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  • Published: 30 March 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760892623
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 528
  • RRP: $29.99

Sunflower Sisters


C h a p t e r 1

Mary Woolsey

Charleston, South Carolina


No one suspected the blond boy’s cargo as he drove his crude pony cart through the streets of Charleston. Mother, my younger sister Georgy, and I had come to South Carolina by the invitation of Pastor Cox at the African Free Church for a two-day stay. We’d stepped out the previous morning past the mansion houses and palmetto trees, the atmosphere so gentle and refined, to make our daily calls and leave Mother’s ecru cards on the silver trays.

Mrs. Charles Woolsey, 8 Brevoort Place, New York City.

Certainly nothing forced itself unpleasantly on our attention, but every black face in the street or greeting us so kindly at a front door reminded us of the system of slavery so robust there and strengthened our resolve to continue the fight.

Upon our walk home from Sunday services, the scent of crape myrtle in the air, a boy driving a pony cart drew up beside us dressed in a clean white shirt and homespun trousers. His rear wheel in disrepair, it bumped with every rotation, keeping his rate of speed not much greater than ours.

“We find ourselves a bit lost,” Mother called to the boy. “Can you guide us to the Charleston Hotel?”

“I’m going that way, ma’am. Will point you there.”

I warmed to his southern accent, a good-natured boy, milk-skinned, twelve years old or so, yellow hair shining in the sun. That brought to mind my own towheaded daughters, left back at the hotel with our friend Mrs. Wolcott, who no doubt stood near the door waiting for my return. Though we’d been gone less than two hours I missed them terribly as well.

“Where do you live?” Mother asked the boy.

“Here and there.” He set his face toward the sun. “You? Sound like a Virginian.” Mother smiled, happy when someone recognized her accent from her former home. “Indeed I am. Left there when I was a girl but suppose I still speak with a trace of it. Live in New York City now. We are here as the guests of Pastor Cox at the African church. Do you know him?”

“No, ma’am.”

We walked along, the only sound the thump of the broken wheel.

“It was a lovely celebration of the Eucharist,” Mother said. “Over three hundred celebrants.”

He turned and smiled. “Bet you was the only white folks there.”

“Yes. But we were welcomed quite enthusiastically.”

“Once, my ma had me in church every Sunday. She’s dead now.”

The boy pulled a piece of bread from a tin lunch bucket at his feet, took one bite, turned and slipped the rest under the tarp.“

Do you attend school?” Mother asked.

“No, ma’am. No school’d take the likes of me.”

“I doubt that very much,” Georgy said.

My attention was drawn to the back bed of the cart and the slightest movement beneath the tarp there.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

He pointed to a white building up ahead. “The mart. Go every Sunday. Make my rounds on Saturday, come here the next day, so my stock’s fresh.”

“Rounds where?”

“All over, ma’am. Pa’s regulars. Hardly ever come empty-handed.”

The boy rode toward a white building with high black gates at the entrance and we followed. It was a hulking place, the word MART shining in gilt above the entrance, a crimson flag flapping in the breeze.

The boy pointed at a roof off in the distance. “Your hotel’s up the road a piece and hang a right.”

“You’ve been terribly helpful,” Mother said.

The boy rode to the iron gates and a stout, red-bearded man, bamboo cane in hand, swung open the gate door.

“Hey, boy,” he said, rapping his cane on the wood of the cart. “You’re supposed to come round back with these, not to the front door, for pity’s sake.”

“Pa needs me home.”

The boy turned in his seat up front and flung back the tarp. There within lay three colored children of varying ages, each dressed only in the crudest cloth diaper. The oldest, perhaps nine months old, held on to the cart edge and pulled herself up to standing.

“My God,” I said.

The child reached her arms up to me in the universal baby language of love and goodness and I lifted her from the cart. I held her close and breathed in her heavenly baby scent, of milk and soap and innocence. Someone had taken loving care of her.

Upon the cart floor two infants lay upon the crude boards, one not more than a few days old.

