An Interview with Maggie and Eli Smith
On 24 June 1864, I arrived in Blaineton, and was brought to the front parlor of Greybeal House, where I interviewed Maggie and Eli Smith
Janet: I’m so pleased that you two agreed to an interview.
Eli: Why not? It'll be an interesting change of pace being on the other end of an interview. (Chuckles) In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating.
Janet: Oh, I hope I’m not intimidating!
Maggie: I don’t believe you are.
Janet: Thank you, Maggie. Let’s get started, shall we? I understand you will be starting a school at Greybeal House.
Maggie: How did you find out? Did someone tell you?
Janet: Uh… yes.
Eli: It’s not a state secret, Maggie.
Janet: No, it isn’t. And don’t worry. The news isn’t common knowledge in town. Yet.
Eli: What paper did you say you were with?
Janet: The Squeaking Pips Weekly.
Eli: Clever name. Never heard of it, but clever name. Where are you located?
Janet: I publish in a remote part of New Jersey. (changes topic) Maggie, how did you decide to start a school in this beautiful old house?
Maggie: It’s a bit of a long story, but we recently found two girls on our property. They were homeless and hungry, so –
Eli (interrupts): So Maggie and Emily did what they always do. Invited ‘em in.
Maggie (to Eli): Well, it’s only right to do that. We’re called to love others as we love ourselves.
Eli: Yep. You two have so much love that Addie and Mary are now living here.
Maggie (explains to Janet): Emily fell in love with the girls. Nate, too.
Janet: Emily is your closest friend.
Maggie (smiles at her husband): Aside from Eli, yes. Nate is married to Emily. They have two children.
Eli: Four now, counting Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Do let me continue, Eli. (to Janet) Anyway, when we went to enroll the girls at Blaineton’s school we were told that colored children were no longer welcome there. Apparently, the School Board decreed that the races should be educated separately.
Eli: (rolls his eyes) Josiah Norton’s fault! He’s the Board’s president. Thinks he’s the biggest toad in the puddle. Actually, he’s a varmint of the first water.
Janet (writing): “Translation: Eli means Norton thinks he’s the most important person in town. Bit actually, he’s just a first-class creep.”
Maggie (disapprovingly): Eli!
Janet (continues): So the Blaineton School is for white children only now?
Maggie: Yes. And worse yet, the town is not providing funding for a colored school because there are only six children on Water Street.
Eli: Then Maggie and Emily learned that there was a private school operating on there.
Maggie: It was barely a school! The building it met in was on the verge of collapse, and the teacher was a young girl, who should have been in school rather than teaching it. So, after some discussion, we decided to start a private school for the children of Water Street –
Eli: Water Street is where most of Blaineton’s colored population lives.
Maggie: And that’s how we came to start a school here at Greybeal House.
Janet: So, you’re doing it yourselves? Do any of you have an experience in education?
Maggie: Well, it's fairly easy to start a school. People do it all the time, don't they, Eli?
Eli: Yeah. But some of 'em close two weeks after they open!
(Editor's note: At this point in time, it was still easy for anyone to start a school, even those without teaching experience. Many of these schools were small and catered to specific people, such as upper-class girls.)
Maggie: That won't be the case with us. We'll stay open. My sister-in-law was a teacher before she married my brother. And one of our household, Rosa Hamilton, wants to learn to be a teacher. We're excited and are making plans! We’ll teach basic subjects, but also offer opportunities for training – cookery, household management, carpentry –
Eli (interrupts): And journalism. Don't forget journalism. I hope we’ll have a couple of students learning the nuts and bolts at The Register.
Janet: You’re the editor-in-chief of the town’s newspaper, aren’t you, Eli?
Eli (beams): Yep. The Horace Greeley of the New Jersey hinterlands!
Maggie: Oh, do stop that, Eli. You’re an important man in our town, and one who has fulfilled his dream. (to Janet) He really has quite a voice in Blaineton.
Janet: What about you, Maggie?
Maggie: I? No. No, I prefer doing things quietly.
Janet: Starting a school for children of color is hardly a quiet thing, especially once word gets out. Do you think it will be controversial?
Maggie: It won’t cause much of a ruckus, I’m sure. Most people expect such a thing from me. They consider me eccentric.
Maggie: Oh, well... I... don't -
Eli (interrupts): I know why. She takes in strays. I’m a good example of that. I rolled into Blaineton, after some fine folks disagreed with an editorial and burned down my printing press out in Ohio. I was rootless, looking for a place to settle so I could start another paper. Then I saw this lovely little outbuilding on Maggie's property. Two stories. Room for a printing operation on the first floor and a bedroom on the second. I asked her if I could rent it. She said yes. (laughs) Do you know, I didn’t give her one penny for six whole months? And she didn’t say a word!
Maggie (smiles): I knew you’d make good on our agreement. Eventually.
Eli: Sweetheart, you have a habit of inviting in all manner of people in need, regardless of color – Emily and Nate when their place burned down. Carson and Grandpa when they were down on their luck. Matilda and Chloe, who were escaped slaves. And now Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Don’t forget Rosa. And I suppose Edward, too. But he’s was not down on his luck.
Eli: No. He just works for The Register and needed a place to live. Oh, and say, what about those folks from the insane asylum?
Maggie: Goodness! That was an emergency, and we got everyone settled elsewhere quickly.
Janet: Sounds like you practice what you preach, Maggie.
Maggie: I try to follow Jesus’ commandments to love God and love others. Love is so necessary. It’s what makes life worth living. It reveals itself in kindness and mercy and even justice.
Janet: I agree. I think if we made our decisions based on love, rather than on opinion, or expediency, or preconceived notions, the world would be a better place. I hope the town learns something from you, Maggie.
Eli: Don't worry. My wife is a powerful woman. She just doesn’t know it. Yet.
Janet: What makes you say that?
Eli: Because she really does love people. She really does care. And she’s fair, or she strives to be fair. And that’s powerful. She really could shape our town. In fact, she will shape our town.
Maggie: Oh, Elijah, no. I don’t think I’m meant to be a public person.
Eli: You should be. (grins at her) You will be. Trust me.
Janet: We have a term where I come from. It’s “Power Couple”. It means a couple that together has an influence over values, attitudes, and even politics. It seems to me that you two are becoming Blaineton’s Power Couple. What do you think?
Maggie: Trutfully? I don’t know whether to be humbled or horrified.
Eli: Remember, Maggie, your sister said you’re now in a position to have moral suasion.
Maggie: Money and position should not give one suasion.
Eli: Yeah, well, like it or not, that’s the way it is. (to Janet) If I'm reading things correctly, I think Maggie and I very well may find ourselves shaping our town.
Maggie: If that's the case, then your power lies in telling the truth.
Eli: And yours lies in love.
Janet: And that is what makes you a Power Couple.
Eli: We’ll see how that all plays out, won't we?
Maggie: Yes, I suppose we shall.
Janet: I want to thank the both of you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m sure my readers will be interested in what you have to say.
Eli (thoughtfully): Squeaking Pips Weekly… (suspiciously) Where did you say you're from?
Janet (abruptly closes her notebook and stands up): Oops! It’s getting late. I must go. Thank you again, Maggie and Eli. I’ll show myself out. (hurries out of the room)
Until Writing Wednesday! (Do you think Eli bought the explanation about where I was from?)
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder