The woman pictured here is Susan Bean, and she was a year old when she was emancipated from slavery in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Her story of hard labor did not end here, because much like many of our foremothers, she labored as a domestic in white women’s homes for many years afterwards. Sometimes they treated her fairly, and other times not so much, but she could always count on praying the rosaries.
That’s Grandma Susie, and as fascinating as her life was, it is her parents that I find myself daydreaming about. Though I never met them, I somehow want to please them. I want them to know that, as their child, I’m living dreams built on their prayers and the prayers they instilled in Grandma Susie. Grandma Susie was a praying woman, too.
A glance at The Slave Statistics of St. Mary’s County, Maryland will reveal a rarity in the slave system: an enslaved family, my family, living together on the same plantation.
The matriarch of the Bean family, Martha Bean, was enslaved on the Abell plantation, along with her four children: Lewis, Caroline, Adain, and Susan. I have no idea if they were all born on this plantation or if they came from elsewhere. I also don’t know if Martha had additional children who were sold off to another plantation or who died. What I do know, however, is that they were a family.
Martha’s husband, Thomas Bean, is a bit of a mystery to me. He enlisted in the military in 1861 and was discharged a year later after wounding his leg and his head. I want to know where he lived in proximity to Martha, and how often they were able to physically be in the same place. I don’t know if at some point he, too, was enslaved by the Abells. I don’t even know for certain if he was the biological father of each child, but he was indeed their father, as each child bore his last name.
What I do know is that in 1870, the first census that would have recognized their existence, Martha Bean and Thomas Bean made a choice–perhaps, the first time in their lives such a choice was theirs to be made–they made a choice to be together under the same roof as a family. And, they chose to give birth to three more children who were their only children to be born free. They were together on one more census, and then Martha and Thomas Bean vanished from public records.
I like to imagine that what existed between Martha and Thomas Bean was love. I close my eyes and imagine what their love looked like, what it felt like. Whether Thomas Bean was a free man or an enslaved man, I daydream about him kissing Martha’s calloused hands from working in the tobacco fields of the Abell plantation. I think of them loving away each other’s pain and long-suffering. It is when I think of them in these ways, loving each other during unthinkable circumstances, only then do I think about all of the possibilities life can offer me.
**Post Update: Please check out my poem, “Martha, Don’t you Moan,” posted August 6.