Aunt Chloe

Original Text: 
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sketches of Southern Life (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Son, 1872).
1.2    That dark and dreadful day,
1.3When they whispered to me, "Chloe,
1.4    Your children's sold away!"
1.5It seemed as if a bullet
1.6    Had shot me through and through,
1.7And I felt as if my heart-strings
1.8    Was breaking right in two.
1.9And I says to cousin Milly,
1.10    "There must be some mistake;
1.11Where's Mistus?" "In the great house crying --
1.12    Crying like her heart would break.
1.14    Says he's come to 'ministrate,
1.15'Cause when master died he just left
1.16    Heap of debt on the estate.
1.17"And I thought 'twould do you good
1.18    To bid your boys good-bye --
1.19To kiss them both and shake their hands,
1.20    And have a hearty cry.
1.21"Oh! Chloe, I knows how you feel,
1.22    'Cause I'se been through it all;
1.23I thought my poor old heart would break,
1.24    When master sold my Saul."
1.25Just then I heard the footsteps
1.26    Of my children at the door,
1.27And then I rose right up to meet them,
1.28    But I fell upon the floor.
1.29And I heard poor Jakey saying,
1.30    "Oh, mammy, don't you cry!"
1.31And I felt my children kiss me
1.32    And bid me, both, good-bye.
1.33Then I had a mighty sorrow,
1.34    Though I nursed it all alone;
1.35But I wasted to a shadow,
1.36    And turned to skin and bone.
1.37But one day dear uncle Jacob
1.38    (In heaven he's now a saint)
1.39Said, "Your poor heart is in the fire,
1.40    But child you must not faint."
1.41Then I said to uncle Jacob,
1.42    If I was good like you,
1.43When the heavy trouble dashed me
1.44    I'd know just what to do.
1.45Then he said to me, "Poor Chloe,
1.46    The way is open wide:"
1.47And he told me of the Saviour,
1.48    And the fountain in His side.
1.49Then he said "Just take your burden
1.50    To the blessed Master's feet;
1.51I takes all my troubles, Chloe,
1.52    Right unto the mercy-seat."
1.53His words waked up my courage,
1.54    And I began to pray,
1.55And I felt my heavy burden
1.56    Rolling like a stone away.
1.57And a something seemed to tell me,
1.58    You will see your boys again --
1.59And that hope was like a poultice
1.60    Spread upon a dreadful pain.
1.61And it often seemed to whisper,
1.62    Chloe, trust and never fear;
1.63You'll get justice in the kingdom,
1.64    If you do not get it here.
[##] The Deliverance
2.1Master only left old Mistus
2.2    One bright and handsome boy;
2.3But she fairly doted on him,
2.4    He was her pride and joy.
2.5We all liked Mister Thomas,
2.6    He was so kind at heart;
2.7And when the young folkes got in scrapes,
2.8    He always took their part.
2.9He kept right on that very way
2.10    Till he got big and tall,
2.11And old Mistus used to chide him
2.12    And say he'd spile us all.
2.13But somehow the farm did prosper
2.14    When he took things in hand;
2.15And though all the servants liked him,
2.16    He made them understand.
2.17One evening Mister Thomas said,
2.18    "Just bring my easy shoes;
2.19I am going to sit by mother,
2.20    And read her up the news."
2.21Soon I heard him tell old Mistus
2.22    We're bound to have a fight;
2.23But we'll whip the Yankees, mother,
2.24    We'll whip them sure as night!"
2.25Then I saw old Mistus tremble;
2.26    She gasped and held her breath;
2.27And she looked on Mister Thomas
2.28    With a face as pale as death.
2.30    Oh! I wish that I was there! --
2.31Why, dear mother! what's the matter?
2.32    You're the picture of despair."
2.33"I was thinking, dearest Thomas,
2.34    'Twould break my very heart
2.35If a fierce and dreadful battle
2.36    Should tear our lives apart."
2.37"None but cowards, dearest mother,
2.38    Would skulk unto the rear,
2.39When the tyrant's hand is shaking
2.40    All the heart is holding dear."
2.41I felt sorry for old Mistus;