The boy handed the gatekeeper a folded paper.

“Where are their mothers?” I asked, shaken through. “They’ve not a blanket among them. When did they last eat?”

The gatekeeper read the paper and then stepped to the cart. “All girls? Supposed to be one boy.”

“Take it up with Pa,” the boy said.

The gatekeeper bent over the cart and lifted out both infants. “One of ’em’s runty.”

The boy shrugged. “Just pick up what I’m told. That big one cried most the way here.”

I held the girl closer and she settled her head upon my shoulder in a most tender way.

The gatekeeper handed the boy a folded stack of bills, which he tucked in his hip pocket, shook the reins, and started off.

The gatekeeper charged at me. “Don’t have time to coddle the likes of you. Hand it over.”

I stepped back. “I will not, sir.”

“You northern women? What a pain in my ass. You got one hundred dollars to buy her?”

I reached for the purse at my wrist. “I can write you an IOU this minute.”

As I reached aside, the man took his opportunity to wrench the child from my arms. She cried most piteously, reaching back, arms outstretched as the gatekeeper handed her to another filthy accomplice who carried her away at arm’s length.

We tried to follow, but the gatekeeper clanged the gate shut, and through the bars said, “No ladies allowed at the sale. This is rough trade here, not for delicate sensibilities,” and walked away into the crowd.

I wrapped one hand around an iron bar as I watched the children spirited back to a room beyond our view, one palm across my mouth to contain the horror of it all. What feeling human could hear those cries and not feel compassion to the quick? Three mothers sat somewhere in fresh agony without their precious girls.

I turned to Mother. “We spent all of yesterday calling on Charleston’s best. We must appeal to someone.”

Mother kept her gaze on the gathering crowd. “To whom? This is about money, Mary. These planters will never give up slavery willingly. We can only elect a president who will cut it off at its head.”

All too familiar with the concept of slavery, we’d attended Dr. Cheever’s lectures at the Cooper Institute, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin many times over, and seen advertisements announcing slave sales in The Charleston Courier that morning. But nothing could have prepared us for seeing such a horrific spectacle in the flesh.

We examined the crowded market area with growing dread as the sale began, a low-ceilinged room, open to a rear yard where a brick building rose up, its barred windows crowded with dark faces. In the long room an auctioneer took his place upon a crude wooden platform, slapping his leather crop against his boot, the tense spirit of moneymaking in the air. He seemed a ruffian, in his check trousers and shabby Panama hat, pulling at his tuft of yellow chin beard.

“Gentlemen, are you ready?” His voice echoed off the stone walls.

Groups of bidders clustered around the platform, gentlemanly looking men just such as we met every day at the hotel table, wearing their beaver top hats and beards of formal cut. Most held a cigar in one hand, the catalog printed with that day’s human stock in the other.

The objects of the sale stood, in every shade of complexion, backs against the walls, being roughly examined. Groups of mothers and children stood near us, the women in good calico dresses and clean white pinafores and headscarves, children bareheaded.

We craned our necks to see into an anteroom off the main chamber, where men questioned the women, prying open their mouths, lifting their skirts, and exposing their most private parts.

“I saw such a sale in Richmond as a girl. Many masters sell their own colored children, and their own children begot of those daughters.”

“And this is the nineteenth century,” Georgy said.

“Tonight, not a steamer or row of train cars will leave this cruel city without its own sad burden of these unhappy ones.”

Georgy linked arms with Mother. “We mustn’t get complacent and accept it simply because it’s the norm. Mrs. Wolcott knows the mayor. We must speak to him.”

Mother moved her gaze to the auctioneer. “The mayor most likely buys and sells his slaves from here. It’s all perfectly legal. Our urgings for freedom will fall on deaf ears and they will certainly have us carted off.”

“We must also do something, now,” I said. “Otherwise we condone it.”

“I agree, Mary,” Georgy said. “But it may take some stealth to do good here.”

