“WE’RE STILL SLAVES, FOLKS. Our owners just removed the chains from our legs and wrapped them around our minds,” Anselmo Washington said, careful to temper his tone. A black Mississippian born and bred to the plantation, as he described himself, he stood on his steamy front porch, hat in hand, and spoke to the white folks before him. He told them how he came to Illinois and decided to buy this grand old slave house on the north bank of the Ohio River to offer tours and show Midwesterners their true history. “You never know your future till you understand your past,” he liked to explain. But only six paying visitors showed up, and he needed seven to break even. Anselmo wondered if he and they had anything in common besides the maddening horseflies buzzing around them. He swiped at the pests with his hat and led the visitors into the former slave master’s quarters.
“Five greenbacks, admission,” Anselmo announced. There were times he considered charging more, but his aim was to tell things like they were, and he feared raising the price would turn folks off.
“I’m Ruth from Rockford,” a blonde, middle-aged woman said. “Interior decorator. Wasn’t this a free state before the Civil War?”
“Yes,” Anselmo answered. “But a slave owner arrived in 1834 and built this lovely mansion, Greek Revival style. It was one of the most notorious slave houses in the U. S. A story of misery and the vile ways slaves were treated by the most violent slave driver in American history. John Crenshaw.”
“No, ma’am, Crenshaw, John H. See the gorgeous view he had?” Anselmo motioned to a steep verdant hill leading up from the River.
“Magnificent,” Ruth agreed. “But I’m here to see the inside furnishings.”
“That there’s the hill niggers like me climbed every day, all the way to the mines. Note the pole with ball and chain attached.”
Ruth looked up in surprise when Anselmo used the n-word. Without speaking, she turned to the master bedroom featuring flowery wallpaper and sturdy oaken ceiling beams. She studied several cabinets with vintage toiletries and bed linen neatly placed on shelves. Beside the cabinets stood a glass case displaying shackles, pockmarked hand weapons, and a sawed-off shotgun.
“Crenshaw became the wealthiest man in the state,” Anselmo said to the other visitors. “So he built this dwelling. Constructed by intelligent black men. They scoured the South for the best slave craftsmen. Those colored masons anchored this house in eight foot of solid bedrock.”
“Amazing construction work, but this Crenshaw guy, he got away with it? Practicing slavery in the North?” asked a tall, serious-looking senior, who introduced himself as George Johnson, a retired building contractor from Indiana. He addressed Anselmo earnestly while his wife, who walked with a cane, hobbled from room to room. “I’ve heard tell of this place, but never knew what to believe.”
“Crenshaw made his fortune on the salt mines. The work was too hard for white men, so Crenshaw smuggled slaves from Kentucky. He kidnapped Northern blacks and forced them into the mines. We still got an old salt kiln outside,” Anselmo said, pointing to the backyard. He, George, and a couple in their twenties, gazed out at the kiln. “This mansion made 250 thousand a year from sales of salt and paid half the taxes of the State in 1842. Crenshaw was so rich he bribed Illinois senators for the use of slaves.”
After Ruth and George’s wife returned to the room, Anselmo continued talking as he led the group up more stairs. The sixth visitor, a slender Latina with a baby cradled in a sling over her shoulder, appeared from the restroom below. “I’m Carmen. And this is my daughter, Maria. Sorry to lag behind, we’re from Chicago, just wanted to see how other ethnics lived,” she said while pressing a bill into Anselmo’s hand. “Ten, for me and Maria.” Anselmo was grateful for the extra cash but felt embarrassed accepting money for the child.
“Crenshaw ferried Kentucky slaves across the Ohio,” he explained. “In bad weather he kept them overnight in a slave hut. Or on the third floor, up above.”
“Even farther up?” George’s wife asked and pointed at the stairway with her cane.
Anselmo nodded. “Steep, all right.”
“Never you mind, we’ll manage,” the woman assured him. “Just you wait and see!”
“John Crenshaw treated blacks like animals,” Anselmo replied with a contempt for the slave owner that defied his smile.
