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William Steward's John Blye.

"I have never known a story to attract more attention than 'John Blye, the Whitewasher's Son,'" Reverend Henry McNeal Turner wrote in a letter published in the September 19, 1878 issue of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder. Writing from Springfield, Illinois--his latest stop on an extended Midwest tour--Turner offered further praise about the serialized novel (then in its eleventh installment) that was signed simply, "By Will, Author of 'The Gem of the Alley,' &c.," noting specifically that "a certain minister" had even "preached two sermons from it."

Some of Turner's accolades for John Blye may have been puffery: as the author's friend and the Recorder's business manager, it was certainly in his interest to promote the novel. Still, Recorder readers seemed honestly engaged with the work, and the Recorder was willing to devote space to print all twenty of its installments. (1) Recorder editor Benjamin Tucker Tanner had promised, in the issue before John Blye began, that he could only "anticipate" the enjoyment of those "fortunate enough to read 'John Blye'"; after it had been running for a month, he claimed in the August 8, 1878 issue that "Word comes that 'John Blye,' is already becoming quite a hero in the eyes of RECORDER readers." After the novel's completion, Tanner even asked "Cannot the Manager somehow or other put 'John Blye' in book form?" Tanner noted its "very great popularity" and argued that "it would pay."

However, John Blye, excerpted below, was never published in book form. While it was fondly remembered in the Recorder as late as 1884, it sank into obscurity. With the exception of my Unexpected Places, John Blye h asbarely been mentioned in African American literary history. Most of its original installments are available in the subscription database run by Accessible Archives, and all can be found in the massive Black Periodical Literature Project microform collection, but even these projects offer only severely limited access to the novel and fail to identify its author. That we have collectively "forgotten" an honestly popular novel like John Blye-- one of the very few black novels published in the 1870s--initially seems stunning, until one remembers how absent the black press has been from African American literary study until quite recently. (2)

As part of the much-needed ongoing recovery of African American literature of the nineteenth century, and in the hope of sharing this novel with a wider array of readers, this introductory essay begins to provide contextual information on the novel, its author, and its world. Specifically, for the first time, it definitively identifies "Will" as black journalist William Steward, shares biographical material on this newly recovered author, summarizes his novel, and begins to place his work within the landscape of early black literature.

Two poems by "Will" appeared in the Recorder in December of 1876 and were followed by a half dozen more in 1877. When William Steward's better-known brother, Reverend Theophilus Steward, published a tribute volume to their mother, Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Steward in late 1877, "Will'"s identity probably became a much more "open" secret, as the volume opened with a four-page poem bylined "William Steward ('Will.')" and was advertised in the January 3, 1878 Recorder as including a beautiful original poem by Wm. Steward (Will)." (3) By the time his serialized short story, "The Gem of the Alley," began appearing in the April 25, 1878 issue, most regular Recorder readers probably knew that "Will" was William Steward. By December 11, 1884, the Recorder referred to Steward directly as the author of John Blye and "Will'"s other works, and Steward himself confirmed such when he included short excerpts from the novel in his 1913 local history, Gouldtown.

How Steward came to authorship--and specifically to what was, in 1878, something still quite audacious for an African American, writing a novel--is a more complex story. Born in May of 1840, Steward was the eldest son of James and Rebecca Gould Steward of Cumberland County, New Jersey. Both his family and his physical location shaped his later work: the Goulds were part of a small community of free African Americans pushing into the middling classes. James Steward had become a "bound boy" after his parents joined an ill-fated Haitian colonization venture in 1824. (4) He ran away, ended up living with Rebecca's relative Elijah Gould, became a skilled tradesman, and spent over fifty years working as a mechanic at the Cumberland Nail and Iron Factory. Rebecca Gould was descended from the mixed- race families who built the Gouldtown settlement in Cumberland County--specifically from a granddaughter of Englishman and property holder John Fenwick named Elizabeth and an unnamed African American man, whose relationship led the elder Fenwick to exile his granddaughter from his family.

Married in December 1838, the Stewards joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1846. Rebecca became known for her piety and her intellect; she soon began teaching both Sunday School classes and adult Bible classes. While her own later writing was quite didactic and while Theophilus wrote that "my whole recollection of my mother is of a Christian," he also remembered her as challenging easy notions of theology and as being as familiar with Milton, Shakespeare, and classical philosophers as she was with the Bible (Steward 19; Seraile 3-4).

The Steward family thus emphasized faith, literacy, and activism and grew together in what Albert G. Miller refers to as "a triangle consisting of home, Sunday School, and church" (2). As the eldest son, William Steward exemplified these values: by May 11, 1861, he was a subscriber to the Christian Recorder, and he published his first letter in the March 7, 1863 Recorder. He later wrote additional letters to the Recorder--generally in his role as a "recording secretary" for the New Jersey Colored Conventions and for the New Jersey Equal Rights League. (5) His reading of the Recorder would have helped him grow familiar not only with national issues but also with black literary efforts, including Julia C. Collins's 1865 serialized Recorder novel The Curse of Caste.

William Steward's younger brother Theophilus accompanied Bishop Daniel Payne on a tour of the South just after Civil War. (6) He served as a pastor at a number of A. M. E. churches in South Carolina and Georgia, became active in local politics, and secured an appointment with the Freedman's Bank. Probably in part because of his brother's growing clout, William Steward also spent some of the first years of Reconstruction among the newly freed people of the South. In addition to clerking for the Freedman's Bank, he taught for a time in Americus, Georgia (Seraile 17- 19).

