Harper, Frances E.W.
|CHAPTER XXIV. -- NORTHERN EXPERIENCE.|
" Uncle Robert ," said Iola, after she had been North several weeks, "I have a theory that every woman ought to know how to earn her own living. I believe that a great amount of sin and misery springs from the weakness and inefficiency of women."
"Perhaps that's so, but what are you going to do about it?"
"I am going to join the great rank of bread-winners. Mr. Waterman has advertised for a number of saleswomen, and I intend to make application."
"When he advertises for help he means white women," said Robert.
"He said nothing about color," responded Iola.
"I don't suppose he did. He doesn't expect any colored girl to apply."
"Well, I think I could fill the place. At least I should like to try. And I do not think when I apply that I am in duty bound to tell him my great-grand-mother was a negro."
"Well, child, there is no necessity for you to go out to work. You are perfectly welcome here, and I hope that you feel so."
"Oh, I certainly do. But still I would rather earn my own living."
That morning Iola applied for the situation, and, being prepossessing in her appearance, she obtained it.
For awhile everything went as pleasantly as a marriage bell. But one day a young colored lady, well-dressed and well-bred in her manner, entered the store. It was an acquaintance which Iola had formed in the colored church which she attended. Iola gave her a few words of cordial greeting, and spent a few moments chatting with her. The attention of the girls who sold at the same counter was attracted, and their suspicion awakened. Iola was a stranger in that city. Who was she, and who were her people? At last it was decided that one of the girls should act as a spy, and bring what information she could concerning Iola.
The spy was successful. She found out that Iola was living in a good neighborhood, but that none of the neighbors knew her. The man of the house was very fair, but there was an old woman whom Iola called "Grandma," and she was unmistakably colored. The story was sufficient. If that were true, Iola must be colored, and she should be treated accordingly.
Without knowing the cause, Iola noticed a chill in the social atmosphere of the store, which communicated itself to the cash-boys, and they treated her so insolently that her situation became very uncomfortable. She saw the proprietor, resigned her position, and asked for and obtained a letter of recommendation to another merchant who had advertised for a saleswoman.
In applying for the place, she took the precaution to inform her employer that she was colored. It made no difference to him; but he said:--
"Don't say anything about it to the girls. They might not be willing to work with you."
Iola smiled, did not promise, and accepted the situation.
One day, during an interval in business, the girls began to talk of their respective churches, and the question was put to Iola:--
"Where do you go to church?"
"I go," she replied, "to Rev. River's church, corner of Eighth and L Streets."
"Oh, no; you must be mistaken. There is no church there except a colored one."
"That is where I go."
"Why do you go there?"
"Because I liked it when I came here, and joined it."
"A member of a colored church? What under heaven possessed you to do such a thing?"
"Because I wished to be with my own people."
Here the interrogator stopped, and looked surprised and pained, and almost instinctively moved a little farther from her. After the store was closed, the girls had an animated discussion, which resulted in the information being sent to Mr. Cohen that Iola was a colored girl, and that they protested against her being continued in his employ. Mr. Cohen yielded to the pressure, and informed Iola that her services were no longer needed.
When Robert came home in the evening, he found that Iola had lost her situation, and was looking somewhat discouraged.
"Well, uncle," she said, "I feel out of heart. It seems as if the prejudice pursues us through every avenue of life, and assigns us the lowest places."
"That is so," replied Robert, thoughtfully.
"And yet I am determined," said Iola, "to win for myself a place in the fields of labor. I have heard of a place in New England, and I mean to try for it, even if I only stay a few months."
"Well, if you will go, say nothing about your color."
"Uncle Robert, I see no necessity for proclaiming that fact on the house-top. Yet I am resolved that nothing shall tempt me to deny it. The best blood in my veins is African blood, and I am not ashamed of it."
"Hurrah for you!" exclaimed Robert, laughing heartily.
As Iola wished to try the world for herself, and so be prepared for any emergency, her uncle and grandmother were content to have her go to New England. The town to which she journeyed was only a few hours' ride from the city of P--, and Robert, knowing that there is no teacher like experience, was willing that Iola should have the benefit of her teaching.
Iola, on arriving in H--, sought the firm, and was informed that her services were needed. She found it a pleasant and lucrative position. There was only one drawback--her boarding place was too far from her work. There was an institution conducted by professed Christian women, which was for the special use of respectable young working girls. This was in such a desirable location that she called at the house to engage board.