2.42    She got too full to speak;
2.43But I saw the great big tear-drops
2.44    A running down her cheek.
2.45Mister Thomas too was troubled
2.46    With choosing on that night,
2.47Betwixt staying with his mother
2.48    And joining in the fight.
2.49Soon down into the village came
2.50    A call for volunteers;
2.51Mistus gave up Mister Thomas,
2.52    With many sighs and tears.
2.53His uniform was real handsome;
2.54    He looked so brave and strong;
2.55But somehow I could'nt help thinking
2.56    His fighting must be wrong.
2.57Though the house was very lonesome,
2.58    I thought 'twould all come right,
2.59For I felt somehow or other
2.60    We was mixed up in that fight.
2.61And I said to Uncle Jacob,
2.62    "How old Mistus feels the sting,
2.63For this parting with your children
2.64    Is a mighty dreadful thing."
2.65"Never mind," said Uncle Jacob,
2.66    "Just wait and watch and pray,
2.67For I feel right sure and certain,
2.68    Slavery's bound to pass away;
2.69"Because I asked the Spirit,
2.70    If God is good and just,
2.71How it happened that the masters
2.72    Did grind us to the dust.
2.73"And something reasoned right inside,
2.74    Such should not always be;
2.75And you could not beat it out my head,
2.76    The Spirit spoke to me."
2.77And his dear old eyes would brighten,
2.78    And his lips put on a smile,
2.79Saying, "Pick up faith and courage,
2.80    And just wait a little while."
2.81Mistus prayed up in the parlor,
2.83We were praying in the cabins,
2.84    Wanting freedom to begin.
2.85Mister Thomas wrote to Mistus,
2.87That his troops had whipped the Yankees
2.88    And put them all to flight.
2.89Mistus' eyes did fairly glisten;
2.90    She laughed and praised the South,
2.91But I thought some day she'd laugh
2.92    On tother side her mouth.
2.93I used to watch old Mistus' face,
2.94    And when it looked quite long
2.95I would say to Cousin Milly,
2.96    The battle's going wrong;
2.97Not for us, but for the Rebels. --
2.98    My heart would fairly skip,
2.99When Uncle Jacob used to say,
2.100    "The North is bound to whip."
2.101And let the fight go as it would --
2.102    Let North or South prevail --
2.103He always kept his courage up,
2.104    And never let it fail.
2.105And he often used to tell us,
2.106    "Children, don't forget to pray;