Still, William Steward's heart was in New Jersey. He had married in 1862, and his wife Sarah gave birth to the couple's first child in 1863. By 1870, Steward's growing family had settled among Goulds and Pierces in Fairfield, Cumberland County, New Jersey. Probably on the strength of his experience with the Freedman's Bank and his local reputation, Steward secured a position as a bank cashier, and the 1870 federal census taker recorded his real estate holdings as worth $3,000 and his personal property as worth $1,000. (7) He continued to work with various state-level African American organizations and to send occasional correspondence to the Recorder. (8)

At some point in 1876, Steward was invited to work in the A. M. E. Church offices in Philadelphia, and he was listed in the September 30, 1876 Recorder as Turner's "corresponding clerk." Turner, the son of free blacks in South Carolina, was making a meteoric rise within the Church, spurred in part by his evangelical talents, his role as chaplain to the First U. S. Colored Troops in the Civil War, and his term in the Georgia State Legislature. Recently appointed as the A. M. E. Publications Manager and on his way to being named a Bishop in 1880, Turner traveled throughout the nation, and this meant that he came to depend greatly on Steward, who he referred to as "my deputy," " my deputy and chief clerk," and an "able gentleman." (9)

Steward's duties soon went beyond handling Turner's correspondence: he became the main clerk for the Publications Department and Book Room, and this work brought him into close contact with another giant of the postbellum A. M. E. Church, Recorder editor Tanner. (10) Always looking for ways to enliven the Recorder, Tanner probably suggested Steward begin submitting work, and he may even have encouraged him to experiment with extended fiction, given the success of Frances Harper's serialized Recorder novels Minnie's Sacrifice (1869) and more recent Sowing and Reaping (1876-1877).

Steward's five-part "The Gem of the Alley" certainly fit with such stories. A moral tale of urban poverty set in Philadelphia, "The Gem" focuses on the conversion of African American "bad girl" Sallie Martin, which is brought about by the growing faith of a black street-child, Nannie Spikes (the title character), and shaped by a cast that includes a young black doctor, a dying A. M. E. clergyman, and the clergyman's self-sacrificing wife.

However, John Blye, whose first installment began less than two months after the conclusion of "The Gem," was much more ambitious, much more national in scope, and much more specific about postbellum racial elevation from both antebellum and Civil War efforts. The novel opens in about 1850 in Cumberland County, New Jersey, with a series of domestic tableaux showing the nine-year-old title character with his free black parents and emphasizing the value of hard work and faith. The novel initially follows the Blyes' struggles to enroll John in the town's all- white school--including an assault on John by the principal, a successful court battle, and a growing friendship with the liberal white Holloway family.

John demonstrates an unusual aptitude for understanding machinery, and after chronicling his education and first position as a machinist, the novel focuses on John's efforts as the engineer charged with setting up a new mill owned by Tom Holloway. Beginning in about 1857, this sequence--excerpted below--mainly takes place in the nearby town of Edgefield and features John's successful battles against racism, including sabotage by the evil machinist Absalom Wheeler (who weasels his way into young John's confidence) and mob violence (which echoes David Blight's sense of the "ritualized violence in black writing" of the period [109]). This section also depicts John's initial courtship with Eteline Voulons, the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphian. Key to John's continuing rise in the years leading to the Civil War are his deep faith, his father's acquisition of property, and his continuing education.

John Blye then shifts into a version of what Blight describes as a black veteran's "ascension story" and traces a path from military service to fuller citizenship (196). Soon after the Union begins accepting black troops, John attempts to raise a New Jersey regiment, only to be told that New Jersey blacks can only join the U. S. Colored Troops and not the state regulars. Frustrated, he instead joins the famed Massachusetts 54th and serves nobly. His greatest contribution, though, comes after being wounded and transferred: his mechanical prowess saves Grant's Petersburg campaign by ensuring that the supply trains run, and he is recognized by Grant himself. The novel's conclusion firmly places the now-married John and Eteline among influential African Americans on the broader national and international stage: in a deep challenge to what Nina Silber describes as a postbellum white stress on "the 'southern- ness' of the 'genuine negro' performer," through his intelligence, skill, and persistence, as well as the intervention of now-President Grant, John Blye secures a diplomatic appointment to the U. S. French consulate (135).

While fully contextualizing and analyzing Steward's work is a task beyond the scope of this short introduction, it is worth noting that readers may well see in the novel a response to Pete Sawmill, the unhappy African American in Henry Ward Beecher's 1868 novel Norwood, as well as to a growing number of racial stereotypes surrounding (free) blacks in the fiction and essays of many of the national monthlies during Reconstruction. (11) Certainly, John Blye also responds to the nexus of faith and domesticity in Collins and Harper's serialized Recorder novels, and so joins the understudied chorus in the black press answering white uses of religious imagery--by what Edward Blum describes as the "legions of reconciliation"--to represent blacks as "a weak, effeminate, ignorant, juvenile, and uncharitable race" (109, 61). Any full consideration of the novel would additionally have to place this response within the larger dominance of serialized fiction in American (and African American) literary culture. (12) In all of these areas, John Blye joins key texts in and beyond the black press (including the abolitionist autobiographies studied in Julie Roy Jeffrey's Abolitionists Remember and the works Blight considers under the rubric "Black Memory and Progress of the Race" [300]) to challenge what Blum describes as "the banners of sectional reconciliation" (103) and what Silber memorably calls "the whitewashed road to reunion" (124).

Astute readers of black literature of the nadir (and after) may well see potential echoes of Steward's work in the fiction of Charles Chesnutt as well as in lesser-known novels that consider the black middle class like W. H. Stowers and W. H. Anderson's 1894 Appointed and J. McHenry Jones's 1896 Hearts of Gold, and the postbellum slave narratives studied by scholars like William Andrews, especially in his landmark and massive online project, "Documenting the American South."

