The Storm Breaks

The Wellington riot began at three o’clock in the afternoon of a day as fair as was ever selected for a deed of darkness. The sky was clear, except for a few light clouds that floated, white and feathery, high in air, like distant islands in a sapphire sea. A salt-laden breeze from the ocean a few miles away lent a crisp sparkle to the air.

At three o’clock sharp the streets were filled, as if by magic, with armed white men. The negroes, going about, had noted, with uneasy curiosity, that the stores and places of business, many of which closed at noon, were unduly late in opening for the afternoon, though no one suspected the reason for the delay; but at three o’clock every passing colored man was ordered, by the first white man he met, to throw up his hands. If he complied, he was searched, more or less roughly, for firearms, and then warned to get off the street. When he met another group of white men the scene was repeated. The man thus summarily held up seldom encountered more than two groups before disappearing across lots to his own home or some convenient hiding-place. If he resisted any demand of those who halted him⁠—But the records of the day are historical; they may be found in the newspapers of the following date, but they are more firmly engraved upon the hearts and memories of the people of Wellington. For many months there were negro families in the town whose children screamed with fear and ran to their mothers for protection at the mere sight of a white man.

Dr. Miller had received a call, about one o’clock, to attend a case at the house of a well-to-do colored farmer, who lived some three or four miles from the town, upon the very road, by the way, along which Miller had driven so furiously a few weeks before, in the few hours that intervened before Sandy Campbell would probably have been burned at the stake. The drive to his patient’s home, the necessary inquiries, the filling of the prescription from his own medicine-case, which he carried along with him, the little friendly conversation about the weather and the crops, and, the farmer being an intelligent and thinking man, the inevitable subject of the future of their race⁠—these, added to the return journey, occupied at least two hours of Miller’s time.

As he neared the town on his way back, he saw ahead of him half a dozen men and women approaching, with fear written in their faces, in every degree from apprehension to terror. Women were weeping and children crying, and all were going as fast as seemingly lay in their power, looking behind now and then as if pursued by some deadly enemy. At sight of Miller’s buggy they made a dash for cover, disappearing, like a covey of frightened partridges, in the underbrush along the road.

Miller pulled up his horse and looked after them in startled wonder.

“What on earth can be the matter?” he muttered, struck with a vague feeling of alarm. A psychologist, seeking to trace the effects of slavery upon the human mind, might find in the South many a curious illustration of this curse, abiding long after the actual physical bondage had terminated. In the olden time the white South labored under the constant fear of negro insurrections. Knowing that they themselves, if in the negroes’ place, would have risen in the effort to throw off the yoke, all their reiterated theories of negro subordination and inferiority could not remove that lurking fear, founded upon the obscure consciousness that the slaves ought to have risen. Conscience, it has been said, makes cowards of us all. There was never, on the continent of America, a successful slave revolt, nor one which lasted more than a few hours, or resulted in the loss of more than a few white lives; yet never was the planter quite free from the fear that there might be one.

On the other hand, the slave had before his eyes always the fear of the master. There were good men, according to their lights⁠—according to their training and environment⁠—among the Southern slaveholders, who treated their slaves kindly, as slaves, from principle, because they recognized the claims of humanity, even under the dark skin of a human chattel. There was many a one who protected or pampered his negroes, as the case might be, just as a man fondles his dog⁠—because they were his; they were a part of his estate, an integral part of the entity of property and person which made up the aristocrat; but with all this kindness, there was always present, in the consciousness of the lowest slave, the knowledge that he was in his master’s power, and that he could make no effectual protest against the abuse of that authority. There was also the knowledge, among those who could think at all, that the best of masters was himself a slave to a system, which hampered his movements but scarcely less than those of his bondmen.

When, therefore, Miller saw these men and women scampering into the bushes, he divined, with this slumbering race consciousness which years of culture had not obliterated, that there was some race trouble on foot. His intuition did not long remain unsupported. A black head was cautiously protruded from the shrubbery, and a black voice⁠—if such a description be allowable⁠—addressed him:⁠—

“Is dat you, Doctuh Miller?”

“Yes. Who are you, and what’s the trouble?”

“What’s de trouble, suh? Why, all hell’s broke loose in town yonduh. De w’ite folks is riz ’gins’ de niggers, an’ say dey’re gwine ter kill eve’y nigger dey kin lay han’s on.”

