Amos Fortune Free Man

Amos Fortune Free Man
Elizabeth Yates (1951)

Read to:  2nd - 4th grade
Read independently:  5th - 7th grade
 Amos Fortune, Free Man (Newbery Library, Puffin)
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     I was excited to read this book because it was a title I recognized but I really didn't know what it was about.  I was a little surprised that it is a biography.  I'm sure that this book has been on required reading lists for schools - and well it should be.  This book is a treasure in less than 200 pages of large type print.  Mr. Fortune was born a king in Africa but wound up a slave in the colonial U.S.  Through a series of circumstances he served more than his required years before finally getting his freedom yet he harbored no resentment.  He worked steadily and saved his money to buy the freedom of a woman he loved.  She died within the first year of their marriage.  As did his second wife yet Amos was not bitter.  he continued his whole life with a positive outlook, an unyielding faith, and a steady desire to help others.

     The story begins in Africa in 1725 when Amos, then called At-mun, was a fifteen year old prince of the Atmunshi tribe.  His twelve year old sister was a princess, in spite of her deformed leg.  "...-, [B]ut for her father's love - [the deformity] would have caused her to have been drowned as an infant.  Only the sacrifice of the imperfect to the God of Life could assure protection for the perfect.  But the chief had gone against his tribal code and sacrificed his favorite dog to keep his infant daughter and thus far the God of Life had wreaked no vengeance on him." (p. 5)  By early July of the same year he is in America.

   As you might expect in a book about slavery, there are bits of violence in this story.  It is minimal and always necessary (to illustrate the point) and, I suppose, as tasteful as this sort of violence could be.  Such as on page 9, when a band of slave traders interrupts an Atmunshi ceremony.  The chief is shot, in front of his children, written thus:  "The chief slumped forward.  All of the muskets but one had been aimed into the treetops."  I had read other stories of slaves such as Harriet Tubman, but it never occurred to me how the slaves got to this country.  I'd like to think they just volunteered to come and got first class passage for their journey but this book opened my eyes to the true transport methods and the three weeks they spent waiting in a pit. 

     When At-mun passed by his younger, crippled sister on his way out of their village he quietly speaks to her and is whipped because of it.  The author does a good job in conveying the sorrow and injustice without being too graphic.  "The slaver, bringing up the rear, came forward with his lash.  At-mun cringed as he felt it, but he uttered no sound, though for the rest of his life his back would bear the marks made on it by the white man's lash." (p. 12)

     On page 17 I got even more excited about this book with the hope that there would be expansive educational insight because in just one page the author described vines, flowers, "dense undergrowth of the jungle land", grazing goats, tribsemen, "canoes going down the river", "giant ferns and mosses", leaves, trees, monkeys, hippos, and more but the rest of the book, while insightful, was never so descriptive.

     Aside from descriptions and insights there are also religious aspects to this book.  As At-mun is leaving Africa, "he prayed to the God of Life - greater than the Spirit of the Night, older than the Spirit of the River, wiser than the Spirit of his father." (p. 20)  Once he gets accustomed to life in America he adopts a more Christian-based religion, the same as observed by his owners.

     His first owner is a Quaker named Caleb Copeland who bought him in a spur-of-the-moment decision.  Caleb asked what his name was and he replied At-min but the auctioneer said to call him Amos because it was, "...a good Christian name for a heathen black." (p. 33)  There are several times when we are told At-mun can barely remember his name, much less his language or culture.  I found this hard to believe since he had fifteen years of it before he was brought to America.  When I was seventeen I lived in Brazil for a year.  25 years later I still remember the language and culture even though, like Amos, I have no one with whom to practice.  (Well, thanks to the internet I email or Facebook but up to a few years ago it was sporadic letters or phone and a lot of one-sided conversations in my mind for practice).  Furthermore, I don't think he'd forget as quickly as is reported.  It was just a few months and he could barely remember his name!  Even with this, the book overall seems very credible. 