In short, future scholarship should more fully situate Steward's work in the expanding sense of postbellum black print culture and blackness in American print culture offered by scholars like Andrews, Blight, Blum, Frances Smith Foster, Jeffrey, Elizabeth McHenry, and Silber. Beyond these potential comparisons, though, and in the hope of spurring further research, I want to briefly highlight three issues key to the novel: its sense of technology vis-a-vis African Americans, its treatment of the Civil War, and its use of the regional to make national arguments.

That the novel's title character and hero is an engineer--and so not simply a user of technology bur also a creator of technology--richly complicates what is often seen as a binaristic debate for or against trades-based education. (13) John Blye certainly "learns a trade," but he is also respected for his design and management abilities: while still a teenager, as seen in the excerpt below, he is placed in charge of a number of white men, most of whom are older than he is. He is also consistently represented as an educated young man--one with a deep thirst for knowledge. (14) While Steward may be marking his title character as a member of something like a "talented tenth," he also suggests that the love of a trade led him to such. In this, Steward also consciously appropriates the language of "boy stories," and offers a racially different but still fully recognizable "bootstrap hero." Far from the naturalist treatments of industrialization and the growth of the machine, however, that bootstrap hero allies himself with positive technological change in ways that offer a fascinating, if far-removed, antecedent to movements like Afrofuturism.

So strong is Steward's belief in a black future based on understanding technology that Blye's abilities as an engineer are central to his participation in the Civil War. Blye's technical knowledge and skill essentially make him a military hero (indeed, in the world of John Blye, these attributes allow Grant and the Union to succeed); thus, Steward's war story is also a story of thinking black soldiers. (This sense is introduced earlier in the novel, when John chooses to join the Massachusetts 54th as a sort of political protest.) This approach makes John Blye both a fascinating answer to Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice, which also includes a main character who serves in the Union army, and to the earliest of the "black veteran voices" Blight begins to study (168). It also places John Blye among continuing efforts to define a black masculinity through soldiering--building from Frederick Douglass and William Cooper Nell, among others. (15) In short, the novel constructs black Union service as an intellectual, social, and ultimately communitarian activity; bravery as smart and thoughtful as well as strong; and Civil War engagement as a clear step toward both Reconstruction and post- Reconstruction activism.

This national and nationalist rhetoric only emphasizes the novel's strong regional base and so also the ways in which John Blye challenges what Silber rightly observes as white attempts toward reconciliation to "object[ify] ... blacks as features of the scenery," present solely in dream-like echoes of the idealized "foreign and feudal land" of the "Old South," rather than represent them as actors in the real and contemporary nation (79, 138). In the later Gouldtown, Steward even asserts that he actually based some of the novel on his Northeastern childhood home and specifically created the title character from the model of his cousin, Hezekiah Gould. Perhaps six years older than Steward, Hezekiah Gould lived nearby and worked first as a carpenter and then as a machinist at the Moore Brothers Machine Shop in Bridgeton. (16) Gould's connection to the novel, and more generally John Blye's rich sense of growing up free and black in New Jersey--a sense largely absent from the known canon of early black literature--remind readers that national accomplishments can begin anywhere (and everywhere) in black America.

That Steward builds the national from the regional is only emphasized further by the differences between John Blye and Hezekiah Gould. While Gould did not serve in the war, he did continue to build a life from his love of technology, and while Gould did not enter the State Department, he did join a phenomenon critical to the postbellum sense of nationalism: he moved west, specifically to rural Michigan, where be continued the kind of engineering work described in John Blye. (17) Thus, Steward ends with a call--deeply significant given the novel's publication after Rutherford B. Hayes's assumption of the Presidency--to truly reconstruct the nation: "On the Western shores of one of our great lakes, stands a large Machine Works, owned and managed by a colored man, whose inventive genius, whose early trials, whose mechanical skill, persevering energy, and final triumph ... have been not altogether like those of the hero of our story."

Works Cited

Andrews, William L., ed. "North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920." 2004. Documenting the American South. Web. 15 Mar. 2009.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Blum, Edward J. Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2005.

Collins, Julia C. The Curse of Caste. 1865. Eds. William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American National Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper. Ed. Frances Smith Foster. Boston: Beacon, 1994.

Jeffrey, Julie Roy. Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographers and the Unfinished Work of Emancipation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Miller, Albert George. Elevating the Race: Theophilus Gould Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Religion, 1865-1924. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2003.

Seraile, William. Voice of Dissent: Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924) and Black America. New York: Carlson, 1991.

Silber, Nina. The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865- 1900. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.

Steward, Theophilus. Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Steward. Philadelphia: Publication Department of the A. M. E. Church, 1877.

Steward, William, and Theophilus G. Steward. Gouldtown: A Very Remarkable Settlement of Ancient Date. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1913.

U. S. Federal Censuses, 1850-1920.

Williams, Gilbert Anthony. The Christian Recorder, Newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: History of a Forum for Ideas, 1854-1902. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.


The author wishes to thank the editors and anonymous readers of African American Review, as well as Jodie Gardner, Pat Latty, Sharon Opheim, Saginaw Valley State University's Braun Fellows program, and librarians at SVSU and the New Jersey State Archives for their kind assistance.

(1.) The novel is over 50,000 words. Williams, who offers the only book-length study of the Recorder, does not mention John Blye. For further context on the Recorder, see Foster's introduction to Minnie's Sacrifice, Andrews and Kachun's introduction to The Curse of Caste, and the special issue of African American Aeview (40.4, Winter 2007) devoted to Curse.

