In 1865, Youth’s Companion printed a series of articles by abolitionist James Redpath, who contributed several pieces from 1865 to 1867. In “Eye and Ear Notes,” he offered readers of the Companion descriptions of Southern incidents before and just after the War: everything from a slave auction to a patriotic May-day celebration. The pieces are surprisingly gritty and often have a raw power.
[Scraps for Youth] “Eye and Ear Notes: Old Uncle Abe,” by “Uncle James” [James Redpath] (from The Youth’s Companion, February 23, 1865; p. 30)

Old Uncle Abe (if he still lives) is not the President of the United States. I met him in New Orleans. He was not living in fine style, as the other “Old Uncle Abe” does, in the White House, at Washington. No; he was in want and in jail; and yet he had always been a faithful, honest, hard-working man. Then why was he in prison? Because he was a slave. That was all. He had done nothing wrong; there was no fault found with him; but he was worn out and sick, and no one would have him now. So he had been taken to the jail to keep him from starving to death in the streets.

This is how I happened to meet him:

I had business with the keeper of one of the jails, which caused me to call on him almost every day. One morning he told me, in his rough way, that there was an old negro up-stairs whose case was a very hard one. I asked him if he would let me see the prisoner and speak with him.

“O, certainly!” he said, and took me up.

The stairs were dark and filthy. They do not keep jails down South so clean and well ventilated as we do in the North. The reason is that they are not so civilized; and the more ignorant and bad-hearted any people are, the less pity they have for the erring and the poor. After we got up the stairs we went through a long and dirty passage, which was as dark as night, and stopped at the door of a cell. There was an iron grating—a little opening—in the door. The cell was dark, too, and when I looked in I could see nothing. But I suddenly drew back. Why? Because the odor of the cell was so offensive that it sickened me. It was not only dark, but it was filthy, and not ventilated at all. I could not have stayed in it two or three minutes without vomiting. And yet they kept a poor old man who had done no one any wrong in that loathsome, dark and unhealthy cell!

When we came to the cell the jailor said to me,

“There! You call him; he’s in there. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

When I recovered from my first sensation of disgust I went up to the door again, and called to the man whom I knew to be inside of it.

A very old negro came up to the door and put his face against the grating. It was deeply furrowed; his eyes were filmy with disease and old age; his woolly head was as white as snow. He was frail and sickly; and he could not have been less than seventy or eighty years of age.

I asked him how he came to be there, and he told me his story in the broken English which is peculiar to the slaves and the poor whites of the South.

He had once, a short time before, been the slave of a rich and popular lawyer of New Orleans. He had been one of his plantation hands—that is, one of the gang of slaves who cultivate cotton and sugar. The lawyer had sold one of his estates and all the negroes with it. Old Uncle Abe was one of them. The man who bought him hired him out as a deck hand on a Mississippi steamer. Deck hands, when these steamers come to a landing, carry on wood for the fires, load and unload the cargoes. When slaveholders “hire out” their negroes the man who hires agrees to clothe and feed them, and pays all their wages not to the poor slave, but to his rich master! This is the way that slavery “protected” the negro; and the way that the slaveholder “took care” of his slave!

After Uncle Abe had worked on the Mississippi for a while, his master took him, and some other slaves, put them up in one lot and sold them at public auction. The person who bought them saw that old Abe was very sick, and could not work, and said that he did not want to have him. But what was the poor old man to do? His new buyer told him to go back to the auctioneer. He bundled up his duds (as the negroes call their clothing) and went back to the office where he had been sold. But there was no rest for him there. The auctioneers had made a fortune by selling human beings; and what did they care for what they would call a “worthless old nigger?” They swore at him, and ordered him to get out of their office, and threatened to cut his bowels out if he ever came near them again.

He took up his little bundle with a sad heart, and went into the streets of New Orleans.

Just think of him! There he stood, old, and feeble, and sick; without a home, without a friend, without a dollar—alone, in a strange city, with no wife and no child to cheer him; no bed to lay his white head upon, no hope of meeting any one to give him shelter or food. And yet he had worked hard for others all his life long; he had not spent his earnings in riotous living; he had always dressed in the coarsest cloth, and fared poorly; but a strong hand had taken the fruits of his labor, and even sold his children away from him, and then left him here, alone and destitute, to die uncared for and unpitied.

The policeman found him and took him to jail. As I heard his story I said, with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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