     His first days in America were reminiscent of Encino Man or George of the Jungle (yes, I'm a Brendan Fraser fan) - teaching the savage to behave in civilization.  When Caleb brought him home his wife Celia was very patient with him.  "She bade the boy come and like an obedient dog he followed her out of the room." (p. 38)  (Not sure how I feel about the dog comparison) and she demonstrated how to use a chair and bed.  Amos lived with the Copelands for fifteen years and was almost like one of the family.  They taught him to read using the Bible.  when young Roxanna was reading with Amos he spoke for the first time in English.   He was touched by a verse that said we were makde, "Kings and priests unto God" (p.41).  Initially I thought it just reminded him of his Kingly birthright but towards the end of the book I got the idea that the verse held a deeper meaning for him.  "The white man, in the person of Caleb Copeland, had become such a protector to Amos.  Amos looked to him with reverence and loyalty.  He did not want his life to be apart from Caleb's in any way.  As the working member of the Copeland family, Amos had his own dignity.  Apart, he would endure the separateness he knew many of his African friends endured because of their lack of status in the white man's world." (p. 56)

     For many years Amos attended slave auctions, hoping to find his little sister among the new arrivals.  Oddly it didn't occur to him that she would age.  (I wondered how he could forget his language but be confident he remembered her face.)  It wasn't until he was in his fifties, and he looked in a mirror, that it dawned on him that she would have aged and he couldn't look for a young girl anymore.

     Mr. Copeland had been about to set Amos free when he died so Amos got sold along with his other household goods.  He was purchased by a tanner named Ichabod Richardson.  Mr. Richardson was also a kind owner and taught Amos well the art of tanning, a skill that would support Amos well into his 70s.  Their relationship probably went so well because from the beginning Amos knew, "that no good came to a slave except as a reward for his behavior." (p. 55)  Amos also seems to be one of those people that have a strong sense of inner peace and joy (often from a strong faith).  He often sang to himself and, as Mrs. Richardson observed, "If you had a slave for no other reason than their singing, I often think it would be worth it ... and yet, so long as they're not free their songs are like those of birds in a cage." (p. 55) To which he husband replied, "He'll have his freedom in time, but not until he's paid me well for the price I paid for him." (p. 55)  Mr. Richardson was a Christian minister and amos switched to practicing Christianity as opposed to Quakerism which, Mr. Richardson thought, made a satisfactory return on his investment.  "It puzzled Amos that the white people put so much stress on Sunday.  Yet it seemed somehow similar to the stress they put on the color of a man's skin.  ...  He was to go to the end of his days without fully understanding the white man's attitude to the color of a man's skin.  But it did not trouble or vex him the way it did some of the other slaves..." (p. 56-57)  I think there are almost as many anecdotes and insights about slavery as there are about religion in this book which makes it somewhat educational in that regard but nowhere near a proper research book.  Like when Amos was sent to sell leather, Mr. Richardson gave him written permission to be "at large for a day" because if he were caught out too late he would be whipped (p. 58).  Thankfully, before he died, Mr. Richardson set up a way for Amos to buy his own freedom (as Mr. Copeland did not do before his death, causing Amos to be enslaved much longer).  He was almost sixty when he became a free man. 

     The book is broken into time periods and locations but unless you have an internal fact store of historical dates there are few clues as to what was happening around the colonies at that time.  Of 181 pages only three lines reference the Boston Tea party (apparently it did not affect Amos' life as it did Johnny Tremain's.)  I do not fault the author, obviously that was not the intent of the book.  There is only half a page about the war, primarily because by that time Amos was too old to fight.  Instead he fought his own war against slavery by saving money and buying freedom one person at a time.  There are several examples of the legal documents of such purchases - all of which are worded very oddly and cumbersomely to which even an adult brain has trouble unjumbling - much less a young reader.  The first two women he purchased and married each died within a year.  Finally he purchased Violet and her four year old daughter.  the book never explained about Celyndia's father.  Violet was much younger and the three made a nice family.