(2.) Not until 2007, for example, was there a book-length study of the first African American newspaper, Freedom's Journal, or a collection of the work of Jennie Carter. The serialized Curse of Caste was not available until 2006, and not until 1994 were Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's serialized novels accessible.

(3.) Memoirs, which included contributions from figures like Bishop Jabez P. Campbell and Recorder editor Tanner, was also heralded with an ad in the Recorder that called it "The Best Book ever published by the colored press"; see 17 Jan. 1878 Recorder.

(4.) The information in this biographical summary is drawn from primary source work with New Jersey censuses and vital records as well as material in Steward; Steward and Steward; Seraile; Miller; Ralph E. Luker, "Steward, Theophilus Gould," in Gates and Higginbotham 7: 398-99; and "The Goulds of Gouldtown," New York Sun 15 Feb. 1881.

(5.) See 12 Aug. 1865, 26 Aug. 1865, 30 Aug. 1865, 2 Dec. 1865, and 29 Sept. 1866 issues of the Recorder.

(6.) On Payne, see Vickary; Josephus R. Coan, Daniel Alexander Payne: Christian Educator (Philadelphia: A. M. E. Book Concern, 1935); and C. S. Smith, The Life of Daniel Alexander Payne (Nashville: A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1894). On Theophilus Steward, see Note 4 above. Theophilus penned several books--mainly history and theology, but also including the 1899 novel A Charleston Love Story; see William L. Andrews, "Liberal Religion and Free Love: An Undiscovered Afro- American Novel of the 1890s," MELUS 9.1 (Spring 1982): 23-36.

(7.) Steward is listed in the 1870 Federal Census of Fairfield, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 266; 1880 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 166D; 1900 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 17A; 1910 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 19A; 1920 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 17A.

(8.) See, e.g., 26 Sept. 1868, 10 July 1869, and 9 Sept. 1875 issues of the Recorder.

(9.) On Turner, see Stephen W. Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African American Religion in the South (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992); Angell, "Turner, Henry McNeal" in Gates and Higginbotham 7: 658-59; and Edwin Redkey, Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner (New York: Arno, 1971). For Turner's comments on Steward, see 9 Nov. 1876, 11 Jan. 1877, 2 Aug. 1877, and 13 June 1878 issues of the Recorder.

(10.) While Tanner would not be elected Bishop until 1888, by 1876, he had already been the editor of the Recorder for eight years. See Henry Warner Bowden, "Tanner, Benjamin Tucker," in Gates and Higginbotham 7: 484; William Seraile, Fire in His Heart: Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner and the A. M. E. Church (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1999); and Williams.

(11.) Blum rightly describes Sawmill as "childlike and bestial" (96). On these issues more generally, in addition to Blum, see Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989); Blight; Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989); Maryemma Graham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004); Jeffrey; Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Destiny after Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004); and Silber.

(12.) Patricia Okker's Social Stories: The Magazine Novel in Nineteenth- Century America (Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2003) is the best treatment of this phenomenon to date.

(13.) The debate over black vocational/industrial education and "higher" education was of course longstanding and complex. See James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988); Robert C. Morris, Reading, 'Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981); and Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (New York: AMS, 1977) for introductions.

(14.) In a listing of the Blye library in a section of chapter 11 (19 Sept. 1878 Recorder) not included in the excerpt, we learn that the Blyes own not only Wesley's sermons, Milton, Shakespeare, and various works on history, politics, and astronomy, but also "Dumas, Douglass' Bondage and Freedom, and Wheatley's Poems."

(15.) William Cooper Nell's The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston: Robert F. Wallcutt, 1855) is a key text in this movement. John Ernest and Mitch Kachun offer useful discussions; see Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004) and Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2003).

(16.) See Steward and Steward, Gouldtown 106-07 and 180; 1850 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 217; 1860 Federal Census of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, 42.

(17.) Gould moved to Michigan c. 1862. On his later years, see various Detroit city directories from the late 1860s, as well as the 1870 Federal Census of Lexington, Sanilac County, Michigan, 76; the 1880 Federal Census of Lexington, Sanilac County, Michigan, 147B; and Florence H. Walther, A History of Lexington [Michigan] (Port Huron, MI: np, 1934). Gould seems to have died in the 1890s.

From John Blye

[from Chapter 9--"The Holloways Again"--published on 5 Sept. 1878]


John Blye, the young black machinist, was to build the [mill's main] engine. Among the workmen put under his direction by the foreman of the department was a middle-aged [white] man, a good machinist, but rather slow and careless with his work, by the name of Absalom Wheeler. This man had never been particularly friendly to John, though be had never manifested any direct unfriendliness. Now, however, he protested against working under the direction of John and told the foreman so.

"Well," said the foreman, "my directions are that John Blye build the machinery; and if you can't work with him I suppose we'll have to put some one else in your place."

"I think I ought to have the job. You know I am capable of doing it, and if you don't want the job spoiled and the whole thing made a botch of, you'd better put it in older hands than that boy's," said Absalom.

"Oh, I'll look out for the spoiling of the work--that's my business," said the foreman.

"And besides," said Absalom, "I don't believe in putting a negro over us white men anyhow. The shops must be down to a purty low ebb when you have to put a negro, and a boy at that, over experienced white men and finished machinists. It's an insult, which as a white man I won't stand. I won't work under him, nor I won't consent to his doing the work."

"Then I guess we'll have to get along without you," said the foreman.


"I'll see Mr. Goss first," said Absalom sullenly, and it was not long before he made his appearance in Mr. Goss' office.

"Mr. Goss," said he, "is John Blye to build the engine for Holloway's Mills?"

"Yes, such is the order by Mr. Holloway's request" replied Mr. Goss.


