Minnie where she is, sir.”
Minnie was still praying.
“Very well, I’ll take the child, but I can’t say I approve of your tactics, messieurs!”
“Then don’t say it.”
Rulam stuck his hand out. The gentleman from New Orleans reluctantly took it. He was anxious to get away.
“Ship the buck with the cattle,” he said.
And with that, the carriage left.
The three overseers picked Minnie up. She was still praying softly. Exhausted, she was unable to fight them any longer.
“My baby, my precious baby.” Minnie had cried so much that her voice was so hoarse that only the first letter of the words were audible.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!” screamed Jeremiah. He managed to free himself from the maidservant and made it halfway through the window before being pulled back in.
Minnie watched helplessly as the carriage made the last turn and was out of sight. She watched the dust from the carriage wheels slowly eddy and dissipate into nothingness. She dropped to the ground motionless with one outstretched hand extended in the direction of the carriage.
“Minnie, why are you carrying on so? Gather her up and lock her in her cabin,” Rulam ordered, standing over her with his hands on his hips.
“Please, let me pray just one mo’ prayer, Massa,” said Minnie in her wisp of a voice.
“I’ve got to hear this.”
Rulam squatted down to hear Minnie’s frail voice. She managed to get to her knees and back to her prayer position.
“Dear Lord, please heah me jus’ dis once. If it be yo’ will, Lord, watch afta my baby, Jeremiah. Please allow him to grows up strong and fine. Let him be happy and not know the sorrow and hardship I been thu … and please Lord, jus’ dis once, Lord, please come down on Jessup Rulam, Lord, and make dis sorry bastard’s name be a abomanation to all da peeples of da worl. Amen.”
And with that, the master rose quickly. He looked around for a weapon and grabbed a three-foot-long piece of iron tube carried by overseers for discipline and protection. With one vicious and brutal blow, he bashed in the back of Minnie’s skull, killing her instantly.
Tossing the tube back to the overseer, he said, “Dispose of that.”
He leisurely strolled home, anxious to tell his wife of the profitable cattle sale he’d negotiated during the day and to enjoy a cool glass of tea. First he’d take a relaxing bath, wash off the splattering of blood mixed with dust, and revel in the success of his day.
* * *
In the carriage, little Jeremiah gave up his crying. He was sucking his thumb, snuggly cradled in the maidservant’s lap.
“He is a rather cute child, don’t you think, Prissy?” said the gentleman from New Orleans, looking at the sleeping child.
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“What did they say his name is?”
“Jeremiah, I believe, sir.”
“Well, that sounds like a good name there, young Jeremiah.”
He felt pity for the orphaned child. He said, “I believe I will give you a last name, young Jeremiah. It’s a good name because it’s my name. From now on, you will be Jeremiah Savorié.”
After a while, he said quietly, “It’s a long journey home, Prissy.”
“Yes, sir, it’s a long way home,” Prissy agreed.
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