By: Amanda Diaz
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, in which the main female character, Sethe (played by Oprah Winfrey in the 1998 film adaptation) kills her daughter and attempts to kill her other children so that they won’t have to return to slavery, may seem too horrific to be anything other than the brilliance of an author’s mind. However, the novel is based on the life of Margaret Garner.
Margaret Garner was a slave in Kentucky. The sources suggest that she was mulatto, with her slave master most likely being her father. Garner would be sold to her father’s brother Archibald K. Gaines and work as a domestic servant in the house. Garner took a husband and was pregnant in 1849 (which some scholars argue was a strategic move made by female slaves to ward off sexual assaults from White men). Garner’s first child, Thomas, appears to have been fathered by her husband, who was listed in the Census as a Black man. But, her husband was often hired out to distant masters. Her second son Samuel, was described as a “bright mulatto.” Garner’s third child, Mary, was described as “almost White” and so was her sister, the fourth child, Priscilla. The timing of Garner’s children’s births coincide in a peculiar way with Gaines’ wife’s pregnancies, suggesting that Gaines turned to Garner when his wife was pregnant and was thus unavailable to him. Because her pregnancies were patterned so closely with her masters’ wife’s, Garner became the family’s wet-nurse (person who breast-feeds another’s child). Garner was also reported to have a scar across her cheek. When asked after her arrest about her scar, she said “a White man struck me.”
Obviously, Garner and her husband had plenty of reasons to try to escape from slavery. In 1856, at night, when the Ohio river was frozen over, Garner (pregnant), her husband, Robert, and their 4 children literally walked on water to freedom. Their taste of freedom was very brief.
Slave catchers, U.S. Marshals, and Gaines would burst into the cabin where the family was hiding out.
Robert emptied the six-shooter he had stolen from Gaines, severely wounding one deputy. In her determined resistance, Garner almost decapitated daughter Mary with a butcher knife, and using the knife as well as a coal shovel, she wounded each of her surviving children. The Garners were subdued and taken into custody, but what was to happen with them? It seemed like a complicated case. Should they be tried under the fugitive slave act and deemed property, or should they be tried for murder?
The defense attempted to prove that Margaret had been liberated under a former law covering slaves taken into free states for other work. Her attorney proposed that she be charged with murder so that the case would be tried in a free state(understanding that the governor would later pardon her). The prosecuting attorney argued that the federal Fugitive Slave Law took precedence over state murder charges. Over a thousand people turned out each day to watch the proceedings, lining the streets outside the courthouse in Cincinnati. Five hundred men were deputized to maintain order in the town.
Activist Lucy Stone spoke at the trial
“The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so? That desire had its root in the deepest and holiest feelings of our nature—implanted in black and white alike by our common father.”
Garner was not immediately tried for murder, but was forced to return to Kentucky along with Robert and baby Priscilla. When Ohio authorities got an extradition warrant for Garner to try her for murder, they were unable to find her for the arrest. Gaines kept moving her. Eventually, he sent the whole family to work for his brother Benjamin in Arkansas and then they were sold to work as house servants in New Orleans.
Margaret Garner died in 1858 of typhoid fever. Before she died, she told her husband
“Never marry again in slavery, but live in hope of freedom.”
In solidarity with my fellow bloggers, indie artists, creators and online entrepreneurs heyfranhey will be blacked out today. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are being presented by our Gov as bills that will protect the piracy of our music and film industries. In…