Born on the Wrong Side of Justice

In between snow storms in the winter of 1832-33, Dan Crispin visited his sister Sarah in Waynesville, Ohio. She informed him that her mother-in-law’s mother had come to stay with the Fergusons because her husband was unable to care for his wife.

“Why does her father burden Mary Crispin?” said Dan to Sarah. “Are there no daughters in Chillicothe?”

“Mary Crispin is happy to have her mother’s company. I wish I had our mother to care for instead of sold to who knows where. To help out, I spend three days a week in my in-laws’ house: Mary Crispin keeps her seamstress business going; we both care for her mother; and I serve as a kind of apprentice.”

“You are beyond an apprentice. I wish you respected yourself for the skilled seamstress you are.” 

“It’s common for true apprentices to work from four to ten years learning their craft.”

“That always struck me as a kind of slavery. Free labor in exchange for little or nothing. After being around Mary Crispin all these years, you are experienced. If you wanted, you could make me the sharpest-dressed gentleman in Cincinnati.”

“Thy flattery has more to do with improving thy condition than honoring my craft!” said Sarah laughing.

“To quote my younger sister, ‘to help out . . .’” he said laughing, and then excused himself to visit Mary Crispin, who had taken him in along with Sarah and their brother (who had since been murdered) six years before when they were fleeing enslavement. Confronted with the need for a surname, without consultation, Dan chose her birth name: Crispin.

“Thee appears hale and hearty,” said Dan, placing a brief kiss on her forehead.

She said, “I could say the same, Dan. The pantry holds almond cake.”

“Am I that transparent?” She did not bother to reply.

Dan had expected Mary Crispin’s 70-year-old mother to be in bed. Instead, she was in a rocking chair with her legs covered by a heavy quilt. The woman in the gray dress, white shawl, and bonnet seemed to be dozing. He started to tiptoe past her, but she opened her eyes and said, “Thee must be brother to that friendly, young woman who says she is my granddaughter. I would suppose that makes thee my grandson.”

Dan redirected his steps and searched for the proper answer. “The question, young man,” she said, looking for an answer.

“Yes, ma’am, I’m Sarah’s brother, Dan. And your name is?”

“Thee speaks plain to my daughter but treats me like a stranger,” she said, a smile on her wrinkled face. From her voice inflections, Dan imagined there once might have been a twinkle in now rheumy eyes. “I am Mary Crispin’s mother, Ann Chubb Crispin. Please get thy cake, and could I trouble thee for a fresh cup of coffee?”

Dan looked hopefully at Mary Crispin, who said, “Mother told thee. If I were not hard-pressed with my work, I would have made a ‘fresh’ cup an hour ago.” Shaking her head, she smiled at her mother and continued sewing.

Nancy Marstaller, Despair and Hope, colored pencil drawing. Nancy is a member of Durham (Maine) Meeting.

Dan did his best to prepare the brew. He brought Ann Chubb’s coffee before returning to cut his cake. “Thee hast no kiss for an old woman?” she said. “Knowing thy sister, I expected more charity from thee.”

Awkwardly he bent over and kissed her bonnet and left for the dessert. With a slightly trembling hand, she furtively removed a bit of bitterness, removing eggshell from her mouth and rubbed it onto a finely embroidered napkin.

“Sarah reads,” said Ann Chubb. “I assume thee also has the facility.”

“I do,” said Dan.

“Please fetch that big family Bible I brought from Chillicothe and read to me from Psalms.”

He fumbled for a few seconds in the New Testament then found the index. Neither woman commented on his ineptitude. Ann Chubb requested in turn Psalms 13, 91, and 139. Dan read so smoothly that few could have recognized he was being introduced to the text.

“Did either speak to thy condition?” she asked him.

“I loved the thirteenth.”

“The ninety-first was a rejoinder and the one hundred thirty-ninth a gift to myself.”

She waited in vain for Dan to comment, then said, “One good turn deserves another. My eyes are failing me; my mind does not. Can you listen as well as you can read?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Dan.

“Prepare thyself to hear a miracle.”


“The miracle that has been my life’s journey. When my husband, Jacob Crispin, came here, the men scouted the land the government supplied, each carrying deer and jerked bear meat, a blanket, rifle, tomahawk, and a knife. I’m told that some of the meaner sort would have used the knife to scalp the Indians had they felt threatened.”

“What had they to fear?” said Dan. “I’ve heard it said that no Quaker was ever killed by the Indians.”

“Not by me!” said Mary Crispin looking up. “We were as much intruders as any Presbyterian or non-believer.”

“She speaks truly,” said Ann Chubb. “We Quakers have a testimony to prove ourselves Friends to the Indians. Still, William Penn’s sons, cousins of my husband’s family, swindled the Lenape at the Walking Purchase; some Slocums in our yearly meeting fought the Lenape with weapons, and after one of their young men joined in violence against the Lenape, some Slocums were killed in upper Pennsylvania.”

“There appears to be much hidden history,” said Dan.

“History, thee says,” said Ann Chubb. “The stories are not all his-story. Those worth remembering include all high-stories. They are our-stories. The most famous Slocum was a kidnapped woman who became a chief.”

“A woman chief?”

“Sarah said in Fante-land in Africa, thy grandmother was a chief, though they called her Queen Mother.”

“I stand corrected.”

“Thee is seated,” said Ann Chubb laughing. It took a few seconds for Dan to understand her play on his words.

