We first proceeded to make a barrel of soda washing-soap in a great iron sugar-kettle, which stood out under the fig-trees, and which had formerly been used for evaporating sugar.
Minnah took the greatest interest in the operation, and, when the soap was finished, took the boiling liquid in pailfuls, setting them on the top of her head, and marching off to the barrel in the house with them, without ever lifting a finger.
We screamed after her in horror,--
"Minnah, Minnah! If that should fall, it would kill you!"
A laugh of barbaric exultation was the only response, as she actually persisted in carrying pailful after pailful of scalding soap on her head till all was disposed of.
The next day the washing was all brought out under the trees and sorted, Mrs. F---- and myself presiding; and soon Minnah and Judy were briskly engaged at their respective tubs. For half an hour, "all went merry as a marriage-bell." Judy was about half through her first tubful, when Mose came back from his morning turn in the fields, and summoned her to come home and get his breakfast. With Judy's very leisurely and promiscuous habits of doing business, this took her away for half the forenoon.
Meanwhile, Minnah murmured excessively at being left alone, and more especially at the continuous nature of the task.
Such a heap of clothes to be washed _all in one day_! It was a mountain of labor in Minnah's imagination; and it took all our eloquence and our constant presence to keep her in good humor. We kept at Minnah as the only means of keeping her at her work.
But, after all, it was no bad picnic to spend a day in the open air in the golden spring-time of Florida. The birds were singing from every covert; the air was perfectly intoxicating in its dreamy softness; and so we spread a camp for the baby, who was surrounded by a retinue of little giggling, adoring negroes, and gave ourselves up to the amusement of the scene. Our encampment was under the broad leaves of a group of fig-trees; and we hung our clothes to dry on the sharp thorns of a gigantic clump of Yucca gloriosa, which made an admirable clothes-frame.
By night, with chuckling admiration, Minnah surveyed a great basketful of clean clothes,--all done in one day.
The next day came the lesson on ironing; and the only means of securing Minnah and Judy to constant work at the ironing-table was the exercise of our own individual powers of entertainment and conversation. We had our own table, and ironed with them; and all went well till Judy remembered she had preparations for Mose's dinner, and deserted. Minnah kept up some time longer; till finally, when we went in the next room on an errand, she improved the opportunity to desert. On returning, we saw Minnah's place vacant, a half-finished shirt lying drying on the table.
Searching and calling, we at last discovered her far in the distance, smoking her pipe, and lolling tranquilly over the fence of a small enclosure where were sixteen calves shut up together, so that maternal longings might bring the cow mothers home to them at night.
"Why, Minnah, what are you doing?" we said as we came up breathless.
"Laws, missis, I wanted to feed my calves. I jest happened to think on't." And forthwith she turned, started to the barn, and came back with a perfect hay-mow on her head. Then, crossing the fence into the enclosure, she proceeded to make division of the same among the calves, who tumultuously surrounded her. She patted one, and cuffed another, and labored in a most maternal style to make them share their commons equally; laughing in full content of heart, and appearing to have forgotten her ironing-table and all about it.
It was in vain to talk. "She was tired ironing. Did anybody ever hear of doing up all one's things in a day? Besides, she wanted to see her calves: she felt just like it." And Minnah planted her elbows on the fence, and gazed and smoked and laughed, and talked baby-talk to her calves, till we were quite provoked; yet we could not help laughing. In fact, long before that day was done, we were out of breath, used up and exhausted with the strain of getting the work out of Minnah. It was the more tantalizing, as she _could_ do with a fair amount of skill any thing she pleased, and could easily have done the whole in a day had she chosen.
It is true, she was droll enough, in a literary and artistic view, to make one's fortune in a magazine or story; but, when one had a house to manage, a practical humorist is less in point than in some other places.
The fact was, Minnah, like all other women bred to the fields, abominated housework like a man. She could do here and there, and by fits and starts and snatches; but to go on in any thing like a regular domestic routine was simply disgusting in her eyes. So, after a short period of struggle, it was agreed that Minnah was to go back to field-work, where she was one of the most valuable hands; and a trained house-servant was hired from Jacksonville.
Minnah returned to the field with enthusiasm. We heard her swinging her long arms, and shouting to her gang, "Come on, den, boys and gals! I'm for the fields! I was born, I was raised, I was fairly begot, in de fields; and I don't want none o' your housework."
In time we obtained a cook from Jacksonville, trained, accomplished, neat, who made beautiful bread, biscuit, and rolls, and was a comfort to our souls.