Miller’s heart leaped to his throat, as he thought of his wife and child. This story was preposterous; it could not be true, and yet there must be something in it. He tried to question his informant, but the man was so overcome with excitement and fear that Miller saw clearly that he must go farther for information. He had read in the Morning Chronicle, a few days before, the obnoxious editorial quoted from the Afro-American Banner, and had noted the comment upon it by the white editor. He had felt, as at the time of its first publication, that the editorial was ill-advised. It could do no good, and was calculated to arouse the animosity of those whose friendship, whose tolerance, at least, was necessary and almost indispensable to the colored people. They were living, at the best, in a sort of armed neutrality with the whites; such a publication, however serviceable elsewhere, could have no other effect in Wellington than to endanger this truce and defeat the hope of a possible future friendship. The right of free speech entitled Barber to publish it; a larger measure of common sense would have made him withhold it. Whether it was the republication of this article that had stirred up anew the sleeping dogs of race prejudice and whetted their thirst for blood, he could not yet tell; but at any rate, there was mischief on foot.

“Fer God’s sake, doctuh, don’ go no closeter ter dat town,” pleaded his informant, “er you’ll be killt sho’. Come on wid us, suh, an’ tek keer er yo’se’f. We’re gwine ter hide in de swamps till dis thing is over!”

“God, man!” exclaimed Miller, urging his horse forward, “my wife and child are in the town!”

Fortunately, he reflected, there were no patients confined in the hospital⁠—if there should be anything in this preposterous story. To one unfamiliar with Southern life, it might have seemed impossible that these good Christian people, who thronged the churches on Sunday, and wept over the sufferings of the lowly Nazarene, and sent missionaries to the heathen, could be hungering and thirsting for the blood of their fellow men; but Miller cherished no such delusion. He knew the history of his country; he had the threatened lynching of Sandy Campbell vividly in mind; and he was fully persuaded that to race prejudice, once roused, any horror was possible. That women or children would be molested of set purpose he did not believe, but that they might suffer by accident was more than likely.

As he neared the town, dashing forward at the top of his horse’s speed, he heard his voice called in a loud and agitated tone, and, glancing around him, saw a familiar form standing by the roadside, gesticulating vehemently.

He drew up the horse with a suddenness that threw the faithful and obedient animal back upon its haunches. The colored lawyer, Watson, came up to the buggy. That he was laboring under great and unusual excitement was quite apparent from his pale face and frightened air.

“What’s the matter, Watson?” demanded Miller, hoping now to obtain some reliable information.

“Matter!” exclaimed the other. “Everything’s the matter! The white people are up in arms. They have disarmed the colored people, killing half a dozen in the process, and wounding as many more. They have forced the mayor and aldermen to resign, have formed a provisional city government à la Française, and have ordered me and half a dozen other fellows to leave town in forty-eight hours, under pain of sudden death. As they seem to mean it, I shall not stay so long. Fortunately, my wife and children are away. I knew you were out here, however, and I thought I’d come out and wait for you, so that we might talk the matter over. I don’t imagine they mean you any harm, personally, because you tread on nobody’s toes; but you’re too valuable a man for the race to lose, so I thought I’d give you warning. I shall want to sell you my property, too, at a bargain. For I’m worth too much to my family to dream of ever attempting to live here again.”

“Have you seen anything of my wife and child?” asked Miller, intent upon the danger to which they might be exposed.

“No; I didn’t go to the house. I inquired at the drugstore and found out where you had gone. You needn’t fear for them⁠—it is not a war on women and children.”

“War of any kind is always hardest on the women and children,” returned Miller; “I must hurry on and see that mine are safe.”

“They’ll not carry the war so far into Africa as that,” returned Watson; “but I never saw anything like it. Yesterday I had a hundred white friends in the town, or thought I had⁠—men who spoke pleasantly to me on the street, and sometimes gave me their hands to shake. Not one of them said to me today: ‘Watson, stay at home this afternoon.’ I might have been killed, like any one of half a dozen others who have bit the dust, for any word that one of my ‘friends’ had said to warn me. When the race cry is started in this neck of the woods, friendship, religion, humanity, reason, all shrivel up like dry leaves in a raging furnace.”

The buggy, into which Watson had climbed, was meanwhile rapidly nearing the town.

“I think I’ll leave you here, Miller,” said Watson, as they approached the outskirts, “and make my way home by a roundabout path, as I should like to get there unmolested. Home!⁠—a beautiful word that, isn’t it, for an exiled wanderer? It might not be well, either, for us to be seen together. If you put the hood of your buggy down, and sit well back in the shadow, you may be able to reach home without interruption; but avoid the main streets. I’ll see you again this evening, if we’re both alive, and I can reach you; for my time is short. A committee are to call in the morning to escort me to the train. I am to be dismissed from the community with public honors.” Watson was climbing down from the buggy, when a small party of men were seen approaching, and big Josh Green, followed by several other resolute-looking colored men, came up and addressed them.