At the top of the second flight, Anselmo paused for the Johnsons to catch up. He ran his hand over a shiny mahogany post. “Know what this is?” he asked. He reckoned no one would answer, but Carmen raised her hand like an eager school kid.
“A whipping post,” she said.
“Sure, like at Chiago’s Cook County Jail, huh?” Anselmo replied, as if from experience.
“Hey, my man Eduardo did a stint there,” Carmen explained. “He’s from below the border.”
“No Latinos here, but lots of black men’s blood ran down this post. The whites taught us backwards, in their language, forced us to learn their ways. Out on the slope, horses pulled them apart, limb from limb. Early in the twentieth century old ex-slaves hereabouts still recalled their agonized screams. What’s the difference, folks, between killing us on the spot and making us follow their white ways?”
While Anselmo waited for a reply, Ruth offered a friendly smile. George shook his head. “Beats me,” he mumbled. The young couple looked at each other until the woman answered, “Up north in Minnesota, we got nothing like this. We’re Stan and Kristine, married grad students, traveling through. Stan hails from Paducah and he doesn’t know about any of this either. Just tell us.”
“On the spot is instantaneous,” Anselmo explained.
When no one commented further, he led them through the second-floor. “Is this more like it?” he asked and showed them Crenshaw’s sumptuous banquet hall. The dining table ran the length of the room, with chandeliers jangling above. The group ran their fingers along the shiny tabletop and talked among themselves, while Anselmo detailed the value of the household goods. When they re-assembled, he produced a pre-Civil War bill of sale from the mansion’s files. It listed two mirrors for $1.50 each, a shotgun worth $5.00, a chair for $8.00, a slave woman priced at $500, and her daughter for $100.
Meanwhile, Ruth and the Minnesota couple inspected a mixture of items arrayed along the wall, including canning jars and a cream separator. Ruth pointed at a gaggle of bones hanging from a rod in the otherwise empty cloak room.
“A dead skeleton,” George’s wife said blankly.
“A man’s,” Carmen added. “I can tell. Like Dia de los muertos.”
“Yes,” Anselmo agreed. “A dead slave found in a salt pit. Crenshaw left him there. Never bothered to dig a grave. Somebody hung him up for tourists.”
George’s wife put her cane down and leaned against the banquet table. Anselmo pulled out a chair as she gazed at the spectacle. “Lord, so hideous.”
“Folks say that’s Lincoln’s seat,” Anselmo explained. He made a point of telling every group of visitors about the chair. He’d grown used to the blank stares his comment often left on their faces, but Ruth, Carmen, George, and the young couple stood firm and watched him intently.
“Abe Lincoln, the liberator?” Carmen asked.
“He ventured this far south, imagine,” Kristine said to Stan. “Just like us, from way up north, honey.”
“Not what we learned in school about Lincoln,” Carmen added.
“Oh, yes, in 1840 Honest Abe passed through here, ran for state office. John Crenshaw hosted him at this very table, even threw a fancy ball, with white men’s quarters below and slave rooms above.”
The Minnesotans gazed up as if they imagined rebellious feet stomping on the ceiling. “Hard to believe,” Stan said.
“Cars with plenty different license plates been here,” Anselmo agreed. “I’ve had people try to sleep in the slave’s attic. White folk don’t last a night.”
“Because they realize what their ancestors did?” Carmen guessed.
“Their conscience can’t bear it,” George deduced.
“We’re all brainwashed to the max, black and white alike,” Anselmo explained kindly, sensing how this group caught his drift intuitively.
“Nowadays us slaves believe we are free,” George mused.
“Here we are a hundred and sixty years later,” Ruth said with a sigh. “If we really were free, we wouldn’t be here now, would we?”
“Free?” Anselmo asked. “Free puts you on tricky ground. You never know. Crenshaw captured freed blacks and sold them back into slavery. He tricked them into boat rides on the Ohio and dumped them on the other side in chains. Underground railroad in reverse.”
