Titus at the Market
This fictional scene is based on the life of Titus, a slave who lived in New Jersey about 250 years ago. He was a strong, smart man, who was also a good leader. On November 8, 1775, when Titus was 22-years-old, he decided to run away from his cruel owner, John Corlies. If things worked out for Titus, he would finally be a free man. But running away was a dangerous risk for Titus. One false move, and he might face death.
Why did Titus decide to run away at this time? Two possible reasons make sense. First, Titus realized that his owner never planned to free his slaves at age 21 the way other Quaker1 owners had. Second, Titus had heard that the British were offering money and freedom to runaway slaves who fought with the British Army against the Patriots.
The Time: early November 1775
The Place: a countryside market in Shrewsbury, New Jersey
(Titus, 22, a tall slave, is laying homegrown vegetables on a blanket on the ground. As he does, he calls out to customers.)
TITUS: Apples, squash, corn! The finest in the land. Apples, squash, corn!
(Henry, a friendly 25-year old former slave approaches Titus, smiling.)
HENRY: There you are, Titus. I have been looking all over for you.
TITUS: Henry! Good to see you again. What can I get for you today?
HENRY: Please give me plenty of your sweet corn. This year's crop is the best I have ever tasted. How do you do it?
TITUS: (smiling) Sorry, that's a secret.
(Titus loads many ears of corn onto Henry's cart, as he speaks.)
TITUS: Henry, tell me, how is Matilda these days?
HENRY: She is better than ever! On Friday, she turned twenty-one years old. And that means ... Matilda is a FREE woman now! Her Quaker family lived up to its promise.
TITUS: Wonderful news. So many Quaker owners have finally come around. Now, if I could somehow convince old man Corlies to see the light, then I, too, could be a free man.
(Henry hands over some money to Titus, and leans in to speak quietly.)
HENRY: I heard several of the Quakers visited Corlies last week. Were they able convince him to free you and the others?
TITUS: Not a chance. Corlies's temper has been worse than ever. (big pause, then whispering) Not a word about this to anyone ... but I think it is time to take matters into my own hands (he mimes choking someone).
HENRY: Violence will only lead to more violence for our people, Titus. The Quakers are not giving up. Many slaves in Shrewsbury now have their freedom. Little by little, they are making a difference. Soon it will be your turn.
1 The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends, is a religious community founded in England during the 17th century.
TITUS: Not with Corlies. He is a skunk who deserves to die. Even though he is a Quaker, he does not do what the other Quakers do. He has refused to teach us to read and write. He feeds us poorly. And he takes out his anger on the very men who are the backbone of his farm. I wish it were not so, but this has got to come to an end. I am going to escape.
HENRY: Do not be a fool, Titus. What will you do? Where will you go?
TITUS: (sighs) I have plans, solid plans. I know where I am going.
HENRY: Please, Titus, I beg of you. Think before you act. I have heard horrible stories about those who have been caught. Think of your future. Think about your family. Corlies will change his mind, if we do not let up.
(Titus points to the back of his neck, revealing part of a fresh cut, encrusted in blood.)
HENRY: Oh no! What happened? Was there an accident on the farm?
TITUS: (seething with anger) Hardly. It seems Mr. Corlies did not like how I responded to his mother's cooking. I praised her buttermilk biscuits, but he whipped me just the same. And he wasn't even drunk. NO! I must leave while I still can.
HENRY: Please ... violence is not the way. By December, you could be legally free. Do not run away. The Friends will figure out a way to convince Corlies to honor his Quaker roots and to free you. He knows that he should have freed you on your 21st birthday.
TITUS: Yes, and now I'm twenty-TWO, and I'm STILL enslaved to this vile man. I must leave New Jersey, and head to Virginia.
TITUS: Have you not heard? The Earl of Dunmore is hiring Negroes for his Ethiopian Regiment.
HENRY: Titus, if you're caught, you could be hanged. You do not want to die do you? Besides, how will you find your way to Virginia?
TITUS: (points to head) It's all up here ... I know every river and swamp between here and Delaware. From there, I'll find people willing to help get me to Maryland and Virginia. No one else has to know that I escaped.
HENRY: Could you give me at least one more week before you go?
TITUS: Henry, do not worry about me. I will be fine. I was not named Titus for nothin'. I am giant man with mighty plans. (puts his hand on Henry's shoulder) I will miss you, Henry. You have been a good friend to me all these years. Now I must follow my heart. If all goes well, I will be back in Shrewsbury some day soon ... as a free man.
HENRY: Farewell, Titus. Your secret is safe with me.
THE LIFE OF WILLIAM GRIMES, THE RUNAWAY SLAVE. WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.
All readings created in the Historical Fiction section were reviewed and approved by the educational advisor, Thomas Thurston, Director of Education at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale Center for International and Area Studies.