The laughter ended, and Mary Crispin said, “Tell him the story, Mother.”

“It always comes back to that humiliation,” said Ann Chubb. She sighed. “The story to which my dear daughter refers is when neighbors bearing false witness claimed to slave catchers, ‘Ann must be a nigger. She loves them so.’ Because of them, and my well-tanned skin, I was kidnapped by people who had already stolen three light-skinned colored children. They headed toward the Scioto River but moved too slow for their own pocket books.”

“Father caught up with them with a posse of good Quakers,” said Mary Crispin.

“Jacob reverted back to his wild days,” said Ann Chubb.

“Are you referring to when he left the Religious Society to join the Continental Army?” asked Dan.

“You know that story?” said Ann Chubb.

“Mary’s son Charles boasts of it two or three times a year,” said Dan laughing.

“I was not nearly so bothered by how Jacob drubbed the people-stealers as that I was forced to think, I am happy not to be one of them.”

“Is that your definition of sin?” asked Dan.

“I would rather be one of the oppressed than one of the oppressors. By resisting being stolen, I had to admit I was born on the wrong side of justice.”

“Hadn’t you realized it when you took Shawnee land?”

“We left Burlington County, New Jersey, because I did not appreciate how the Lenape had been driven from our midst, and my husband was shunned by some for fighting in the Revolutionary War. We dared not go south into slave territory or north into colder and more expensive land. After a long overland trip through high forests and higher mountains we came to Paint Creek.”

“I was 15 and exhausted,” said Mary Crispin, inserting her perspective. “How happy I was to see the land was already cleared.”

“Yes, but by the Shawnee,” said Dan.

“On the White man’s approach, they had moved away,” said Ann Chubb, regaining the floor. “If I had known the evil that we were a part of, I would like to believe I would have resisted our part in the theft. The few villages we saw always had corn, beans, and various squashes. Have you ever tasted the cushaw?”

“Of course he has, Mother,” said Mary Crispin. “He lived with me for two years, and frequently returns.”

“My husband and some neighbor men loaded their kettles and such on packhorses and went to study the environs. With the exception of the salt that they carried along, they lived on the land. In those early days, there were buffalo as well as deer and bear. Perhaps thee hast never seen a land so rich with game. I regret that the buffalo did not last long.”

“The pioneers killed them off along with the coyotes,” said Mary Crispin.

There was a lengthy silence before Ann Chubb said, “I have heard that thee has been befriended by the great-grandson of my good friend Caesar.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Folks as dark as thee were on this frontier long before my family arrived. The first one I knew was your Caesar’s great-grandfather, a good man, beloved by Shawnees and Whites. He saved a drowning child near here, and that is why they named the creek in his honor. So, Dan, when I call thee a pilgrim, I want to be clear. This stagecoach enterprise thee leads is the first of its kind I’ve heard of being led by a colored man in Ohio. Thee is called to be a pattern for those who follow. I have long railed against the hateful Black Codes that were preceded by an all White men’s vote that only banned slavery by a single vote and permitted indenture until 21, which as thee knows is almost like slavery except the end is in sight.”

“Mother drafted the first petition to rescind the Black Codes that was sent in 1829 to the legislature.”

“It was not my idea,” said Ann Chubb.

“It was the Holy Spirit’s and thy obedience.”

Ann Chubb chuckled and quoted the Bible, “Thou sayest.” She allowed Dan to feel the matriarch’s weight before saying, “I have heard it said thee knows Latin. I came to this country a poor, indentured servant. I learned none of the Roman tongue on the streets of London. A boot and an ‘away with thee,’ was my early education in England, and ‘plow my fields; feed my pigs; and carry out my night waste’ my first five years in New Jersey. It was on the frontier that I developed my mind with the tongues of Shawnee neighbors who knew the gift of respect. They treated me for who I was now, not who I once was.”

Ann Chubb was about to continue, when Dan said, “Excuse me, may we have a bit of silence so I may consider all that you’ve said?”

Nancy Marstaller, Growing into Spirit Light, colored pencil drawing.

For a few minutes, only the sound of Mary Crispin’s needle passing through cloth was heard. Dan broke the silence. “I arrived in Ohio as a fugitive on the run but welcomed by your daughter and son-in-law and under the protection of Caesar and his wife, Monni.”

“I am well-convinced that a motion of love toward the Africans could heal this land,” said Ann Chubb. It is a burden on my life that I will not live to see it.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic, Mother,” said Mary Crispin.

“I have lived long enough to speak my piece, Daughter. Soon I will leave a charge to thee to make certain this newly met grandson and his kind-spirited sister are not removed from these shores as some Friends would have it. Now while I nap, feel free to talk about whatever most interests thy generations.”

“Thee put a rip in the fabric of our guest’s mind and expect me to sew it cleanly!”

“No, Daughter. It was not I who ripped the cloth, and it will take more than the two of you to patch it. I only ask you to try. If you refuse the calling, there will be no justice.”

Dwight L. Wilson

Dwight L. Wilson is the author of a historical fiction series (Esi Was My Mother); historical fiction short story collections (The Kidnapped, The Resistors, and The Re-Remembered); and two spiritual development books (Modern Psalms in Search of Peace and Justice and Modern Psalms of Solace and Resistance). He is former general secretary of Friends General Conference and the father of four sons.

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