by: Charles W. Chesnutt
Mary Myrover's friends were somewhat surprised when she began to
teach a colored school. Miss Myrover's friends are mentioned
here, because nowhere more than in a Southern town is public
opinion a force which cannot be lightly contravened. Public
opinion, however, did not oppose Miss Myrover's teaching colored
children; in fact, all the colored public schools in town--and
there were several--were taught by white teachers, and had been so
taught since the state had undertaken to provide free public
instruction for all children within its boundaries. Previous to
that time there had been a Freedman's Bureau school and a
Presbyterian missionary school, but these had been withdrawn when
the need for them became less pressing. The colored people of the
town had been for some time agitating their right to teach their
own schools, but as yet the claim had not been conceded.
The reason Miss Myrover's course created some surprise was not,
therefore, the fact that a Southern white woman should teach a
colored school; it lay in the fact that up to this time no woman
of just her quality had taken up such work. Most of the teachers
of colored schools were not of those who had constituted the
aristocracy of the old regime; they might be said rather to
represent the new order of things, in which labor was in time to
become honorable, and men were, after a somewhat longer time, to
depend, for their place in society, upon themselves rather than
upon their ancestors. But Mary Myrover belonged to one of the
proudest of the old families. Her ancestors had been people of
distinction in Virginia before a collateral branch of the main
stock had settled in North Carolina. Before the war they had been
able to live up to their pedigree. But the war brought sad
changes. Miss Myrover's father--the Colonel Myrover who led a
gallant but desperate charge at Vicksburg--had fallen on the
battlefield, and his tomb in the white cemetery was a shrine for
the family. On the Confederate Memorial Day no other grave was so
profusely decorated with flowers, and in the oration pronounced
the name of Colonel Myrover was always used to illustrate the
highest type of patriotic devotion and self-sacrifice. Miss
Myrover's brother, too, had fallen in the conflict; but his bones
lay in some unknown trench, with those of a thousand others who
had fallen on the same field. Ay, more, her lover, who had hoped
to come home in the full tide of victory and claim his bride as a
reward for gallantry, had shared the fate of her father and
brother. When the war was over, the remnant of the family found
itself involved in the common ruin,--more deeply involved, indeed,
than some others; for Colonel Myrover had believed in the ultimate
triumph of his cause, and had invested most of his wealth in
Confederate bonds, which were now only so much waste paper.
There had been a little left. Mrs. Myrover was thrifty, and had
laid by a few hundred dollars, which she kept in the house to meet
unforeseen contingencies. There remained, too, their home, with
an ample garden and a well-stocked orchard, besides a considerable
tract of country land, partly cleared, but productive of very
With their shrunken resources, Miss Myrover and her mother were
able to hold up their heads without embarrassment for some years
after the close of the war. But when things were adjusted to the
changed conditions, and the stream of life began to flow more
vigorously in the new channels, they saw themselves in danger of
dropping behind, unless in some way they could add to their meagre
income. Miss Myrover looked over the field of employment, never
very wide for women in the South, and found it occupied. The only
available position she could be supposed prepared to fill, and
which she could take without distinct loss of caste, was that of a
teacher, and there was no vacancy except in one of the colored
schools. Even teaching was a doubtful experiment; it was not what
she would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done.
"I don't like it, Mary," said her mother. "It's a long step from
owning such people to teaching them. What do they need with
education? It will only make them unfit for work."
"They're free now, mother, and perhaps they'll work better if
they're taught something. Besides, it's only a business
arrangement, and doesn't involve any closer contact than we have
with our servants."
"Well, I should say not!" sniffed the old lady. "Not one of them
will ever dare to presume on your position to take any liberties
with us. I'll see to that."
Miss Myrover began her work as a teacher in the autumn, at the
opening of the school year. It was a novel experience at first.