"What I want to know is, can't we have something else than a negro to put up that machinery. Now here I've been in the Eagle Works for twenty years and now to be put under a black negro boy not much more than an apprentice, is more than I can stand. I think I'm entitled to that place more than Blye, and I'm not going to work under him, Mr. Goss," said Absalom, angrily.


"You can stand it I guess a while longer," concluded Mr. Goss with a significant smile.


[from Chapter 10--"A Friend in Need"--published on 12 Sept. 1878]

"John, I just wish that I had the head on me that you have and knowed as much as you do," said Absalom Wheeler to John Blye, on their way from work soon after work on Mr. Holloway's machinery had beg[u]n.

"Why?" asked John.

"Cause I wouldn't stay in these works, I'd get to be a clerk in a store or office or somethin'. You might as well be in the office with Goss and the rest of the clerks, as to be in the shops."

"Oh, I don't know," said John, "I love the trade I have, and if I had some other occupation I might not like it and might not do it so well."


"It was always my principle when I seen a boy tryin' to get along and learn his trade well, to help him all I could; an' anything I know to give an insight into his work I'm bound to show him. Some men won't show a boy nothin' to help him along. They hain't got no principle. That aint my way," said Absalom.

"You have always been very kind to me, Absalom; in fact all the men have[,] but you have had ever so much experience, so I always like to look up to you and learn from you," said John.


At length came the fitting of the parts of the engine and machinery together, and the marking of pieces, preparing pins, wedges[,] &c, careful measuring and calculating of allowances for expansion and contraction and the like. John watched all the labors and details with an eagle eye--nothing, not even the slightest mark seemed to escape his notice. Even the edges of the chisels and punches were examined to see that they were sharp that no deviation of a hair's breadth should be made by the slip of a chisel or punch. His calipers, dividers, compasses, square, rule and bevel tried everything and proved everything.

Absalom Wheeler was busy, too, watching not only the turning, drilling, filing and fitting of the machinery, but be was watching John's every movement. Nothing was tried or measured by John but what he also measured. Every alignment noted by John was carefully taken by Absalom.

Every screw, bolt, nut, burr, clamp, pin or bar, shaft, connection, cock or valve was examined by him with the closest scrutiny. His attention and carefulness was so unusually close and his interest in young Blye so apparently intense as to cause some wonder with Mr. Needles and even some slight suspicion of designing motive.

Mr. Needles really liked John, and considered him a mechanical genius [....] He knew Absalom to be a little malicious in his disposition and several rimes he had detected him, unobserved, with his spirit level upon a shaft carefully trying its alignment and seemingly varying it by loosening and tightening nuts and pins and bushings and brasses, but upon inspecting the work after Absalom would leave it, he would find everything right; so at last, he gave Absalom credit of being solicitous for the exact working of the machinery, and accused himself of being unjust to him.

At last the engine was completed and now came the putting it in the mills at Edgefield.


John Blye and his men arrived, and were preparing to get to work.


"Hello," said one [of the Edgefield residents hoping to work at Holloway's mill], "they've brought down a black feller from Spring Bottom. I wonder if they're a goin' to camp in the mills, and have him to cook for 'em."

"I reckon he's their hod carrier," said another.


"No, he's to help around with the rest of us," said another, authoritarively; "he'll be handy, too, in liftin' these heavy pieces of iron. I tell you what, it beats all nature how them fellers kin lift. Why, don't you remember old Black Ned? George! But he was a sundowner to lift. And wasn't he a hull hoss at a loggin'."

John, with his coat off, and square and spirit level in hand, was inspecting the foundations upon which the machinery was to rest.

Dr. Holloway came up to him and said, "John, you will be likely be reminded that you are in Edgefield where they are not accustomed to see black men in your occupation; so, if I were you I would take as little notice of the surroundings as possible, until they become acquainted with you, and don't get angry at any vulgarity you may meet with, but don't allow yourself to be insulted."

"Thank you, Doctor, I shall try to be guarded towards them, and not offend them," said John.


"Say, you," said one of the Edgefield laborers, addressing John, "you put them 'ere tools down and come and lay holt o' this 'eer crow bar 'less you'll git your mother's monkey in a scrape purty soon. Some o' your jack mule power is needed here," which was greeted with a hearty laugh, to all of which John paid no attention.

"Come, Pompey Caesar, git a bolt here. You can push as much as a pair of young bullocks. Spring to it now, Pompey," said a gray bearded laborer.

"Say, Julius Alexander Cicero, you run yonder and bring us that 'ere little block' an' fall there by the gate," said another in a fatherly tone.

John's own men were both vexed and amused at the pomposity of these unsophisticated villagers, and knowing the capability of their young foreman, their indignation increased their pride in him.

He had been for some time going through his inspection of the foundations, furnaces, &c., and had as yet given no orders to his men, but now approaching a long and heavy iron plate he said, quietly, beckoning to his men,

"Bring your truck this way."

The truck was brought, and the gaping village laborers looked on with astonishment and disgust, as John commanded.

"Now, men, raise this end and put that roller under it. That's it. Now shoot her ahead--so--that's it,--hold there--keep that end down. Put this roller on the truck--now--'head with her;" and the heavy plate was, in a few moments, upon the truck, ready to be taken to the place designed for it.

John was now all animation. Order after order followed each other in quick succession, and it seemed as if his men were a part of himself, so quick and precise were the executions of the orders. The villagers were [also] kept so busy that they had not time to express their astonishment.


[However, a]n occasional oath was heard, and vulgar, ill bred witticisms at the expense of John Blye. "Egad," said one, "I didn't know they were going to send a black Guineaman for overseer." "I go in for sending him home again," said another.