Dr. Miller,” cried Green, “Mr. Watson⁠—we’re lookin’ fer a leader. De w’ite folks are killin’ de niggers, an’ we ain’ gwine ter stan’ up an’ be shot down like dogs. We’re gwine ter defen’ ou’ lives, an’ we ain’ gwine ter run away f’m no place where we’ve got a right ter be; an’ woe be ter de w’ite man w’at lays ban’s on us! Dere’s two niggers in dis town ter eve’y w’ite man, an’ ef we’ve got ter be killt, we’ll take some w’ite folks ’long wid us, ez sho’ ez dere’s a God in heaven⁠—ez I s’pose dere is, dough He mus’ be ’sleep, er busy somewhar e’se ter-day. Will you-all come an’ lead us?”

“Gentlemen,” said Watson, “what is the use? The negroes will not back you up. They haven’t the arms, nor the moral courage, nor the leadership.”

“We’ll git de arms, an’ we’ll git de courage, ef you’ll come an’ lead us! We wants leaders⁠—dat’s w’y we come ter you!”

“What’s the use?” returned Watson despairingly. “The odds are too heavy. I’ve been ordered out of town; if I stayed, I’d be shot on sight, unless I had a bodyguard around me.”

“We’ll be yo’ bodyguard!” shouted half a dozen voices.

“And when my bodyguard was shot, what then? I have a wife and children. It is my duty to live for them. If I died, I should get no glory and no reward, and my family would be reduced to beggary⁠—to which they’ll soon be near enough as it is. This affair will blow over in a day or two. The white people will be ashamed of themselves tomorrow, and apprehensive of the consequences for some time to come. Keep quiet, boys, and trust in God. You won’t gain anything by resistance.”

“ ‘God he’ps dem dat he’ps demselves,’ ” returned Josh stoutly. “Ef Mr. Watson won’t lead us, will you, Dr. Miller?” said the spokesman, turning to the doctor.

For Miller it was an agonizing moment. He was no coward, morally or physically. Every manly instinct urged him to go forward and take up the cause of these leaderless people, and, if need be, to defend their lives and their rights with his own⁠—but to what end?

“Listen, men,” he said. “We would only be throwing our lives away. Suppose we made a determined stand and won a temporary victory. By morning every train, every boat, every road leading into Wellington, would be crowded with white men⁠—as they probably will be any way⁠—with arms in their hands, curses on their lips, and vengeance in their hearts. In the minds of those who make and administer the laws, we have no standing in the court of conscience. They would kill us in the fight, or they would hang us afterwards⁠—one way or another, we should be doomed. I should like to lead you; I should like to arm every colored man in this town, and have them stand firmly in line, not for attack, but for defense; but if I attempted it, and they should stand by me, which is questionable⁠—for I have met them fleeing from the town⁠—my life would pay the forfeit. Alive, I may be of some use to you, and you are welcome to my life in that way⁠—I am giving it freely. Dead, I should be a mere lump of carrion. Who remembers even the names of those who have been done to death in the Southern States for the past twenty years?”

“I ’members de name er one of ’em,” said Josh, “an’ I ’members de name er de man dat killt ’im, an’ I s’pec’ his time is mighty nigh come.”

“My advice is not heroic, but I think it is wise. In this riot we are placed as we should be in a war: we have no territory, no base of supplies, no organization, no outside sympathy⁠—we stand in the position of a race, in a case like this, without money and without friends. Our time will come⁠—the time when we can command respect for our rights; but it is not yet in sight. Give it up, boys, and wait. Good may come of this, after all.”

Several of the men wavered, and looked irresolute.

“I reckon that’s all so, doctuh,” returned Josh, “an’, de way you put it, I don’ blame you ner Mr. Watson; but all dem reasons ain’ got no weight wid me. I’m gwine in dat town, an’ ef any w’ite man ’sturbs me, dere’ll be trouble⁠—dere’ll be double trouble⁠—I feels it in my bones!”

“Remember your old mother, Josh,” said Miller.

“Yas, suh, I’ll ’member her; dat’s all I kin do now. I don’ need ter wait fer her no mo’, fer she died dis mo’nin’. I’d lack ter see her buried, suh, but I may not have de chance. Ef I gits killt, will you do me a favor?”

“Yes, Josh; what is it?”

“Ef I should git laid out in dis commotion dat’s gwine on, will you collec’ my wages f’m yo’ brother, and see dat de ole ’oman is put away right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Wid a nice coffin, an’ a nice fune’al, an’ a head-bo’d an’ a foot-bo’d?”


“All right, suh! Ef I don’ live ter do it, I’ll know it’ll be ’tended ter right. Now we’re gwine out ter de cotton compress, an’ git a lot er colored men tergether, an’ ef de w’ite folks ’sturbs me, I shouldn’t be s’prise’ ef dere’d be a mix-up;⁠—an’ ef dere is, me an one w’ite man’ll stan’ befo’ de jedgment th’one er God dis day; an’ it won’t be me w’at ’ll be ’feared er de jedgment. Come along, boys! Dese gentlemen may have somethin’ ter live fer; but ez fer my pa’t, I’d ruther be a dead nigger any day dan a live dog!”