Last night, I saw the powerful play, “The Whipping Man,” starring Andre Braugher, Andre Holland and Jay Wilkison at City Center in Manhattan. It’s the story of three Jewish men at the end of the Civil War. Two are newly freed slaves and one is a Confederate soldier (their master) fresh from battle and the trio has to navigate their shifting relationship. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of how my ancestors would have had to make similar choices.
My great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, was in her 40s when freedom arrived at her doorstep in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where she lived with her masters, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart and Col. W.R. Stuart. Tempy bore several of the colonel’s children including my great-grandmother, Josephine for whom this blog is named. Tempy was illiterate from all the census records I’ve seen and it would have been difficult to say the least for her to up and move. By the time the Civil War was over she’d already had at least one son by the Colonel, Alfred Burton Stuart, so it would have been even more difficult to move with a small child. Like the slaves in the play, she would have had to decide if she wanted to stay in the same town, the only one she’d known for most of her life or head out without knowing how to read or write and try to make a life for herself somewhere new. Should she sever all ties to the people who once owned her and with whom she now had blood ties or could she find a way to take that bitter relationship and make it palatable like the characters seemed to be doing as they ate bitter herbs during their Passover Seder. Bitter herbs or Maror symbolize the bitterness of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt. But what most stirred me watching a dramatization of what was in a way my family’s real life, was mention of the word “love” among people in an inherently imbalanced relationship such as slavery. To elaborate on the love idea would spoil the play. So, instead I’ll pose a question: Could love exist? What about their shared faith, which did not keep the white Jew from enslaving the black ones? Could their common belief alleviate the scars slavery left on them all?
These are all things I wonder every time I look at my ancestors’ faces pictured in the header. My great-grandmother probably inherited her beliefs the way the slaves in the play inherited their Jewish faith from their master. Did my ancestors’ shared faith as Methodist Episcopalians help them forge a new relationship after emancipation? Tempy and Elizabeth lived together for most of their lives. Tempy and the colonel had at least two children together, but possibly seven before and well after slavery ended. Did any or all of them believe there was love between them? Unless I turn up a diary, I’ll never be able to unequivocally answer these question, but some of the things I’m finding in my research journey are at least providing possible explanations.
If you’re in the New York area, “The Whipping Man” is worth seeing especially as we celebrate Black History month (Braugher is an actor worth celebrating) and commemorate the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the the Civil War. “The Whipping Man” is bittersweet food for thought.