Though there always had been negro servants in the house, and
though on the streets colored people were more numerous than her
own people, and though she was so familiar with their dialect that
she might almost be said to speak it, barring certain
characteristic grammatical inaccuracies, she had never been
brought in personal contact with so many of them at once as when
she confronted the fifty or sixty faces--of colors ranging from a
white almost as clear as her own to the darkest livery of the sun--
which were gathered in the schoolroom on the morning when she
began her duties. Some of the inherited prejudice of her caste,
too, made itself felt, though she tried to repress any outward
sign of it; and she could perceive that the children were not
altogether responsive; they, likewise, were not entirely free from
antagonism. The work was unfamiliar to her. She was not
physically very strong, and at the close of the first day she went
home with a splitting headache. If she could have resigned then
and there without causing comment or annoyance to others, she
would have felt it a privilege to do so. But a night's rest
banished her headache and improved her spirits, and the next
morning she went to her work with renewed vigor, fortified by the
experience of the first day.
Miss Myrover's second day was more satisfactory. She had some
natural talent for organization, though she had never known it,
and in the course of the day she got her classes formed and
lessons under way. In a week or two she began to classify her
pupils in her own mind, as bright or stupid, mischievous or well
behaved, lazy or industrious, as the case might be, and to
regulate her discipline accordingly. That she had come of a long
line of ancestors who had exercised authority and mastership was
perhaps not without its effect upon her character, and enabled her
more readily to maintain good order in the school. When she was
fairly broken in she found the work rather to her liking, and
derived much pleasure from such success as she achieved as a
It was natural that she should be more attracted to some of her
pupils than to others. Perhaps her favorite--or rather, the one
she liked best, for she was too fair and just for conscious
favoritism--was Sophy Tucker. Just the ground for the teacher's
liking for Sophy might not at first be apparent. The girl was far
from the whitest of Miss Myrover's pupils; in fact, she was one of
the darker ones. She was not the brightest in intellect, though
she always tried to learn her lessons. She was not the best
dressed, for her mother was a poor widow, who went out washing and
scrubbing for a living. Perhaps the real tie between them was
Sophy's intense devotion to the teacher. It had manifested itself
almost from the first day of the school, in the rapt look of
admiration Miss Myrover always saw on the little black face turned
toward her. In it there was nothing of envy, nothing of regret;
nothing but worship for the beautiful white lady--she was not
especially handsome, but to Sophy her beauty was almost divine--
who had come to teach her. If Miss Myrover dropped a book, Sophy
was the first to spring and pick it up; if she wished a chair
moved, Sophy seemed to anticipate her wish; and so of all the
numberless little services that can be rendered in a school-room.
Miss Myrover was fond of flowers, and liked to have them about
her. The children soon learned of this taste of hers, and kept
the vases on her desk filled with blossoms during their season.
Sophy was perhaps the most active in providing them. If she could
not get garden flowers, she would make excursions to the woods in
the early morning, and bring in great dew-laden bunches of bay, or
jasmine, or some other fragrant forest flower which she knew the
"When I die, Sophy," Miss Myrover said to the child one day, "I
want to be covered with roses. And when they bury me, I'm sure I
shall rest better if my grave is banked with flowers, and roses
are planted at my head and at my feet."
Miss Myrover was at first amused at Sophy's devotion; but when she
grew more accustomed to it, she found it rather to her liking. It
had a sort of flavor of the old regime, and she felt, when she
bestowed her kindly notice upon her little black attendant, some
of the feudal condescension of the mistress toward the slave. She
was kind to Sophy, and permitted her to play the role she had
assumed, which caused sometimes a little jealousy among the other
girls. Once she gave Sophy a yellow ribbon which she took from
her own hair. The child carried it home, and cherished it as a
priceless treasure, to be worn only on the greatest occasions.
Sophy had a rival in her attachment to the teacher, but the
rivalry was altogether friendly. Miss Myrover had a little dog, a
white spaniel, answering to the name of Prince. Prince was a dog
of high degree, and would have very little to do with the children
of the school; he made an exception, however, in the case of
Sophy, whose devotion for his mistress he seemed to comprehend.
