Bleeding Florida: An Alternate History
Moses Johnson clutched his right hand and tried to keep it from shaking. The young man, more of a boy, said nothing after buying him. He smiled, true. But Moses was nearly seventy years old and had worked in the fields for almost all his life. Born in Mississippi, he had been sold six times and have traveled from Mississippi to South Carolina then to Texas and finally to Hancock County, Georgia. He knew a smile from a white man meant nothing.
"where are we going?" Mama Jane whispered as the children continued to sob.
"Shush woman," Moses whispered back.
"What are you talking about back there?" the young white man said sympathetically.
"Nothing mass'a," Moses said firmly, "the chile...he still be crying..."
"Don't call me that." the young white man said with unmistakable contempt. His voice had hardened in a way that sent a shiver down the back of Moses.
"Yes, mass'a...Mister Astor...it's just...the chil'rin they scart, and they miss they's mammas."
"It was a most unconscionable thing, what I had to do," the young man said sadly, "but their mothers were healthy...strong. And most...expensive."
It was that simple fact that most frightened Mama Jane and Moses. They were old, weak...and almost worthless as slaves go. Mama Jane has developed a bad hunchback from her years in the field and her hands could hardly grasp so much as a spoon, and Moses was not much better. The three children were sickly and weak, and the boy Franklin had a club foot that frightened most of the other bidders away. Moses knew what it meant for them on the auction block. Perhaps $25. Perhaps $50. And the man who would by him would be a poor white man with nothing but a worthless plot of land and a healthy adherence to the whip. He knew many a slave who spent their last days whipped and worked to death after being bought by a poor white who desperately wanted to build a plantation on the back of his old slave. It was the fear of every slave...to end up there. And sadly, it looked to have come to fruition for him...and Mama Jane. The way the young northern boy clutched his satchel and counted his money...over and over again between bids. The way his shoulders slumped each time the bid went over a hundred dollars. The poor quality of the slaves purchased. Even the auctioneer, perhaps seeing the boy as a fool who would squander his small account on the weakest of slaves, tried to warn him.
"Son, these slaves aren't worth a dime," he said in a moment of magnanimity, "you would be better served spending all of your money on one healthy slave rather than these three here. They'll be dead in a year. I know you are not a rich man-"
The boy interrupted the auctioneer angrily, chiding him for not recognizing his name, and the auctioneer walked away. If the boy wanted to waste his money, they he would take his money.
"Come Moses...sit here next to me." the young man said. "We are far enough from Sparta to speak freely...as fellow men."
"Yessir, Mr. Astor."
"Moses, what question most troubles you and the children? Is it where we are going?"
"Well, yessir...we would like to know that."
"Well, again, we are closer to the state line than to Sparta now, I suppose I should tell you. Florida. We are going to Florida. We have a small cotton plantation there."
Moses felt his heart sink. A small plantation and a poor young white man. This was as bad as he feared.
"Is your family there?" Moses asked nervously, "in Florida?"
"No my good man, they are not. My father is desperately trying to exploit the inheritance that my grandfather had left him so that he might build upon his empire. And I have let him down to many times in the past to count. First he sent me to England, and now he sent me here. To keep me out of the way. To keep me from telling my dying grandfather what I truly think of his empire of steel and now to keep me from telling my uncle what I think of the Astor name. My father...he can't have that. He regards me as a rabble-rouser. As an ungrateful child."
"And what of you sir? What is it about your father that most angers you?"
The young man said nothing as he looked off in the distance, the only sounds the muffled cries of the young boy and the horses slow gallop.
"His class." the boy whispered.
Moses said nothing as the boy shifted uncomfortably as he pulled back on the reins ever so slightly. It was enough to cause the horses to neigh uncomfortably.
"But enough of my wretched family, Moses. Let's speak of you. They say you are a learned man. I am told that you read scripture."
Moses felt his heart skip a beat. How could he know?
"No massa...I mean Mr. Astor. I ain't never been taught to read."
"That's not what I was told," the young man said as he turned and looked at Moses intently, "Does the name Jordan Bell sound familiar to you? Does this name cause you to recall a young runaway from ten years ago in Dallas, Texas? Because he spoke at length about you. He said that your words...moved him to great deeds. To seek freedom. He spoke of how much your words comforted him and empowered him when you spoke of Moses leading the slaves out of Egypt."
Moses looked over and saw Mama Jane's eyes wide with fear. This young man was dangerous. He was a zealot, and he was going to build his own empire to challenge that of his grandfathers...and he would do it on the back of Moses Johnson.
"There are many runaways Mr. Astor," Moses said as his voice cracked, unable to hide his fear, "I memorized the words, that much is true...but I can't read."
"No Moses," he said firmly, "you were a man of God. You took the Master's Bible and you comforted the slaves and you preached to them. You married them-"
"Mr. Astor, I put the broom down, but they's be the one who jump over it."
"I know you are frightened," the young man said, "but you are the reason I came to Georgia. Your old master, Mr. Deacon, he lost everything when the bank collected on his debts. But who do you think was responsible for that? Who bought his debts from the bank?"
"I don't know..."
"We did. Myself, and...the others."
The young man reached into his jacket and pulled out a badly worn pamphlet. He handed it to Moses.
"Here," the young man said, "this has opened my eyes, and soon...it will open your eyes. I was once blind to the cruelty of the world...but after this...but please. Read it. Read it out loud so that I can here those glorious words come forth from your lips."
Moses could see Mama Jane shake her head ever so slightly. A slave who could read was a dangerous thing. Whatever whipping he would get for refusing the young Astor boy would pale in comparison to what he would receive if it became known that he was able to read.
Moses browsed through the pamphlet breifly before closing it.
"I know a few letters," Moses said, barely above a whisper, "but I cannot make sense of these words Sir. I am sorry..."
"Turn to the last page," the young man said, "turn to it and read to me the final sentence in that precious document that you hold in your hand."
Moses felt his heart racing. Even the children seemed to be frozen with fear as the crying and sobbing stopped. But yet...he wanted so much to speak these words. To his great detriment, he wanted to live and not be afraid of the written word.
"Puh-Pruh-Proh-" Moses struggled with the alien word that he had never seen before.
"I don't know this word Mr. Astor," he said honestly, "it don't make no sense to my lips."
The Young Astor boy sighed.
"It means worker, Moses. It means slave. Now try again."
The clarification sent a jolt through Moses as the entire sentence became clear. His fear still wanted to stop him, to somehow paralyze him. But it couldn't because he knew what this document was....what it promised. And he wanted more than anything to hear it out loud. To say these words for the first time. Despite all of his fear, this was something he knew he needed to say. Something that he knew he needed to hear...out loud. Moses Johnson took a deep breath and said the words that would soon change not only his life, but of the entire nation.
"Workers of the world...unite!"