Advertisement appearing in the Alexandria Phoenix Gazette in May of May, 1828

The prompt for this week’s Chatham Writers Group was to pick a word that you would focus on for 2022 and write a poem, work of fiction, write about why this was your chosen word. I chose to write a fictional piece, with my character focusing on a word for his future. I decided to go this route after starting to read the two books my wife gave for Christmas; “My Monticello”, and “How The Word Is Passed”, the Frederick Douglass biography my son and his wife gave me last year, “Caste” & “The Warmth of Other Suns”, “The Underground Railroad”.

About a year and a half ago I started to write an outline for a book based on slaves escaping from a plantation and their ordeal in navigating the Underground Railroad to freedom.  But I felt this was not my story to tell, I do not have the personal history a person of color would have, these aren’t my experiences, rather these are someone else’s experiences I have read about.  Based on feedback from the Writers Group and others, I may approach it again. At any rate, my story follows.


Galileo Washburn sat in the wagon seat, shoulders slumped, the reins for a team of 4 mules gripped tightly in his gloved hands.  He was staring hard at those gloved hand.  So hard in fact, he feared his eyes would burn holes through the gloves and cut the reins.  The sounds flowing over the brick walled yard to his right were as though from a carnival from Hell.  Drunken laughter, men swearing, whips cracking in the air, the sing-song cadence of an auctioneer, voice shouting dollar amounts, the pitiful shrieks and cries of families being torn apart.  It was auction day at Franklin & Armfield, it always sounded like this on auction day.  It took every ounce of his strength for Galileo to not leap from his seat and run from the horrible sounds.

After the completion of the auction, Galileo would sometimes take a wagon of slaves to either the rail yard where they would be loaded into cattle cars and sent to Mississippi, or to the river front for transport to New Orleans on one of his master’s ships.  Today, however, he would be taking a group of slaves to his owner’s plantation on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia.

Harsh voices and rattling chains alerted him to the approach of his cargo.  Galileo jumped down from his seat and jogged to drop the wagon gate to load the passengers.  There were four, two men and two women, no children.  The women, inconsolable, were being roughly handled by two men who shoved and jabbed them sharply in the ribs with the balled end of whip grips.  They were grieving being separated from their children during the auction.  Galileo recognized them as being from Sierra Leone, they were speaking the same language as his mother.  Perhaps their families knew each other.  The two women were startled when he began speaking to them soothingly in Krio while helping them climb into the wagon bed.

“All I can say is how sorry I am for what has happened to you.  But you must try to settle yourselves, or you will be whipped.  Please understand,” he said.  The two women continued to sob, but were somewhat more subdued.

The booming voice of Asa Washburn, Galileo’s master, made everyone jump, “That Galileo can charm a catamount, look how he calmed those wenches!  Good work son!”

With their cargo loaded, Galileo and Asa climbed into the wagon seat and set off for Laurel Hall, the Washburn plantation.  As the wagon moved slowly along Prince Street, Galileo could catch a glimpse of the wide Potomac River, and just beyond the opposite shore line, the outer buildings of the nations Capital.  “But not my Capital,” he thought.

The route from the slave market to Laurel Hall was a straight path and normally took two hours.  Today Asa Washburn directed Galileo to take a less direct road, closer to the river.  This road would eventually fork, with one path leading back to the plantation.  As the wagon approached the fork, Galileo gasped, “My God,” and yanked the reins to stop the wagon.  From the branch of a tree at the fork hung the body of a slave.  The gentle breeze from the river made the body twist slowly.  The man appeared to have been severely beaten before being lynched.  A sign hung from his neck – “This Fate Awaits Murderous Runaways”.  Asa Washburn said, “Keep the team moving Galileo.”  Turning to the passengers, who were cowering and shielding there eyes from the sight, he said, “Runaways are treated harshly. This slave’s  punishment was severe because he killed a prize hound who caught up with him. Open your eyes and look!  You do not want this to happen to you!  I don’t want this to happen to you!”  

 Galileo asked his master permission to translate his words to Krio, their passengers did not understand English.  Asa huffed, took a swig of bourbon from his flask and gruffly agreed, adding, “well they better learn to know what I say, and learn right fast.”

It wasn’t much longer before the wagon pulled to a stop in front of Laurel Hall.  Helping the stiff legged, and frightened passengers from the wagon bed, Galileo welcomed them to their new “home”.  A rush of crinoline, petticoats and skirts announced the approach of the wife of Asa Washburn and the plantation’s namesake, Mistress Laurel Washburn.  

“Welcome to Laurel Hall, y’all,” she stated with a flourish, “As long as y’all follow the rules and meet the expectations of the plantation owners and overseers, y’all should find living here agreeable. Now let the ceremony begin!” The ceremony being the “naming” of the newly acquired slaves, assigning them English names.  The men were named Jackson and Kermit, the women Loki and May Belle.  Mistress Washburn followed the alphabet when assigning names.  Even her children were named Asa Jr., Brady, Clarissa and Diana.

Turning to Galileo, in a somewhat more icy tone, she said, “Leo, please show our new hires to their quarters.”  With the exception of Master Washburn and his mother, everyone else at Laurel Hall called him “Leo”.

While being led to their new quarters, the woman recently name Loki caught up with Galileo and walked along side him.  “I sense that woman does not like you.”

“Get used to referring to that woman as Mistress Washburn, it will make things somewhat easier for you.  And, no, she is not very fond of me,” he replied.

What Loki said next caught him completely by surprise, “I see in you a strong resemblance to her husband.  Is this why she dislikes you?  Are you, ahhh, perhaps her step-son?”

He replied stiffly, “Her husband is called Master Washburn.  I never knew my father, he was sold while I was an infant.”

Loki felt he knew all to well who his father was.  Chuckling she said, “Master, Mistress, it matters not to me.   I am leaving to find my husband and children.  I will be free of this place!” 

Galileo grabbed Loki’s arm and spun her to face him.  It was her turn to be surprised.  Jabbing his finger at Loki, Galileo hissed, “Crazy woman!  You have no idea how big this country is!  Your husband and children are most likely going to places that are hundreds, a thousand miles from here!  You will be like a lamb in a den of lions.  You will end up like that poor soul we saw on the road today.  We all want to be free of this place.”   Calming down somewhat, he continued, “Freedom is foremost in all of our minds.  Acquiring it is dangerous, keeping it is equally dangerous.”

Galileo had stopped in front of a row of cabins.  He directed the two men to one cabin, the two women to the second.  To Loki he whispered, “We will talk more about freedom later, now here is your new home.”

A photo I took while visiting the Lynching Memorial portion of The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018

2 thoughts on “Freedom

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