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  --  1848--?   Table of Contents    Illustration

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines

- MATILDA J. DUNBAR -- 1848--?
- Illustration

Mrs. Matilda J. Dunbar
Mother of Paul Lawrence Dunbar

" Sad days were those--ah, sad indeed!
But through the land the fruitful seed
Of better times was growing .
The plant of freedom upward sprung ,
And spread its leaves so fresh and young --
Its blossoms now are blooming."


The subject of this sketch was born in Shelby County, Kentucky. She had many thrilling experiences during the time spent in slavery. In her own language she tells some highly interesting facts concerning her life. She pondered over her condition, wondering why she was not permitted to learn to read--why she was compelled to work for people who gave her few clothes and no wages--why she could not live with her mother and grandmother--in fact why she was a slave--dangerous thoughts for a young woman in bondage--but these and other thoughts kept obtruding until she found resentment against her condition had filled her bosom. The crisis came one day when Matilda, house maid and cook for fourteen persons, was accused by her mistress of an act of which she was not guilty. She denied it and--"Miss Matt slapped me in the face, causing the blood to flow. I was peeling an onion, I threw the onion across the kitchen and with the knife in my hand walked out. She ordered me back. I did not go. She called me all the pet names such as you will not find in the unabridged. I knew I had violated a law which meant the whipping post. I did not know which way to turn. Night

was coming on--I sat on the steps and wept. I was not yet fifteen years old--no one to help me--father, mother, sister, no one near. I hid near the stile. How frightened I was! Milton, the house boy passed. I called him. 'Go up stairs, I said, and get my buff calico dress, my shoes and shawl.' He went and came right past Miss Matt, who did not see him. I rolled them up and started. Milton said, 'Come back! You're hurtin' yo'self.' I said 'Hush!' 'Yo' bettah come back.' I said 'Hush!' I went up to him and said, 'If you open your mouth I will murder you,' I went past Miss Matt's room window, up a corn field fence, hiding when I heard the clash of horses feet on the hard road, then on for seven miles to my sisters Ellen's. 'Matilda, go right back,' she said. 'I'll die first' said I. Her son said, 'Mother, "Tid" don't haf to go back.' A heavy snow had fallen, but at midnight the boy went with me five miles away to old Aunt Doshy's cabin, but she could not keep me, so on we went five miles further to Binie Redden's cabin and then for four weeks hid in the loft where I stayed with fear and trembling all day, stealing down at midnight for something to eat."

It is interesting to follow her from Binie's cabin until her fetters were broken. When emancipation came she was told that only soldiers' wives were free, but soon she learned that she too was free and when she gave vent to her feelings was told to pack her things and leave. Again she says--"Early that morning I sang, my heart was so full! I had a fine voice for singing. At four o'clock I sang like a mocking bird. I sang the whole house awake. I was in the kitchen getting breakfast. The word came--'All darkies are free.' I never finished that breakfast! I ran 'round and 'round the kitchen, hitting my head against the wall, clapping my hands and crying, 'Freedom! freedom! freedom! Rejoice, freedom has come!' I hurried to Louisville and on January first there was a great celebration. As the parade passed on Broadway near Twelfth street some one turned a wild bull loose. For a time there was

a panic, but soon the vicious animal was captured and the parade moved on. O, how we sang and shouted that day! The very memory "Happifies" my soul and I must honor and praise His High Name."

She did not long continue in Louisville as her heart yearned to see her mother who was in Dayton, Ohio. The narrator continued, "I was permitted to care for my mother in her old age--although deprived of her love and affection in my childhood. Well do I remember how we little ones, peeking through the logs of the cabin, saw our poor, little mother ready to be whipped for an act she did not commit. 'Who did it if you didn't do it?' 'I don't know, Massa David,' she cried. His wife Miss Sallie, said, 'If you know about it Liza, tell him.' 'I don't know, Miss Sallie.' She could not stand the sight of that poor tearful mother, but turned to her husband and said, 'Mr. Glass, I did that'."

Mrs. Dunbar resides in the Dayton home from which her poet son fell into "that last dear sleep whose soft embrace is balm." That comfortable, commodious home, shaded by magnificent elms, where he fought his losing fight, watched over and tenderly cared for by the devoted mother--those last days or any of his days and years would have been impossible without that mother who faithfully fulfilled a heavenly mission during the weary months and years of her son's illness. At the open door she greets the visitors with a smile. They come to talk of Paul--her one great theme--then she conducts them to his sanctum sanctorum--"Well, his den," she says--he named it "Loafingholt"--the walls lined with book shelves filled with his own works and choice bits from noted authors--photographs of eminent men and women of both races and dainty bits of bric-a-brac. Here is his desk with pens and ink wells, his caps and boots--his couches piled high with gay sofa pillows, inviting one to "loaf"--a violin made by Captain Stivers of Steele high school--all cherished by this loving mother who delights to show them, these silent remembrances

  --  1848--?   Table of Contents    Illustration