"This is outrageous, men. The idea of sending a sassy negro to oversee white men is monstrous. We ought to tar and feather him and set fire to him."

"Tar won't stick to him unless you pick him full of holes," said another with a coarse laugh.

"Well, I move we give him a good thrashing and run him off the grounds. I think that would learn him a lesson he wouldn't forgit soon," said another.

"He ought to be hung. Bime by all the negroes from Spring Bottom'll be down here and there'll be no such a thing as managin' them."


"I move we form a committee of the whole and tell the boss to send him off."

"Agreed, agreed!" rang out several voices.

"Come on," said a leader, and off the whole crowd started to Dr. Holloway, who, with John, and Absalom Wheeler, were but a short distance away.

"Dr. Holloway," said the leader, "we've come to tell you that we don't allow negroes to work in this town, and you must send that black fellow away. You hadn't any business to bring him here to insult us, and we give you fair warning now to send him away." And turning to John he continued, brandishing his fist: "And as for you, sir, you better git--take out--dig--scratch gravel and leave these diggins', and that mighty quick."

[from Chapter 11--"The Opposition Settled and John at Home"--published on 19 Sept. 1878]

John became tremulous with indignation and fright at the outbreak of the laborers against him and shrank instinctively behind Dr. Holloway:


It is to be remembered that John was still but a youth[,] and his boyish timidity, notwithstanding his "knocking around" among men, had not entirely left him. John had never been a "hard" boy and, though always firm and resolute, there was none of the bully or rowdy in his nature.


[Dr. Holloway] said quietly, "What's the matter, men?"

"The matter is, we want you to send that black fellow away from these works. We don't work with black men down here, and we thought we'd let you know it right off."

"Oh, if that's all, we can soon settle that," said the Dr., "You needn't work if you don't want to. I'm sorry to see you quit work, bur I don't want anybody to work for me against their will. Come to me at 3 o'clock and I'll pay you off. Good day," and the Dr. turned and left them and with John went to their machinists.

"Well, John," said he, "we're in for it now, ain't we."

"This is trouble I was hardly looking for," said John.

"I suppose not. Well, you'll have to get along the best you can with your own force, and I'll go up to Spring Bottom and bring down a gang of [African American] laborers from there to-morrow. I'll order the carpenters to fix up a sort of cabin in the corner of the mill, and they can set up housekeeping as they do when they are cutting logs," said Dr. Holloway.

"A soft answer turneth away wrath," but Dr. Holloway's grievous words stirred up the anger of the laborers, and they vowed vengeance upon John.


The Spring Bottom laborers, however, who had arrived, some of whom "could fight," made the villagers a little shy of committing any outrage upon him as they had often threatened; frequently, however, when passing to and from the mill, stones, clubs, melon rinds, rotten fruit and the like had been thrown at him.

One evening, one of the Spring Bottom laborers had strayed out from their cabin, and while sauntering along the street was mistaken by a crowd of boys and lads for John Blye, and set upon and unmercifully beaten. A few nights after that a woodshed and cook house in a distant part of the town caught fire from some carelessness in leaving the fire after the evening's cooking, the accident was set down as the incendiary work of "Holloway's negroes," who had attempted to burn the town, and threats were freely indulged in to burn the mills.


[from Chapter 14---"Disappointments"--published on 10 Oct. 1878]


The work, meantime, was progressing satisfactorily, and John, as well as Dr. Holloway, was [largely] unaware of any [of the growing] evil inclinations being held by the villagers.

After a few more days the engine was completed. Then came the firing-up the furnaces and starting her for trial.


A crowd of bystanders were around, while all the men of the works stood by to see the start.

"Now, John, we'll let her go," said Mr. Needles, opening the valve. The steam went hissing through into the steam-cheat--John worked the lever, opening the valves into the cylinder--the piston began to move outwards, and amid the cheers of the men the machinery was in motion.

With the eye of a practical machinist Mr. Needles scanned every movement, his hand still upon the throttle. Smoothly the piston shot back and forth while little whiffs of steam hissed out beside it, and puff after puff rushed out of the escape pipe.

Here, John, you may take her now," said Mr. Needles. "I'll look around and see how she runs," and John took up his post beside the cylinder, while Mr. Needles, followed by Absalom and Doctor Holloway, inspected the running of the machinery.

"Everything works first-rate, Doctor," said Mr. Needles.

"Yes, I think so; I'm glad of it, too. I have felt no little anxiety about its running at first," said Doctor Holloway.

"Oh, I didn't," said Mr. Needles, indifferently. "I let John follow the draughts, and he's a remarkably careful workman."

"I tell you I watched him dose, too; I was determined to see that everything was exactly right," said Absalom.

"Absalom was John's right hand man, and I'm very much gratified that all has turned out so well," said Mr. Needles.

"Do you think John can run her?" asked Doctor Holloway of Mr. Needles.

"No, sir, he can't," said Absalom, speaking quickly, and checking himself, he continued, "that is I should be afraid to trust him with her."

"Oh, yes, John can run her well enough. I don't have any fears about that at all," said Mr. Needles, confidently.

"I be afraid he'd blow the whole thing up," said Absalom, doubtingly.

"No danger of that; John's too careful for that," said Mr. Needles.

"If John can run her I want him for the engineer," said the Doctor, with a doubtful hesitancy.

"I wouldn't trust him," said Absalom, more boldly.

"He can run her," said Mr. Needles, a little savagely.

Absalom said no more, neither did Dr. Holloway.


[After the engine ran for a full day,] Mr. Needles pronounced everything complete and preparations were made for the return of the men to the [shop?].

"Very well, I have not the slightest doubt of his ability to run it."

"Hadn't I better stay with him a few days to see that everything goes on right?" asked Absalom.

