One of the things that drives my character Maggie is love. She truly loves – or tries to love – all those she meets. In my work in progress, THE GOOD COMMUNITY, two orphaned girls, Addie and Mary Brooks, come to Greybeal House, and Maggie and Emily, true to their beliefs, welcome them with open arms.
So far, so good, right?
Maggie and Emily are told that they cannot enroll Addie and Mary Brooks in the Blaineton town school because it no longer accepts black students. Although such a thing would not be unusual, given the time (1864) and place (a town in New Jersey), the two women are furious.
While Emily takes the girls home, Maggie goes to the newspaper office, where her husband Eli serves as Editor-in-Chief. After telling Eli what has happened, she explains that she wants to meet with the school board to plead for a change. Eli produces a list of the three school board members. The board’s chairperson is Josiah Norton, the wealthy industrialist who owns a woolen mill and military uniform factory south of town. Norton recently has erected a new hotel on the lot that once held Maggie’s boarding house.
So, Maggie goes to the hotel, in which Norton currently spends most of his time, to arrange to meet with the school board. While speaking with Norton’s secretary, the man himself enters the office and promptly invites Maggie to tour the building and then have tea with him. Maggie now has the opportunity she needs to speak her mind.
Read the early draft excerpt below to see what happens next.
The hotel tour had been interesting. She visited the administrative rooms, two private dining rooms, and an enormous ballroom. Now she was seated in the public dining room. Everything she saw had been well-designed and beautifully decorated – a far cry from her humble boarding house.
As Josiah poured her a cup of tea, he said, “What do you think of my little hotel?”
“Little?” She chuckled. “Mr. Norton, it is quite large! Larger than anything we ever have had in Blaineton.”
“And I assure you that in a short time it will become well known even beyond our town.” He smiled at her. “Our lodgings are every bit as comfortable and well-appointed as the best of hotels. You and your husband should stay here some time.”
“Mr. Norton, we live only a mile away. I hardly think we would have need to stay here. But I’ll take your word that the rooms are as you say. And I certainly shall recommend it, should anyone ask.”
Satisfied, Josiah sat back in his chair and observed her, which caused Maggie to feel uneasy.
“Mrs. Smith, about what do you wish to address the school board?”
She took a breath. “We have received two girls into our household. They are orphaned and… well, Mrs. Johnson took a liking to them, as have I. But they are illiterate. When we went to the school to register them for the next term, Miss Benny told us that it was impossible. You see, they are colored.”
“That is true, Mrs. Smith. We no longer accept colored children.”
Distressed, Maggie leaned toward him. “But, Mr. Norton, why not?”
“There are few colored children living in the area these days, and those that are here are being educated at a boarding school near Trenton or by their immediate families.”
“But why not educate them at our school?”
Josiah smiled at her as if she were a child. “Many of our families do not wish their children to associate with the Negro.”
Maggie frowned. “Why is that?”
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Smith. Everyone knows the colored race is inferior. They are of lesser intelligence. To have them sitting next to white children would only serve to slow the class down.”
“Indeed? Well, I happen to know that most of the people in Blaineton claim to be Christian. It seems they are conveniently ignoring Saint Paul’s words: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’.”
He smiled condescendingly. “Ah, but Saint Paul does not mention race, does he?”
“Mr. Norton, were not Jews and Greeks considered races back then?”
“But he makes no mention of color. The majority believe that putting white and black together is impractical. In addition, it would cause unimaginable upheaval.”
Maggie had to use all her strength not to snap at him. She took a sip of tea as she decided what she would say next. “If people do not know each other, how do we know it would cause upheaval? I share a household with colored people: Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the Register’s reporter Mr. Edward Caldwell, and now Addie and Mary Brooks. Mrs. Matilda Strong and her daughter stayed with us for several years before moving to Canada. Neither my household nor my life have been subject to upheaval by these friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, we live in peace and our lives have been enriched.”
“It must have, otherwise you would not have had a station on the Underground Railroad? Am I correct?”
A flush crept up Maggie’s face. “Mr. Smith, the Johnsons, and I all were – are – abolitionist.”
“Mrs. Smith…” Putting his arms on the edge of the table, Josiah leaned toward her. His tone was low and confidential as he said, “We found the tunnel. on your former property.”
Maggie did not blink. “The tunnel existed between the outbuilding and the main house to facilitate communication during harsh winter weather.”
“And we found the room located in the tunnel.” Norton’s brown eyes glittered at her. “It would be an inopportune time for this information to be made public, as far as your husband and the Register are concerned.”
“Yes, considering the temperature of the town these days.”
“I see.” Maggie folded her napkin and placed it upon her plate. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid that I must leave. My husband is watching our child and it is time I returned.”
She stood, but before she could walk away, Josiah said, “I don’t believe you need to address the school board now, do you, Mrs. Smith?”
Maggie met his eyes. “No?”
“Now that you know how things are, I mean.”
She just barely was containing her fury. “Yes, I know exactly how things are. Thank you for the tea.”
And, mustering all the dignity she could, Maggie walked out of the hotel.
What will Maggie do next?
Knowing her as I do, she is a determined woman, especially when it comes to matters of justice and love of neighbor.
Look for Maggie to find a solution, which most likely will not sit well with some of the town. Fortunately for her, Eli, Tryphena Moore (the newspaper’s indomitable publisher), and the entire family at Greybeal House will be there to back her up.