He was a clever dog, and could fetch and carry, sit up on his
haunches, extend his paw to shake hands, and possessed several
other canine accomplishments. He was very fond of his mistress,
and always, unless shut up at home, accompanied her to school,
where he spent most of his time lying under the teacher's desk,
or, in cold weather, by the stove, except when he would go out now
and then and chase an imaginary rabbit round the yard, presumably
At school Sophy and Prince vied with each other in their
attentions to Miss Myrover. But when school was over, Prince went
away with her, and Sophy stayed behind; for Miss Myrover was white
and Sophy was black, which they both understood perfectly well.
Miss Myrover taught the colored children, but she could not be
seen with them in public. If they occasionally met her on the
street, they did not expect her to speak to them, unless she
happened to be alone and no other white person was in sight. If
any of the children felt slighted, she was not aware of it, for
she intended no slight; she had not been brought up to speak to
negroes on the street, and she could not act differently from
other people. And though she was a woman of sentiment and capable
of deep feeling, her training had been such that she hardly
expected to find in those of darker hue than herself the same
susceptibility--varying in degree, perhaps, but yet the same in
kind--that gave to her own life the alternations of feeling that
made it most worth living.
Once Miss Myrover wished to carry home a parcel of books. She had
the bundle in her hand when Sophy came up.
"Lemme tote yo' bundle fer yer, Miss Ma'y?" she asked eagerly.
"I'm gwine yo' way."
"Thank you, Sophy," was the reply. "I'll be glad if you will."
Sophy followed the teacher at a respectful distance. When they
reached Miss Myrover's home Sophy carried the bundle to the
doorstep, where Miss Myrover took it and thanked her.
Mrs. Myrover came out on the piazza as Sophy was moving away. She
said, in the child's hearing, and perhaps with the intention that
she should hear: "Mary, I wish you wouldn't let those little
darkies follow you to the house. I don't want them in the yard.
I should think you'd have enough of them all day."
"Very well, mother," replied her daughter. "I won't bring any
more of them. The child was only doing me a favor."
Mrs. Myrover was an invalid, and opposition or irritation of any
kind brought on nervous paroxysms that made her miserable, and
made life a burden to the rest of the household; so that Mary
seldom crossed her whims. She did not bring Sophy to the house
again, nor did Sophy again offer her services as porter.
One day in spring Sophy brought her teacher a bouquet of yellow
"Dey come off'n my own bush, Miss Ma'y," she said proudly, "an' I
didn' let nobody e'se pull 'em, but saved 'em all fer you, 'cause
I know you likes roses so much. I'm gwine bring 'em all ter you
as long as dey las'."
"Thank you, Sophy," said the teacher; "you are a very good girl."
For another year Mary Myrover taught the colored school, and did
excellent service. The children made rapid progress under her
tuition, and learned to love her well; for they saw and
appreciated, as well as children could, her fidelity to a trust
that she might have slighted, as some others did, without much
fear of criticism. Toward the end of her second year she
sickened, and after a brief illness died.
Old Mrs. Myrover was inconsolable. She ascribed her daughter's
death to her labors as teacher of negro children. Just how the
color of the pupils had produced the fatal effects she did not
stop to explain. But she was too old, and had suffered too deeply
from the war, in body and mind and estate, ever to reconcile
herself to the changed order of things following the return of
peace; and with an unsound yet not unnatural logic, she visited
some of her displeasure upon those who had profited most, though
passively, by her losses.
"I always feared something would happen to Mary," she said. "It
seemed unnatural for her to be wearing herself out teaching little
negroes who ought to have been working for her. But the world has
hardly been a fit place to live in since the war, and when I
follow her, as I must before long, I shall not be sorry to go."
She gave strict orders that no colored people should be admitted
to the house. Some of her friends heard of this, and
remonstrated. They knew the teacher was loved by the pupils, and
felt that sincere respect from the humble would be a worthy
tribute to the proudest. But Mrs. Myrover was obdurate.
