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."
Excerpted from The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. Copyright © 2012 by Lois Leveen. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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