"Oh, no, it is not necessary. John can get along well enough," replied Mr. [Needles?].

[Three or four illegible words] "gets worn a little, and expanded with the heat she may not run so well, and John bein' so young he may not know just what to do. The joints may open and things get out o' gear like," said Absalom.

"I wish you would let him remain a few days, as he says, to guard against any possible difficulty that might arise," said the doctor in a tone of remonstrance.

"Well if John thinks it necessary, I will. How about it, John, can you run her?" replied Mr. Needles.

"Yes, I can run her well enough. I don't know anything that can come up that I can't manage; but Absalom is more experienced than I am, and if he thinks he ought to stay, why I do too," said John.

So it was decided that Absalom should remain.


[Later, Holloway's sister] Teeny and [Holloway's wife] Grace found amusement in watching the operations.

At length Absalom left John at work at the pipes while he went over to the engine and began loosening and tightening screws and wedges. Teeny and Grace went to look on with that curiosity which is said to be natural to women. Teeny observed Absalom loosening some nuts [and a wedge] with a large wrench and taking another [wedge] from his pocket and looking at it carefully, insert it, tightening down the nuts.

"I wonder what he does that for," she said to Grace.

"I don't know, I suppose its to make the machinery run better," Grace replied.

"That's funny, ain't it, when it was running well enough before," Teeny said as she stepped dose and with childish scrutiny looked at the wedge and at the place that Absalom had been working at. Absalom had gone to another place without paying attention to them.

"Why, look here what a funny thing; here are five little holes punched in this wedge that just make a cross, don't they?--ain't that funny--I wonder who is a Catholic here?" asked Teeny laughingly.

The next morning John started the engine, but something seemed to be wrong. Absalom had gone. John was surprised to notice a shivering, jumping and trembling of the machinery.

He applied oil and with a wrench loosened and tightened up nuts and bolts but still the trembling of the machinery kept up. He stopped and started the engine, still it was the same; the cogs made an unnatural clattering and everything jarred frightfully. The [local] sawyers and workmen manifested symptoms of distrust, and as John looked puzzled at the action of the machinery they began to express their convictions about his incapability.

"I told you that fellow couldn't run an engine. Why didn't they send a white man to run her. I never seen a black man yet that could do anything," said one. "He'll blow us all up directly," said another.

"Say, you, boy, you'd better stop that 'ere engin'," said an old man.

The older men shook their heads gravely, while others stood around John and sneeringly advised him to do this thing or that.

"Say, you'd better oil her up."

"Put a little more grease on her."

"Spit on your hands."

"Go and git your mother to come and help you, sonny" and such other remarks were indulged in.

"What's the matter, John," said Dr. Holloway coming into the works and seeing John's troubled looks and confusion,--John felt almost like crying with mortification.

"I do not know," he said, "something seems to be out of order and I can't tell what it is."

"I thought you could run the engine," said the doctor in an angry tone of sarcasm.

"I suspected Absalom had better have staid."

John started her again, and, with the perspiration running down his face, he [four lines of text are illegible]

"You'll blow us all up in no time. [Stop?] her right off and you can go back to the Eagle Works. I don't want you any longer," said Dr. Holloway, almost in a rage.

John stopped the engine. He was now thoroughly sick at heart.


"John, I don't think you are old enough to run an engine. You may go back to the works, after a year or two more I think you will do first rate," said Dr. Holloway in a kindlier tone.

[from Chapter 15--"Beaten and Beating "--published on 17 Oct. 1878]


A group of a half dozen or more [villagers] met John and stopped him, when a burly fellow, blustering up to him, said,

"Look'e here, pardner, we've just got to say to you that you mought as well leave these 'ere diggins. We've had you about here 'bout long enough."

"I don't know as it is any of your business when I leave," said John.

"None o' yer sass, now, you just take right out from here. Come, start, git a going," said another.

"Oh, don't be a foolin' with 'im. Put yer boot to 'im and start 'im agoin'," said a little fellow sidling up to him.

"Aint you agoin' to start?" said the burly fellow.

"I shall go when I get ready," replied John, backing up against a fence.

"He's ready now," said the little fellow, giving him a push. With that another pulled his hat down over his eyes, and another kicked him on the leg; another attempted to knock off his hat but John warded off the blow.

"Who're yer a hittin' here,--who're yer a hittin?" yelled two or three at this.

"Knock 'im down, knock 'im down," they yelled.

At this they had begun to strike him, and John for the first time in his life found himself in a fight for self-defense. They set upon him like bull dogs, striking him in the face and on the head. He struck around quickly, hitting several and warding off the blows as well as he could until a well directed blow met him in the eyes, knocking him down while a thousand stars flew around him. The crowd by this time had increased and as many as could, fell upon him, beating, kicking and pelting him around as if he were a wild and vicious animal.

John was blinded with rage and pain, but was getting the worst of the fight until Dr. Holloway and a number of the men from the mills coming up soon liberated him from the crowd [....]

Dr. Holloway's sympathy was stirred towards him, however, in proportion as his intense indignation was incensed against the villagers. He bathed and dressed John's wounds with the greatest kindness while he vowed vengeance upon the rascals who had assaulted him. [....]

[N]othing would satisfy Teeny but to go directly [...] to see him, which she immediately did.

She found John with his eyes and head bound up [....]

"Why John," she said, "You have had a very cruel experience today. I am deeply grieved to find you in this plight."

"Yes, I am sorry that you should find me here. I had no anticipation of so much mortification and disappointment overtaking me so soon after seeing you at the mills yesterday," he replied.

"No; but what could have been the cause of those villains attacking you so brutally?"

