Titus at the Market
The following dramatic scene is fictional, but is based on historical information about a slave named Titus, who lived in New Jersey in the mid-1700s. He was strong, smart and a natural leader. Eager to gain his freedom, and to escape his cruel owner, John Corlies, Titus ran away from Corlies' estate on November 8, 1775, at the age of 22. If things worked out for him, he had much to gain. But it was dangerous and risky for slaves to run away from their owners.
Why did Titus decide to run away at this time? Two possible reasons: First, it became clear to Titus that Corlies, a Quaker1, had absolutely no intention of following the local Quaker trend of freeing their slaves on their 21st birthday. Second, Titus had heard that the British were offering money and freedom to run away slaves if they agreed to fight with the British Army in the Revolutionary War. Even with these incentives, the decision to run away could not have been easy for Titus. One false move, and he could lose his life.
The Time: early November 1775
The Place: a countryside market in Shrewsbury, New Jersey
(Titus, 22, a tall slave, is laying his homegrown vegetables on a blanket on the ground. As he does, he calls out to potential customers.)
TITUS: Apples, squash, corn! The finest in the land. Apples, squash, corn!
(Henry a 25-year old former slave approaches, 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. Care to let me in on your secret?
TITUS: (smiling) Sorry, my lips are sealed.
(Titus loads many ears of corn onto Henry's cart, as he speaks.)
TITUS: Henry, tell me, how is your sweetheart these days?
HENRY: Matilda? She is better than ever! On Friday, she turned twenty-one years old.
TITUS: (with disbelief) Do you mean that she now-
HENRY: (interrupting) That is right! 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 discretely.)
HENRY: I heard the Friends came to visit Corlies recently. Were they able to persuade him to end his wrongdoings?
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: Try to keep your own anger at bay, Titus. The Friends are not giving up. Many slaves in Shrewsbury now have their freedom. Little by little, they are making progress. Through persistence and prayer, all things are possible.
TITUS: Not with Corlies. He is a skunk who deserves to die. Despite his Quaker roots, he has refused to teach us to read and write. He feeds us poorly. And he takes out his frustrations on the very men who are the backbone of his farm. I wish it were not so, but in a matter of days, I must escape this injustice.
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. Do not do anything rash. I have heard horrible, horrible stories about those who have been caught. Think of your future. Think about your family. Corlies can be a reasonable man. Keep your hopes aloft, Titus. Try not to think about-
(Titus points to the back of his neck, revealing part of a fresh welt, 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 think I praised his mother's buttermilk biscuits enough. I can only imagine what he would have done if he was not sober at the time. No, I must get going while I still can. Corlies may be in charge for now ... but the tide will soon turn.
HENRY: Please ... violence is not the way. Do not jeopardize your life. By this time next month, you could be free ... legally free. 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 done so on your 21st birthday.
TITUS: Yes, and now I'm twenty-two, and I'm STILL enslaved to this vile man. I have my heart set on 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 face the gallows. If you do make it to Virginia and join the war you do not want to become another Crispus Attucks2, do you? Let others be the martyrs, not 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 vanish?
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. You have been a good friend to me all these years. Now I must follow my heart. Who knows? If all goes well, I will be back in Shrewsbury some day soon ... as a free man.
HENRY: Godspeed, Titus. May the wind be at your back.
1 The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends, is a religious community founded in England during the 17th century.
2 Crispus Attucks grew up as a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts. Around 1750, he escaped to work on whaling ships. Historians debate whether Crispus Attucks then became a patriotic hero or just an obnoxious trouble-maker during the American Revolution. What they agree on is that on March 5, 1770, Boston patriot Samuel Adams convinced the local sailors to protest the British troops. So, Attucks, a sailor from African and American Indian background, lead fifty men in a protest against the British. As the British soldiers defended themselves, they fired on the protestors, killing Attucks and four others. Patriots soon called this event the Boston Massacre.
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.