An Unbreakable bond

At age 100, Nan Agle is full of memories. One is of a former slave who wouldn't be separated from the woman who had owned her.

April 18, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The cherry and nutmeg-striped headscarf hasn't been worn in 85 years, but it is as easy for Nan Agle to envision as if it still were tied to her "Mammy's" head. The kerchief is bold and lively and radiates spirit.

Eliza's spirit.

Eliza Ann Benson, a former slave, helped raise Nan and her two older sisters at the turn of the 20th century. Before that, she defied the era (1880s Baltimore) and the odds to become the court-appointed guardian of her former white owners' four orphaned children, including Agle's mother.

Agle turned 100 last week, and her memory is fading. She can't always remember the way from the assisted-living center's lounge back to her room, but her memories of Eliza are detailed and sharp. "I never saw Eliza's head bare, you know. I never saw her without her headscarf," she says.

Long after Benson died, Agle grew up to become a children's book author and art teacher at Friends School for 14 years. She published at least 21 stories for kids. Agle's most popular children's series, the Three Boys books (co-written with Ellen Wilson and published in the 1950s), chronicled the adventures of triplets. But, her best-known book is Free to Stay, the only book she wrote for adults. The story it tells - Eliza's story - "took a lifetime" to write, Agle once said.

A party commemorating Agle's centennial was held Saturday at the Sykesville center where she lives. There was yellow cake and ice cream, bouquets of flowers emitting a dusky spring scent, and a proclamation signed by the nation's first couple, George and Laura Bush.

About two dozen of Agle's descendants and a few close friends came from around the country. There were old photographs and anecdotes about Agle's remarkable creative output; she continued to sketch nature scenes and write poems into her late 90s.

This is the favorite poem of her granddaughter, Jane Wolfe, of St. Petersburg, Fla.:

Going downhill fast

Don't know if I'll last

Till noon

Or past.

And, Wolfe's fondest memories were her childhood visits to her Nana at her Catonsville home.

"On a fine morning, Nana might say, `Let's go outside and see if we can find some fairies.'

"I would never have thought to say to her, `There are no fairies.' You would look for the fairies unconditionally. You'd ask butterflies, `Have you seen any fairies?' But you would know for a fact that you were just playing."

Given Agle's still-healthy imagination, perhaps it's not such a stretch to wonder if Benson herself were an unseen guest at the party.

Benson's relationship with her former owner's four children and their children, formed a kind of circle. "She was there for all of my childhood," Agle says. Benson shepherded her young charges through their early lives. And Agle, in her way, helped to preserve Benson's life.

Free to Stay is based on Benson's life story, as she related it to a 10-year-old Nan on a summer day. The book, which first was published in 1985 and was reprinted by Arcadia Press in 2000, is based upon Agle's memories of that day.

Reading Free to Stay can be uncomfortable, and not just because Agle preserves a Southern, black vernacular in which all white people are referred to as "Marse" (for "Master") or "Miss." For instance, Benson reacts with indignation when asked if she's pleased that President Lincoln freed the slaves:

"Me be glad he turn loose all my people, turn dem outa house an' home, trained and untrained, young an' old, to root hog and die? Where dey go? ... Least he could do be ship 'em back to wherever dey come from so's deys could make a fresh start. No, he had to turn 'em loose widout even a mule to ride on."

In the book, Benson continues: "Freedom work both ways, chile. I was free to go an' free to stay. By dat time, wild horses couldn't pull me away from Miss Braddie."

Ira Berlin, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park and an expert on slavery in the United States, doesn't doubt the veracity of Agle's account. But he says that Benson's views were shared by a small minority.

"The number of black people who thought emancipation was a bad idea you could count on your hand," he says. "That just wasn't a prevalent opinion. Most people were doing everything they could to get out of slavery."

In 1840 at age 4, Benson was given to a baby girl, Anne Catherine Bradford Harrison, known to her family as "Braddie."

Staying on

The two girls became inseparable; when Braddie wed the firebrand journalist and author Edward Spencer, Benson turned down a chance to marry and have children of her own. She preferred to live with and work for the newlyweds. "It would never have crossed her mind to leave," Agle says. "She was a member of the family."

And that's how Benson saw herself, according to the book. When the 10-year-old Nan asked Benson how much she had been paid to cook and clean after the slaves were freed, Benson retorts that Edward Spencer "knew better than to insult me wid money. We all work together: him, Miss Braddie ... an' me. We a fam'ly."

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