The matron conducted her over the house, and grew so friendly in the interview that she put her arm around her, and seemed to look upon Iola as a desirable accession to the home. But, just as Iola was leaving, she
Swift as light a change passed over the face of the matron. She withdrew her arm from Iola, and said: "I must see the board of managers about it."
When the board met, Iola's case was put before them, but they decided not to receive her. And these women, professors of a religion which taught, "If ye have respect to persons ye commit sin," virtually shut the door in her face because of the outcast blood in her veins.
Considerable feeling was aroused by the action of these women, who, to say the least, had not put their religion in the most favorable light.
Iola continued to work for the firm until she received letters from her mother and uncle, which informed her that her mother, having arranged her affairs in the South, was ready to come North. She then resolved to return to the city of P--, to be ready to welcome her mother on her arrival.
Iola arrived in time to see that everything was in order for her mother's reception. Her room was furnished neatly, but with those touches of beauty that womanly hands are such adepts in giving. A few charming pictures adorned the walls, and an easy chair stood waiting to receive the travel-worn mother. Robert and Iola met her at the depot; and grandma was on her feet at the first sound of the bell, opened the door, clasped Marie to her heart, and nearly fainted for joy.
"Can it be possible dat dis is my little Marie?" she exclaimed.
It did seem almost impossible to realize that this faded woman, with pale cheeks and prematurely whitened
"Well," said Robert, after the first joyous greeting was over, "love is a very good thing, but Marie has had a long journey and needs something that will stick by the ribs. How about dinner, mother?"
"It's all ready," said Mrs. Johnson.
After Marie had gone to her room and changed her dress, she came down and partook of the delicious repast which her mother and Iola had prepared for her.
In a few days Marie was settled in the home, and was well pleased with the change. The only drawback to her happiness was the absence of her son, and she expected him to come North after the closing of his school.
"Uncle Robert," said Iola, after her mother had been with them several weeks, "I am tired of being idle."
"What's the matter now?" asked Robert. "You are surely not going East again, and leave your mother?"
"Oh, I hope not," said Marie, anxiously. "I have been so long without you."
"No, mamma, I am not going East. I can get suitable employment here in the city of P--."
"But, Iola," said Robert, "you have tried, and been defeated. Why subject yourself to the same experience again?"
"Uncle Robert, I think that every woman should have some skill or art which would insure her at least a comfortable support. I believe there would be less unhappy marriages if labor were more honored among women."
"Well, Iola," said her mother, "what is your skill?"
"Nursing. I was very young when I went into the
A troubled look stole over Marie's face. She sighed faintly, but made no remonstrance. And so it was decided that Iola should apply for the situation.
Iola made application, and was readily accepted. Her patient was a frail girl of fifteen summers, who was ill with a low fever. Iola nursed her carefully, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing her restored to health. During her stay, Mr. Cloten, the father of the invalid, had learned some of the particulars of Iola's Northern experience as a bread-winner, and he resolved to give her employment in his store when her services were no longer needed in the house. As soon as a vacancy occurred he gave Iola a place in his store.
The morning she entered on her work he called his employés together, and told them that Miss Iola had colored blood in her veins, but that he was going to employ her and give her a desk. If any one objected to working with her, he or she could step to the cashier's desk and receive what was due. Not a man remonstrated, not a woman demurred; and Iola at last found a place in the great army of bread-winners, which the traditions of her blood could not affect.
"How did you succeed?" asked Mrs. Cloten of her husband, when he returned to dinner.
"Admirably! 'Everything is lovely and the goose
"I am very glad," said Mrs Cloten. "I am ashamed of the way she has been treated in our city, when seeking to do her share in the world's work. I am glad that you were brave enough to face this cruel prejudice, and give her a situation."
"Well, my dear, do not make me a hero for a single act. I am grateful for the care Miss Leroy gave our Daisy. Money can buy services, but it cannot purchase tender, loving sympathy. I was also determined to let my employés know that I, not they, commanded my business. So, do not crown me a hero until I have won a niche in the temple of fame. In dealing with Southern prejudice against the negro, we Northerners could do it with better grace if we divested ourselves of our own. We irritate the South by our criticisms, and, while I confess that there is much that is reprehensible in their treatment of colored people, yet if our Northern civilization is higher than theirs we should 'criticise by creation.' We should stamp ourselves on the South, and not let the South stamp itself on us. When we have learned to treat men according to the complexion of their souls, and not the color of their skins, we will have given our best contribution towards the solution of the negro problem."
"I feel, my dear," said Mrs. Cloten, "that what you have done is a right step in the right direction, and I hope that other merchants will do the same. We have numbers of business men, rich enough to afford themselves the luxury of a good conscience."