"They had my daughter when she was alive," she said, "and they've
killed her. But she's mine now, and I won't have them come near
her. I don't want one of them at the funeral or anywhere around."
For a month before Miss Myrover's death Sophy had been watching
her rosebush--the one that bore the yellow roses--for the first
buds of spring, and when these appeared had awaited impatiently
their gradual unfolding. But not until her teacher's death had
they become full-blown roses. When Miss Myrover died, Sophy
determined to pluck the roses and lay them on her coffin.
Perhaps, she thought, they might even put them in her hand or on
her breast. For Sophy remembered Miss Myrover's thanks and praise
when she had brought her the yellow roses the spring before.
On the morning of the day set for the funeral Sophy washed her
face until it shone, combed and brushed her hair with painful
conscientiousness, put on her best frock, plucked her yellow
roses, and, tying them with the treasured ribbon her teacher had
given her, set out for Miss Myrover's home.
She went round to the side gate--the house stood on a corner--and
stole up the path to the kitchen. A colored woman, whom she did
not know, came to the door.
"W'at yer want, chile?" she inquired.
"Kin I see Miss Ma'y?" asked Sophy timidly.
"I don' know, honey. Ole Miss Myrover say she don' want no cullud
folks roun' de house endyoin' dis fun'al. I'll look an' see if
she's roun' de front room, whar de co'pse is. You sed-down heah
an' keep still, an' ef she's upstairs maybe I kin git yer in dere
a minute. Ef I can't, I kin put yo' bokay 'mongs' de res', whar
she won't know nuthin' erbout it."
A moment after she had gone there was a step in the hall, and old
Mrs. Myrover came into the kitchen.
"Dinah!" she said in a peevish tone. "Dinah!"
Receiving no answer, Mrs. Myrover peered around the kitchen, and
caught sight of Sophy.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I--I'm-m waitin' ter see de cook, ma'am," stammered Sophy.
"The cook isn't here now. I don't know where she is. Besides, my
daughter is to be buried to-day, and I won't have any one visiting
the servants until the funeral is over. Come back some other day,
or see the cook at her own home in the evening."
She stood waiting for the child to go, and under the keen glance
of her eyes Sophy, feeling as though she had been caught in some
disgraceful act, hurried down the walk and out of the gate, with
her bouquet in her hand.
"Dinah," said Mrs. Myrover, when the cook came back, "I don't want
any strange people admitted here to-day. The house will be full
of our friends, and we have no room for others."
"Yas'm," said the cook. She understood perfectly what her
mistress meant; and what the cook thought about her mistress was a
matter of no consequence.
The funeral services were held at St. John's Episcopal Church,
where the Myrovers had always worshiped. Quite a number of Miss
Myrover's pupils went to the church to attend the services. The
church was not a large one. There was a small gallery at the
rear, to which colored people were admitted, if they chose to
come, at ordinary services; and those who wished to be present at
the funeral supposed that the usual custom would prevail. They
were therefore surprised, when they went to the side entrance, by
which colored people gained access to the gallery stairs, to be
met by an usher who barred their passage.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I have had orders to admit no one until
the friends of the family have all been seated. If you wish to
wait until the white people have all gone in, and there's any room
left, you may be able to get into the back part of the gallery.
Of course I can't tell yet whether there'll be any room or not."
Now the statement of the usher was a very reasonable one; but,
strange to say, none of the colored people chose to remain except
Sophy. She still hoped to use her floral offering for its
destined end, in some way, though she did not know just how. She
waited in the yard until the church was filled with white people,
and a number who could not gain admittance were standing about the
doors. Then she went round to the side of the church, and,
depositing her bouquet carefully on an old mossy gravestone,
climbed up on the projecting sill of a window near the chancel.
The window was of stained glass, of somewhat ancient make. The
church was old, had indeed been built in colonial times, and the
stained glass had been brought from England. The design of the
window showed Jesus blessing little children. Time had dealt
gently with the window; but just at the feet of the figure of
Jesus a small triangular piece of glass had been broken out. To
this aperture Sophy applied her eyes, and through it saw and heard
what she could of the services within.
