A Voice of Freedom at Cheramie Plantation
It had been an ordinary day at Cheramie Plantation. Morning prayers and reading on the galerie accompanied by steaming café au lait. Workers going about their labor in the sugarcane fields. My Gaston ambling about the grounds assisting and supervising his enterprise.The intermittent aromas of cane syrup cooking in black iron pots and french bread baking in outdoor brick ovens drifted in through the shuttered plantation windows. Only Le Bon Dieu knew what the day’s end would bring.
Famished from an afternoon at play, Jean and Michelle came bolting into the kitchen for their share of the simmering stew. When overzealous Jean tripped over the stone hearth floor, he uncovered a key and a letter under a loosened gray stone. The message was written by Rene Cheramie, Gaston’s grandfather. Dated September 1, 1862, it contained a plea to locate a small chest under the floor boards on the east side of the fireplace.
With Jean’s help, we removed the chest, opening it with anticipation. Curiously, it was filled with books and papers about slavery and the abolition movement of the mid nineteenth century. Master Rene was a slave owner himself for many years. Hmmm. There were many copies of the abolitionist newspaper, “The National Era”, operated by John Greenleaf Whittier. A copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I smiled. I learned in school that upon meeting her, Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war!” (1) Such a brave and honorable woman who stood up to the inhumanity of slavery.
This was turning out to be an interesting afternoon! More of Whittier’s works were found; an antislavery pamphlet “Justice and Expediency” and his poetry volume titled “Voices of Freedom.” Finally I came upon a handwritten manuscript. Though it was not titled, its cover page held Rene Cheramie’s signature and the date September 1, 1862. He died one month later.
Setting aside this treasure chest momentarily, dinner was served for the children as I read to them from Whittier’s poetry book:
“And by the blessed thought of Him who for earth’s freedom died
O my people! O my brother! Let us choose the righteous side.” (2)
I would dine later with Gaston but for now I could hardly wait to pick up this mysterious manuscript and go back out to the galerie . The cool autumn air was refreshing as it swirled gently about me. The sun was beginning its evening descent in the horizon. I took a deep breath and began to read.
“In the spring of 1850, I read for the first time the decree of Pope Gregory XVI in his Supreme Apostolatus : ‘We admonish and adjure in the Lord all believers in Christ of whatsoever condition that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, Negroes, or other men of this sort; or to spoil them of their goods or to reduce them to slavery…’ (3) It was the Holy Father’s admonition united with my heart’s cry that confirmed in my mind what I believed the good Lord willed me to do.”
I read on to learn that from 1850 , Master Rene regularly held clandestine meetings at the plantation with several priests and slave owners in the region in support of the abolition movement, even traveling to New Orleans for such. He later joined Whittier’s American Anti-Slavery Society. By that time, his own slaves had been released
to freedom, though many stayed on as paid workers. This is what he penned in 1852:
“My soul can no longer tolerate what is before my eyes. I look upon men at heavy labor in the searing sun. I have no right to own another man! God is both the Creator and Keeper of all! My God please forgive my ignorance and inhumanity. I will take action toward freedom and each voice in the field will become like my friend Whittier’s work, “a voice of freedom.” O my soul, you shall become free as well! ”
I looked up to see Gaston coming in from the fields, framed by golden sunset hues now fading to pinks and purples. There was much to tell him. Rene Cheramie’s story must be told. His voice of freedom must be heard. In 1862, freedom had come to Cheramie Plantation and spread across our land. We had chosen the righteous side. Thanks be to God.
(1), (3) Wikipedia
(2) “The Crisis” by John Greenleaf Whittier
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