Phebe and her family were sold at auction
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Cook Phebe sees all and tries to tell butler Neal what she thinks.
“Why would I get mad?” Neal demanded of Phebe.
“Because you’re always mad, especially at the white folks,” Phebe said. “I see it in your eyes. You really hate them, and I don’t get it. I mean, you’re born free—”
“Yes, I’m free, for what good that does me,” he interrupted her angrily, spitting on the floor.
“I—I don’t understand…”
“I was born the son of a freeman in the city of Boston. He was the son of a freeman, all in a long line of tutors, teaching French to Boston merchants who traded with Haiti and other points in the Caribbean.”
“You speak French?”
“Yes. So what?” He paused. “My mother, as a child, came to Boston in the middle of the night in her mother’s arms, a slave from a Virginia tobacco plantation.”
“A runaway slave,” Phebe murmured.
“She grew up cooking and sewing in wealthy New England homes. That’s where she met my father, who tutored the master of the house. They married, found a comfortable apartment, and had me. I was supposed to be the one to climb the next rung on the racial equality ladder, perhaps the ministry, law, or medicine. But it was not to be. Ever heard of the Fugitive Slave Law?”
“Slave owners tracked down runaways in Free states, and local authorities and ordinary citizens had to help.”
“So they came for your grandmother?” Phebe asked.
“No. She was dead. They came for my mother. My grandmother stole my mother from the farmer, who wanted her back.” Neal paused. “And her offspring. Any child from her womb was his property too.”
Phebe jumped when she realized he was talking about himself.
“I remember when they took my mother. Her cries woke me up. At first my father was angry, shouting at her. He didn’t know he’d married a runaway. He stopped yelling when she said she didn’t remember anything before life in Boston kitchens. White men banged at the door, demanding they come out. My father took me from my bed and pulled down the attic ladder. He told me to be quiet, and my mother kissed me, her lips still moist from her tears. He had just closed the attic ladder when the slave catchers broke through. I cried as I heard them drag her away. I never saw her again. ”
“I haven’t seen my mother in a long time either, but I still have hope.” Immediately Phebe wished she had not spoken.
“You’ve been bought and freed, all legal. You got hope because you don’t know no better. No, I don’t have to worry about being taken South anymore. But I don’t have a chance for a profession now.” Neal sighed and mellowed. “When my father told me he’d arranged a job for me in Washington, I thought it might lead to something, but when I arrived at the White House, they sent me to the basement to be a butler.”
“Butler is a good job,” Phebe said, trying to be encouraging. “Why, on the plantation the butler was—”
“This ain’t the plantation, girl,” he interrupted. “This is the world. This is life. We may be free, but we ain’t white.”
“Well, tell me,” he said. “Who do you think the woman in the billiards room is?”
“I was talking to Mrs. Keckley. She’s the lady who sews the Mrs. Lincoln’s clothes. I said to her things had been odd for the last few months. She got real quiet, looked around, then pulled me closer and made me promise not to tell anyone.”
“Not to tell what?”
“She said when she went to fit the Mrs. Lincoln for a new dress the middle of September she saw right off something was different. The Mrs. Lincoln was bigger, across her chest. The missus looked real flustered, Mrs. Keckley said, laughing and rambling on about gaining too much weight. When a woman gets fat, it goes on her butt or hips or belly first.”
“Just what are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m still scared how you’ll take it.”
“You still think like a slave.” Neal snorted.
“Well,” Phebe said softly. “It’s all I know.”
Her owner was Pierce Butler, whose grandfather authored the fugitive slave clause in the United States Constitution. Her earliest memories were of being held by his beautiful wife, who was rumored to be a fancy actress from England. Then the master’s wife had gone away. When Phebe asked about her, she was told to hush and mind her own business. The rest of her childhood was uneventful, though filled with hard work, until all the slaves on the plantation were loaded on a ship and taken down the Altama River to Savannah, where they were taken to the Kimbrough Race Track during a torrential downpour. Men prodded them, looked in their mouths, tested their muscles, and stood back, cocking their heads in judgment.
Earlier in the day she had watched her father being led away, and later her mother, her eyes filled with tears. Feeling all was lost, Phebe used all her willpower to keep from crying. Soon it was her turn to stand on the block, and a miracle happened. When the bidding was over, Phebe met her new owner, Mortimer Thompson, a reported for the New York Tribune, who said she would be freed as soon as they arrived in New York City. But what will I do? Phebe had asked him; How will I support myself? He had taken her hand.
“I know an old friend of yours,” he said.
Her old friend was Mrs. Butler, whose stage name, Fanny Kemble, was in large letters across a theater marquee.
“What a pretty face,” Mrs. Butler said with a gush as she patted Phebe’s cheeks.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Phebe said shyly.
“I wish I could afford to employ another maid, but I can’t.” When Phebe’s face fell, she added, “But don’t give up hope. I’ve friends all over, here in New York, in London, and in Washington.” She smiled at Phebe. “How would you like a job in the Republican administration? I’ve many contacts with abolitionists.”
By the time the whirlwind had ended, Phebe lived in the basement of the Executive Mansion, cooking meals and witnessing the nation’s business first hand. Which brought her back to Neal’s question about who she thought was in the billiards room. Before she spoke, Phebe realized she risked not only Neal’s ridicule, but also the loss of her job—a step backward toward slavery she did not want to take.
“I don’t know.” She walked to the door and opened it. “Now that I think about it, there’s nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all.”