We in the house were always decently dressed, while some
Richmond slaves didn't even have shoes to wear on the city's unpaved
streets. Though Old Master Van Lew's family held slaves,
including Mama and Old Sam, when he lived in New York, neither
Old Master Van Lew nor his Philadelphia-born bride could quite
abide the way human chattel were treated in Virginia. We were
Van Lew property. To Old Master and Mistress Van Lew, keeping
us suitably clothed and fed was a measure of both their financial
and their moral accomplishments.
The Van Lews were Northerners enough that when their housekeeper
set her eyes on a handsome young blacksmith twenty-five
years earlier, they understood she meant to be a proper wife to him.
Though they made it clear they would neither sell her nor purchase
him, they consented to the match. But no law tied my mama to my
papa, or either parent to me.
Much as we slaves studied the Van Lews, still we didn't know
whether they had more capital or creditors. Which meant we didn't
know what might happen to us when the time came for the settling
of Old Master Van Lew's estate. The morning that George
Griswold, the Van Lews' family attorney, called on our widowed
mistress, we lurked outside the drawing room, knowing we had as
much interest in the terms of the will as the Van Lews themselves.
We heard how the mansion and all its contents - that meant
Mama and me and our fellow slaves, along with the inanimate
Possessions - were held with a handsome annual income for
Mistress Van Lew, until her death or remarriage, at which point
they would pass to Young Master John. He was sole heir to his
father's businesses, hardware stores in Richmond and Petersburg,
which Griswold reported had substantial assets and little debt. Miss
Bet would receive a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance, a share of the
annual yield from a small market farm the family kept southeast of
Richmond, and residence in the mansion until her death or marriage.
That last stipulation had Zinnie snorting to Mama, "Guess we'll
be waiting on Miss Bet till the Good Lord take her home."
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