The gatekeeper prodded two young boys and a slightly older girl up onto the platform. The girl stood poised and well mannered as she watched the crowd with a guarded expression, an arm around each boy, her hair wrapped in the same white cloth the older women wore. The boys stared out into the crowd, too young to hide the terrible fear in their eyes.

The auctioneer presented them, arm extended, with an open palm. “Boys—Scipio, age ten, Clarence, twelve—and girl, Sukey, fourteen. Girl, good housemaid, clean back. The boys bound to be prime field hands.”

Just inside the gate stood a woman with an infant in her arms, another clinging to her skirts. She bowed her head and cried into one palm.

“Do you know those young ones?” Mother asked the woman, her voice low.

The woman wiped her eyes, cast a furtive glance toward the platform and then turned toward Mother. “My children, all,” she said, barely above a whisper. “There, missis, that’s mine on the stand now.”

Mother pulled her shawl closer. “Dear God.”

“That’s my two boys and my girl, Sukey. She’s not my blood, but I raised her. A good girl. Those boys love her fierce.”

The woman clutched her infant closer and looked about.

“You can speak with us, madam, without fear,” Mother said.

“I expect them to sell some off, but I just want to keep my two little ones here. They’re too young to be without a ma.”

“And your husband?” I asked.

“Sold. Months back.”

“Where to?” Mother asked.

“Don’t know, missis. It’s hard having the old man drifted away. But what can I do? My heart’s broke and that’s all.”

Buyers crowded the platform around Sukey and the boys.

“Take off her dress,” one called out.

“Should’ve checked her earlier,” the auctioneer said. “You know the rules.”

The auctioneer yanked the girl’s dress down off her shoulder and then grabbed her by the chin. “Smile, girl.”

Sukey forced a smile.

“And look at those dimples. She could be a fancy girl one day.”

The auctioneer lifted her hem to show her ankles and legs, but Sukey grabbed the skirt from his hand.

“What’s the matter with her eyes?” one bidder called out.

“She’s crying, that’s all,” the auctioneer said. “But she’s fine.”

“Sell the girl separate,” one bidder said. “Six hundred for her.”

“Sold—” the auctioneer called.

Sukey’s brothers locked their arms around her waist. The auctioneer pulled them from her and the boys cried and fought him with fists.

Through the bars, Georgy passed the woman Mother’s card, a twenty-dollar Liberty gold coin hidden beneath it. “Quickly. Take this.”

“Oh, no, miss.”

Georgy lowered the card down the iron rung of the gate, toward the woman’s hand. “Here. No one will see. It isn’t much, but it’s all we have at the moment. If you can make it to New York City, come to the address here on the card for help.”

The woman glanced about, then slipped both card and coin deep into her apron pocket. “Thank you, missis. Most kind. I’ll keep it hid.”

The gatekeeper approached and nudged the woman, babe in arms, and her young son toward the block.

She turned. “I’m called Alice,” she said, as he prodded them more urgently up the platform steps.

“I don’t know if she’ll ever be free to find Brevoort Place,” Mother said.

“It’s something at least,” I said.

Alice slowly mounted the steps with her two children and gathered them to her. The auctioneer gave his usual recitation, suggesting a separate price for Alice and her children, and the gavel quickly fell. “Sold,” called the auctioneer. “One hundred dollars for James and the infant, Anthony. Alice, nine hundred dollars.” Alice fell to her knees in front of the auctioneer, begging to keep her children.

Mother turned away in terrible temper, heading up Chalmers Street toward the hotel, and we followed, the misery of those sold still keen in our minds, Alice’s frantic wails echoing around us, her agony beyond sympathy.

I’d seen that look before on Mother. After Father died, leaving her with eight children to raise. When we cried as she moved us all to strange New York City.

The look that said, We will change this terrible situation. Or die trying.

Sunflower Sisters Martha Hall Kelly

Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters provides a vivid look at the Civil War experience, from the barbaric and inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City to the horrors of the battlefield.

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