Before the chancel, on trestles draped in black, stood the sombre
casket in which lay all that was mortal of her dear teacher. The
top of the casket was covered with flowers; and lying stretched
out underneath it she saw Miss Myrover's little white dog, Prince.
He had followed the body to the church, and, slipping in unnoticed
among the mourners, had taken his place, from which no one had the
heart to remove him.
The white-robed rector read the solemn service for the dead, and
then delivered a brief address, in which he spoke of the
uncertainty of life, and, to the believer, the certain blessedness
of eternity. He spoke of Miss Myrover's kindly spirit, and, as an
illustration of her love and self-sacrifice for others, referred
to her labors as a teacher of the poor ignorant negroes who had
been placed in their midst by an all-wise Providence, and whom it
was their duty to guide and direct in the station in which God had
put them. Then the organ pealed, a prayer was said, and the long
cortege moved from the church to the cemetery, about half a mile
away, where the body was to be interred.
When the services were over, Sophy sprang down from her perch,
and, taking her flowers, followed the procession. She did not
walk with the rest, but at a proper and respectful distance from
the last mourner. No one noticed the little black girl with the
bunch of yellow flowers, or thought of her as interested in the
The cortege reached the cemetery and filed slowly through the
gate; but Sophy stood outside, looking at a small sign in white
letters on a black background:--
"NOTICE. This cemetery is for white people only. Others please
Sophy, thanks to Miss Myrover's painstaking instruction, could
read this sign very distinctly. In fact, she had often read it
before. For Sophy was a child who loved beauty, in a blind,
groping sort of way, and had sometimes stood by the fence of the
cemetery and looked through at the green mounds and shaded walks
and blooming flowers within, and wished that she could walk among
them. She knew, too, that the little sign on the gate, though so
courteously worded, was no mere formality; for she had heard how a
colored man, who had wandered into the cemetery on a hot night and
fallen asleep on the flat top of a tomb, had been arrested as a
vagrant and fined five dollars, which he had worked out on the
streets, with a ball-and-chain attachment, at twenty-five cents a
day. Since that time the cemetery gate had been locked at night.
So Sophy stayed outside, and looked through the fence. Her poor
bouquet had begun to droop by this time, and the yellow ribbon had
lost some of its freshness. Sophy could see the rector standing
by the grave, the mourners gathered round; she could faintly
distinguish the solemn words with which ashes were committed to
ashes, and dust to dust. She heard the hollow thud of the earth
falling on the coffin; and she leaned against the iron fence,
sobbing softly, until the grave was filled and rounded off, and
the wreaths and other floral pieces were disposed upon it. When
the mourners began to move toward the gate, Sophy walked slowly
down the street, in a direction opposite to that taken by most of
the people who came out.
When they had all gone away, and the sexton had come out and
locked the gate behind him, Sophy crept back. Her roses were
faded now, and from some of them the petals had fallen. She stood
there irresolute, loath to leave with her heart's desire
unsatisfied, when, as her eyes fell upon the teacher's last
resting place, she saw lying beside the new-made grave what looked
like a small bundle of white wool. Sophy's eyes lighted up with a
"Prince! Here, Prince!" she called.
The little dog rose, and trotted down to the gate. Sophy pushed
the poor bouquet between the iron bars. "Take that ter Miss Ma'y,
Prince," she said, "that's a good doggie."
The dog wagged his tail intelligently, took the bouquet carefully
in his mouth, carried it to his mistress's grave, and laid it
among the other flowers. The bunch of roses was so small that
from where she stood Sophy could see only a dash of yellow against
the white background of the mass of flowers.
When Prince had performed his mission he turned his eyes toward
Sophy inquiringly, and when she gave him a nod of approval lay
down and resumed his watch by the graveside. Sophy looked at him
a moment with a feeling very much like envy, and then turned and
moved slowly away.
Next: THE CASE OF THE NEGRO
Previous: THE WIFE OF HIS YOUTH