But this phoenix was soon called for by the wants of the time, and was worth more than we could give, and went from us to enjoy forty dollars per month as cook in a hotel.
Such has been the good fortune of all the well-trained house-servants since emancipation. They command their own price.
The untrained plantation hands and their children are and will be just what _education_ may make them.
The education which comes to them from the State from being freemen and voters, able to make contracts, choose locations, and pursue their own course like other men, is a great deal; and it is operating constantly and efficaciously.
We give the judgment of a practical farmer accustomed to hire laborers at the North and the South; and, as a result of five years' experiment on this subject, he says that the negro laborer _carefully looked after_ is as good as any that can be hired at the North.
In some respects they are better. As a class they are more obedient, better natured, more joyous, and easily satisfied.
The question as to whether, on the whole, the negroes are valuable members of society, and increasing the material wealth of the State, is best answered by the returns of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company,--an institution under the patronage of government.
The report of this institution for the year 1872 is before us; and from this it appears that negro laborers in the different Southern States have deposited with this Trust Company this year the sum of THIRTY-ONE MILLION TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE DOLLARS.
The report also shows, that, year by year, the amount deposited has increased. Thus, in 1867, it was only $1,624,883; in 1868 it was three million odd; in 1869 it was seven million and odd; in 1870, twelve million and odd; in 1871, nineteen million and odd.
These results are conclusive to the fact, that, as a body, the Southern laborers are a thrifty, industrious, advancing set; and such as they are proved by the large evidence of these figures, such we have observed them in our more limited experience.
Our negro laborers, with all the inevitable defects of imperfect training, ignorance, and the negligent habits induced by slavery, have still been, as a whole, satisfactory laborers. They keep their contracts, do their work, and save their earnings. We could point to more than one black family about us steadily growing up to competence by industry and saving.
All that is wanted to supply the South with a set of the most desirable skilled laborers is simply education. The negro children are bright; they can be taught any thing: and if the whites, who cannot bear tropical suns and fierce extremes, neglect to educate a docile race who both can and will bear it for them, they throw away their best chance of success in a most foolish manner. No community that properly and carefully educates the negro children now growing up need complain of having an idle, thriftless, dishonest population about them. Common schools ought to prevent that. The teaching in the common schools ought to be largely industrial, and do what it can to prepare the children to get a living by doing something well. Practical sewing, cutting and fitting, for girls, and the general principles of agriculture for boys, might be taught with advantage.
The negroes are largely accused of being thievish and dishonest.
_A priori_ we should expect that they would be so. We should imagine, that to labor without wages for generations, in a state of childish dependence, would so confuse every idea of right and wrong, that the negro would be a hopeless thief.
Our own experience, however, is due in justice to those we have known.
On the first plantation, as we have said, were about thirty families from all the different Southern States. It might be supposed that they were a fair sample.
Now as to facts. It was the habit of the family to go to bed nights, and leave the house doors unlocked, and often standing wide open. The keys that locked the provisions hung up in a very accessible place; and yet no robbery was ever committed. We used to set the breakfast-table over night, and leave it with all the silver upon it, yet lost nothing.
In our own apartment we put our rings and pins on our toilet-cushions, as had been our habit. We had bits of bright calico and ribbons, and other attractive articles, lying about; and the girl that did the chamber-work was usually followed by a tribe of little curious, observing negroes: and yet we never missed so much as a shred of calico.
Neither was this because they did not want them; for the gift of a strip of calico or ribbon would throw them into raptures: it was simply that they did not steal.
Again: nothing is more common, when we visit at the North, than to have the complaint made that fruit is stolen out of gardens. We have had people tell us that the vexation of having fruit carried off was so great, that it took away all the pleasure of a garden.
Now, no fruit is more beautiful, more tempting, than the orange. We live in an orange-grove surrounded by negroes, and yet never have any trouble of this kind. We have often seen bags of fine oranges lying all night under the trees; and yet never have we met with any perceptible loss.
Certainly it is due to the negroes that we have known to say that they are above the average of many in the lower classes at the North for honesty.
We have spoken now for the average negro: what we have said is by no means the best that can with truth be said of the finer specimens among them.
We know some whose dignity of character, delicacy, good principle, and generosity, are admirable, and more to be admired because these fine traits have come up under the most adverse circumstances.
In leaving this subject, we have only to repeat our conviction, that the prosperity of the more Southern States must depend, in a large degree, on the right treatment and education of the negro population.