2.107For the darkest time of morning
2.108    Is just 'fore the break of day."
2.109Well, one morning bright and early
2.110    We heard the fife and drum,
2.111And the booming of the cannon --
2.112    The Yankee troops had come.
2.113When the word ran through the village,
2.114    The colored folks are free --
2.115In the kitchens and the cabins
2.116    We held a jubilee.
2.118    Said that slavery was dead,
2.119We just poured our prayers and blessings
2.120    Upon his precious head.
2.121We just laughed, and danced, and shouted
2.122    And prayed, and sang, and cried,
2.123And we thought dear Uncle Jacob
2.124    Would fairly crack his side.
2.125But when old Mistus heard it,
2.126    She groaned and hardly spoke;
2.127When she had to lose her servants,
2.128    Her heart was almost broke.
2.129'Twas a sight to see our people
2.130    Going out, the troops to meet,
2.131Almost dancing to the music,
2.132    And marching down the street.
2.133After years of pain and parting,
2.134    Our chains was broke in two,
2.135And we was so mighty happy,
2.136    We didn't know what to do.
2.137But we soon got used to freedom,
2.138    Though the way at first was rough;
2.139But we weathered through the tempest,
2.140    For slavery made us tough.
2.141But we had one awful sorrow,
2.142    It almost turned my head,
2.144    Shot Mister Lincoln dead.
2.145'Twas a dreadful solemn morning,
2.146    I just staggered on my feet;
2.147And the women they were crying
2.148    And screaming in the street.
2.149But if many prayers and blessings
2.150    Could bear him to the throne,
2.151I should think when Mister Lincoln died,
2.152    That heaven just got its own.
2.153Then we had another President, --
2.155Well, if the colored folks forget him
2.156    They would'nt be much to blame.
2.157We thought he'd be the Moses
2.158    Of all the colored race;
2.159But when the Rebels pressed us hard
2.160    He never showed his face.
2.161But something must have happened him,
2.163'Cause I heard 'em talking 'bout a circle
2.164    That he was swinging round.
2.165But everything will pass away --
2.166    He went like time and tide --
2.167And when the next election came
2.168    They let poor Andy slide.
2.170    And if I was a man
2.171I'd vote for him for breaking up
2.173And if any man should ask me
2.174    If I would sell my vote,
2.175I'd tell him I was not the one
2.176    To change and turn my coat;
2.177If freedom seem'd a little rough
2.178    I'd weather through the gale;
2.179And as to buying up my vote,
2.180    I hadn't it for sale.
2.181I do not think I'd ever be
2.182    As slack as Jonas Handy;
2.183Because I heard he sold his vote
2.184    For just three sticks of candy.
2.185But when John Thomas Reeder brought
2.186    His wife some flour and meat,
2.187And told he had sold his vote
2.188    For something good to eat,
2.189You ought to seen Aunt Kitty raise,
2.190    And heard her blaze away;
2.191She gave the meat and flour a toss,
2.192    And said they should not stay.
2.193And I should think he felt quite cheap
2.194    For voting the wrong side;
2.195And when Aunt Kitty scolded him,
2.196    He just stood up and cried.
2.197But the worst fooled man I ever saw,
2.198    Was when poor David Rand
2.199Sold out for flour and sugar;
2.200    The sugar was mixed with sand.
2.201I'll tell you how the thing got out;
2.202    His wife had company,
2.203And she thought the sand was sugar,
2.204    And served it up for tea.
2.205When David sipped and sipped the tea,
2.206    Somehow it didn't taste right;
2.207I guess when he found he was sipping sand
2.208    He was mad enough to fight.
2.209The sugar looked so nice and white --
2.210    It was spread some inches deep --
2.211But underneath was a lot of sand;
2.212    Such sugar is mighty cheap.
2.213You'd laughed to seen Lucinda Grange
2.214    Upon her husband's track;
2.215When he sold his vote for rations
2.216    She made him take 'em back.
2.217Day after day did Milly Green
2.218    Just follow after Joe,
2.219And told him if he voted wrong
2.220    To take his rags and go.
2.221I think that Samuel Johnson said
2.222    His side had won the day,
2.223Had not we women radicals
2.224    Just got right in the way.
2.225And yet I would not have you think
2.226    That all our men are shabby;
2.227But 'tis said in every flock of sheep
2.228    There will be one that's scabby.
2.229I've heard, before election came
2.230    They tried to buy John Slade;
2.231But he gave them all to understand
2.232    That he wasn't in that trade.
2.233And we've got lots of other men
2.234    Who rally round the cause,
2.235And go for holding up the hands
2.236    That gave us equal laws,
2.237Who know their freedom cost too much
2.238    Of blood and pain and treasure,
2.239For them to fool away their votes
2.240    For profit or for pleasure.
[##] Aunt Chloe's Politics
3.1Of course, I don't know very much
3.2    About these politics,
3.3But I think that some who run 'em,
3.4    Do mighty ugly tricks.
3.6    And talk so awful sweet,
3.7That you'd think them full of kindness
3.8    As an egg is full of meat.
3.9Now I don't believe in looking
3.10    Honest people in the face,
3.11And saying when you're doing wrong,
3.12    That 'I haven't sold my race.'
3.13When we want to school our children,
3.14    If the money isn't there,
3.15Whether black or white have took it,
3.16    The loss we all must share.
3.17And this buying up each other
3.18    Is something worse than mean,
3.19Though I thinks a heap of voting,
3.20    I go for voting clean.
[##] Learning to Read
4.1Very soon the Yankee teachers
4.2    Came down and set up school;
4.3But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it, --
4.4    It was agin' their rule.
4.5Our masters always tried to hide
4.6    Book learning from our eyes;
4.7Knowledge did'nt agree with slavery --
4.8    'Twould make us all too wise.