"There was no cause for it only they did not like me to work there because I am black; but that don't worry me as much as the action of the engine."

"Could you not manage your engine?"

"No. Something has got wrong about it and I could not discover what it was."

"Did it not work right?" asked Teeny sympathetically.

"It did at first, but when I started it this morning it would not run as it did before."

"Had you made any alteration [to] it after stopping it yesterday."

"No, indeed, it was all right and I did not stir a burr nor move a pin nor wedge."

"Why, Grace and I saw Absalom Wheeler yesterday unscrewing something, and, taking out a wedge-shaped piece of iron[,] put another in its place in the machinery. Could that have had anything to do with impairing its running?" "Where was that, and when?" asked John, eagerly.

"I can't tell where it was but I should know if I should see it again, because I called Grace's attention to the marks upon it which were five little dents or holes in it just making a cross."

"Could it be that Absalom changed something without telling me about it?" said John.

John now became very impatient and anxious [....] Dr. Holloway visited him each evening and reported the engine running splendidly under Absalom's care, and intimated that John might try it again when he recovered.


John was extremely anxious to get to the mills. The more he had thought over what Teeny had said about Absalom having done something to the machinery the more he felt that it was his negligence at fault and not the engine.


On Sunday he mentioned the circumstance to his father.

"Ah, that's it, that's it John. Now I told you a man like Absalom Wheeler would bear watching. The amount of the business is, he did something to that engine he ought not to have done, just to get you out of his way," said Mr. Blye.


"If Dr. Holloway will put you at the engine he will try the same game again," said Mr. Blye.

On Monday John and the Doctor went to the mills.


Absalom became rather surly and glum. The Doctor directed that John should take the engine from Absalom while it was running, so Absalom gave it up to him an hour before the time of quitting work and left the mills. The Doctor requested him to be on hand in the morning, however, in case John should fail.

After the men had all left the mills at night[,] Absalom could have been seen stealthily going back to them, and in the waning daylight enter the engine room.

In the morning John was at his post. Absalom was there, too, sullenly sauntering around. Dr. Holloway [...] was there also. The engine was started. The machinery soon began to jump and clatter. Absalom slunk away. For two hours John worked and worried as he had done before, but Absalom could not be found.

"Well, John, do you give up now that you can't run her," said Dr. Holloway in a tone of vexation.

"No, sir," said John, setting his lips resolutely, "I am going to find out what is the matter with her if it takes me a week. I will not be conquered by an engine that I have built myself." "Well, try it, but I don't think you'll find the ailment." said the Doctor.

John stopped the engine and commenced examining it. With try-square, wrench and callipers in hand he commenced his inspection systematically. For an hour and a half he tried and measured bolts, nuts and wedges, examining every one minutely, all the time repeating in his mind, "five little holes making a cross."

Absalom had returned and was persuading Dr. Holloway that he might as well send John to the shops at once, and let him remain there, as he could never run the engine.

"I wish you would go and help him out of the trouble; I think he can run her after he gets her going again," said the Doctor.

"No, I wont bother with him--he's a headstrong youngster and I want him to satisfy himself that be can't run her, and then he'll let her alone," replied Absalom.

Just then John was calling to Dr. Holloway and Absalom, and coming towards them.

"I wish you and Absalom to walk this way," he said, excitedly. Going to the machinery, he handed the wrench which he held in his hands to Absalom, and placing his callipers upon a wedge that had "five little boles making a cross" in the upper side of it he said sternly:

"Absalom, unscrew those nuts and put the wedge in there that I made to go there."

"That's the wedge that belongs there," said Absalom, sulkily.

"You lie!" said John his eyes dilating and his breath coming hot and fierce with anger.

"Who're you, who're you talkin' to, who do you think you are?" said Absalom, raising the wrench and swelling with rage.

"That will do--that will do, now," said the Doctor, stepping between them.

"I'll learn him who he's a talkin' to; I'll let him know I am a white man. I'll teach him who's his master," said Absalom with withering scorn and bate in his tones.

"Absalom, do as you are bidden," said the Doctor.

"Do as I am bidden! Dr. Holloway, who do you think I am to be 'bidden' by an Ethiopian! It you want to take him into your house and marry him to your beautiful humpbacked, pig-eyed sister you may do it, but he nor you be nor you--can't 'bidden' me," roared Absalom, shaking his fist like a suddenly enraged maniac in Holloway's face.

A blow quick as lightning from Dr. Holloway's fist laid Absalom Wheeler's full length at his feet.

[from Chapter 16--"Stirring Events"--published on 24 Oct. 1878]

John wasted no time over Absalom, who had regained his feet boiling over with rage. A half dozen men had got between him and Dr. Holloway and prevented any further assault by either. Dr. Holloway was paying no attention to him. Pointing to the wedge, John said, "This accounts for all the trouble. The wedge that belongs there has been removed, and another inserted for the purpose of throwing the machinery out of line. I do not wonder it would not run, but it is astonishing I did not discover it sooner."

"Do you think that was done purposely to pre his the engine's running?"

"Yes, it could not be for any other purpose," said John proceeding to unscrew the bolts and removed the wedge.

Absalom had by this time left the mills in a great rage not to return, so we will dismiss him here.

Removing the wedge John began a search for the one that belonged there. Going to a rude "cupboard" where Absalom kept his towel, soap, hair brush, &c., he found it wrapped up in stout paper.

After the adjustment of the machinery again, which occupied an hour or two, steam was turned on, the engine started and everything worked with the precision and nicety of its former action.

The facts of the matter had by this time become known among the employees and John became the hero of the mills, while indignation was loud and strong against the absent Absalom.

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Author:Gardner, Eric (American educator)
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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