“Thus the expression sold down the river,” Ruth surmised.
Anselmo smiled at the group’s attentive feedback.
“But we can change that,” Carmen said as though reading his mind. “Can’t we?”
Anselmo turned and led the way up another staircase. He showed them a line of windowless rooms.
“Like for Mexican farmhands,” Carmen commented.
“Notice, some rooms don’t have bars,” Anselmo explained. “Only women and children were locked up. Sixty to a hundred slaves, eight to ten people per room, in this heat and humidity, no bathroom, no water.”
“Hideous,” George’s wife repeated. She and George had managed the steps well and now stood resolutely in the narrow hallway. Anselmo noticed how they cringed as if the third floor still smelled of sweat, urine, and tears.
“Tiny wood bunks, no ventilation or daylight, in 100-degree heat,” Ruth lamented. George wiped perspiration from his brow.
“What about the men?” Carmen asked. “Why no bars?”
“Didn’t need them,” Anselmo replied. “If they ran off, Crenshaw shackled them to that pole outside, as an example. But he had to be careful. If he beat them too bad, the scars remained and the slaves’ value sank. The worst offenders went to the whipping post.”
“Their value sank on the free market,” George commented ironically.
“Supply and demand,” Anselmo agreed. “See this last room? That was Uncle Bob’s. Crenshaw kept him locked up in there for twenty years as a stud. Like a stallion. Fathered 300 slave children.”
“And Abe Lincoln knew this?” Ruth asked incredulously. “He was here. Saw it? Heard it?”
“Your guess’s as good as mine. Stories, you know,” Anselmo answered. “This place operated till the 1860s. Crenshaw outlived the War. The property remained in private hands, for the salt, and later for tourists. I owned it a while, till the State bought it from me. Now they let me run it and I keep the cash.”
“You believe that? About Uncle Bob?” George’s wife asked.
“He lived to be a hundred. Ended up in a senior residence. Story was, he thought they were moving him to a new stud farm, at age 85.”
“Spooky,” Kristine said.
Maybe so, Anselmo thought.
The tour over, he showed them down the stairs and through the house till he stood before them once again, hat in hand, on the front veranda, in the familiar summer heat.
“Interesting, folks?” he asked.
“Yes, very much so,” Ruth answered. “More ways than one.”
The others nodded yes, but said nothing. They waited together, free to go, but going nowhere. They were sympathetic souls, Anselmo knew, who had not set out that day to spend their cash on bitter knowledge. Now here they were, struggling with the full import of what they’d seen and heard, as though something atavistic and horrific crawled inside their bones. Their faces begged for magical words to exorcise their nagging unrest or somehow make such human cruelty fathomable, but Anselmo turned as voiceless as they. Seven times five, he thought, that’s what my working day’s amounted to. Yet he also realized, as never before, that he could do more than just break even. He could make the truth heard, if the time was right, and the people, too.
Roger McKnight’s debut collection depicts individuals hampered by hardship, self-doubt, and societal indifference, who thanks to circumstance or chance, find glimmers of hope in life’s more inauspicious moments. Hopeful Monsters is a fictional reflection on Minnesota’s people that explores the state’s transformation from a homogeneous northern European ethnic enclave to a multi-national American state. Love, loss and longing cross the globe from Somalia and Sweden to Maine and Minnesota, as everyday folk struggle for self-realisation. Idyllic lakesides and scorching city streets provide authentic backdrops for a collection that shines a flickering light on vital global social issues. Read and expect howling winds, both literal and figurative, directed your way by a writer of immense talent.
Roger McKnight hails from Little Egypt, a traditional farming and coal-mining region in downstate Illinois. He studied and taught English in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico. Swedes showed Roger the value of human fairness and gender equity, while Puerto Ricans displayed the dignity of their island culture before the tragedy of Hurricane Maria and the US government’s shameful post-disaster neglect of the island’s populace. Roger relocated to Minnesota and taught Swedish and Scandinavian Studies. He now lives in the North Star State.
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