4.9But some of us would try to steal
4.10    A little from the book,
4.11And put the words together,
4.12    And learn by hook or crook.
4.13I remember Uncle Caldwell,
4.14    Who took pot liquor fat
4.15And greased the pages of his book,
4.16    And hid it in his hat.
4.17And had his master ever seen
4.18    The leaves upon his head,
4.19He'd have thought them greasy papers,
4.20    But nothing to be read.
4.21And there was Mr. Turner's Ben,
4.22    Who heard the children spell,
4.23And picked the words right up by heart,
4.24    And learned to read 'em well.
4.25Well, the Northern folks kept sending
4.26    The Yankee teachers down;
4.27And they stood right up and helped us,
4.28    Though Rebs did sneer and frown.
4.29And I longed to read my Bible,
4.30    For precious words it said;
4.31But when I begun to learn it,
4.32    Folks just shook their heads,
4.33And said there is no use trying,
4.34    Oh! Chloe, you're too late;
4.35But as I was rising sixty,
4.36    I had no time to wait.
4.37So I got a pair of glasses,
4.38    And straight to work I went,
4.39And never stopped till I could read
4.40    The hymns and Testament.
4.41Then I got a little cabin
4.42    A place to call my own --
4.43And I felt as independent
4.44    As the queen upon her throne.
[##] Church Building
5.1Uncle Jacob often told us,
5.2    Since freedom blessed our race
5.3We ought all to come together
5.4    And build a meeting place.
5.5So we pinched, and scraped, and spared,
5.6    A little here and there:
5.7Though our wages was but scanty,
5.8    The church did get a share.
5.9And, when the house was finished,
5.10    Uncle Jacob came to pray;
5.11He was looking mighty feeble,
5.12    And his head was awful gray.
5.13But his voice rang like a trumpet;
5.14    His eyes looked bright and young;
5.15And it seemed a mighty power
5.16    Was resting on his tongue.
5.17And he gave us all his blessing --
5.18    'Twas parting words he said,
5.19For soon we got the message
5.20    The dear old man was dead.
5.21But I believe he's in the kingdom,
5.22    For when we shook his hand
5.23He said, "Children, you must meet me
5.24    Right in the promised land;
5.26    And toiling here below,
5.27Through the gate into the city
5.28    Straightway I hope to go."
[##] The Reunion
6.1Well, one morning real early
6.2    I was going down the street,
6.3And I heard a stranger asking
6.4    For Missis Chloe Fleet.
6.5There was something in his voice
6.6    That made me feel quite shaky.
6.7And when I looked right in his face,
6.8    Who should it be but Jakey!
6.9I grasped him tight, and took him home --
6.10    What gladness filled my cup!
6.11And I laughed, and just rolled over,
6.12    And laughed, and just give up.
6.13"Where have you been? O Jakey, dear!
6.14    Why didn't you come before?
6.15Oh! when you children went away
6.16    My heart was awful sore."
6.17"Why, mammy, I've been on your hunt
6.18    Since ever I've been free,
6.19And I have heard from brother Ben, --
6.20    He's down in Tennessee.
6.21"He wrote me that he had a wife,"
6.22    "And children?" "Yes, he's three."
6.23"You married, too?" "Oh, no, indeed,
6.24    I thought I'd first get free."
6.25"Then, Jakey, you will stay with me,
6.26    And comfort my poor heart;
6.27Old Mistus got no power now
6.28    To tear us both apart.
6.29"I'm richer now than Mistus,
6.30    Because I have got my son;
6.31And Mister Thomas he is dead,
6.32    And she's nary one.
6.33"You must write to brother Benny
6.34    That he must come this fall,
6.35And we'll make the cabin bigger,
6.36    And that will hold us all.
6.37"Tell him I want to see 'em all
6.38    Before my life do cease:
6.40    I hope to die in peace."


1.1] Frances Smith Foster says that these poems "not only form a history of Reconstruction but also serve as the bases for her novel, Iola Leroy .... Aunt Chloe .... is probably the first black female protagonist, outside the tragic mulatto tradition, to be presented as a model for life" (A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader [New York: The City University of New York, 1990]: 137). Back to Line
1.13] Mistus: Mistress. Back to Line
2.29] Fort Sumpter: the Confederate forces' bombardment of Fort Sumter, on an island in the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, marked the beginning of the Civil War. The fort surrendered the next day and was only retaken on January 17, 1865. Back to Line
2.82] Secesh: forces of Secession, the confederacy. Back to Line
2.86] Bull's Run: the first Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, at which the Confederate forces defeated the Union armies. Back to Line
2.117] Mister Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), 16th President of the United States, assassinated in Washington on April 15, 1865. Back to Line
2.143] John Wilkes Booth. Back to Line
2.154] Andrew Johnson (1808-75), 17th President of the United States. Back to Line
2.162] curi's: curious. Back to Line
2.169] Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States. Back to Line
2.172] Ku-Klux Klan: a secret organization throughout the South after the Civil War that existed to intimidate the freed slaves and subjugate them to the white population. Back to Line
3.5] honey-fugle: cheat (see Oxford English Dictionary, fugle, v. 1) and deceive with honied (sweet) words. Back to Line
5.25] moiling: drudging. Back to Line
6.39] Simeon: one who, on seeing the infant Jesus in the temple, said the "Nunc Dimittis," i.e., expressed himself then willing to pass away. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.