     During the years he was working to earn Violet, he traveled for his work and one night had to sleep in the stable with his horse because (supposedly) there was no lodging for himself.  when departing he paid one shilling for the stable stall rental.  "It was excessive but Amos knew that he could not question the white man's price.  Too often ill feelings were vented on a black man for no reason other than his color and his inoffensiveness.  Angry words could ensue and then the suspicion would be cast that the man might be a run away slave.  But against such occurrences Amos carried on his person the certificate o his own manumission" (p. 86)  I was surprised when the customer that Amos traveled to see, that did business fairly, that engaged in friendly conversation and was encouraging about Amos beginning a business in the area, later thought, "...those black people, nothing but children.  It's a good thing for them the whites took them over." (p. 90)  When Amos did move his family and business I was again surprised at the way it all transpired.  they arrived at the town they wished to settle in and Amos told the Constable he was looking for a tanner.  The Constable told Amos how far away the closest tanner was.  " 'Then it might be a fine thing for this town if a tanner settled here,' Amos suggested.  //  'It might be a fine thing for the tanner,' the Constable responded ...  //  'I'm telling you once and for all that we don't want you here, whatever your business,' the Constable said.  ...  He didn't care what the family of blacks did, whether they stayed or went.  He had done his duty to them and by warning them off he had freed the town of any liability for their support should they ever become impoverished."  (p. 102-103)  Amos thanked him for the advice but said he intended to settle there, and then the Constable and Amos got to work getting settled with a place to live and set up shop.  The community embraced him right away and there never seemed to be much animosity.  Celyndia soon began, "to feel that she could rightly go wherever the other children went." (p. 110)  Especially with Amos encouraging her "that the world was hers to walk through, to look at and rejoice in, though he was quick to remind her that the good things were not for any one person to have but for all to share together." (p. 111)  By the time Celyndia was 16 she "had many friends among the white children.  But there were times when she was made to feel uneasy at school because of her color and her different ways.  Violet, however, would not let her miss school.  Violet knew what it was to carry through life the heavy burden of illiteracy and she did not want Celyndia to bear that along with the burden of her color." (p. 149)

     And Amos experienced his difficult situations too.  One day a customer decided to pay less than the agreed upon price, and then threw the money at Amos so that he had to pick it up off the floor.  "But Amos would not go home while hate burned within him, so he sat on a boulder by the roadside" (p. 173) and watched a fire burn.  "hate could do that to a man, Amos thought, consume him and leave him smoldering.  But he was a free man, ..., and he would not put himself in bondage again.  So Amos got up from the boulder and walked home" (p. 173) and thought about Moses along the way.  Eventually we get a glimpse into the process of tanning.  I often marveled that Amos continued with such a labor intensive trade at his age.  "Amos' working week began at sunrise on Monday morning and continued until sunset every day through Saturday.  One whole day he kept free - Sunday, and that was sacred to churchgoing and to family life." (p. 119)  As most things were at the time, the church he and his family attended was segregated with special pews for blacks.  After some years he did gain official church membership, by vote of the elders, one of whom commented, "What a pity he isn't white.  He could do so much for the church." (p. 122)

     One of the most stressful times in the book comes near the end and occurs when Amos intends to provide financial assistance to a single woman with several children.  His wife, Violet, is strongly opposed yet at the same time recognizes that Amos once used his hard earned money to help her and Celyndia.  She wants Amos to use the money to buy land for the family, as he had originally planned.  Violet even went so far as to hid the money from him.  They both felt horribly guilty and conflicted.  It wasn't just that Violet wanted the money spent on her own family, she believed that giving the Burdoo family a handout would only keep them dependent on assistance.  "[Amos] wanted to help her in the only way he thought she could be helped.  He wanted to do it his way and he could not see that Violet's notion of letting the children earn some money could be of any present benefit." (p. 137)  After much soul searching by both parties, "...when Amos Fortune was in his eightieth year, he became a land owner in his own right and one of his life's long dreams was fulfilled." (p. 145) 

     In the end he helped the Burdoo family too when they became so poor that the children were sold out from under their mother, Amos bought the girl, who lived with them for a year before she died in Amos' arms.  Amos was glad she could die free but Violet reminded him she was never a slave.  Amos said, "She wasn't free when she was so poor.  She's gone ahead now with a smile on her face and a light in her eyes.  Frightened little girl that she was, she's left that far behind and she's crossing Jordan unafraid." (p. 160-161) 

     Amos, in his later years, imagined the day he would be reunited at the Jordan with his beloved sister and how he would tell her all the people he helped were in her honor and with her inspiration.  Towards the end of his life Amos began to pray for direction "to help free the white man and bless his own people." (p. 175)  He decided to make gifts to the two things that "stood out in [his] life ... Church and school." (p. 178)  He left money to buy a silver communion service for the church.  The deacon said the church had greater needs but Amos insisted.  "He had seen his vision and he must see it through.  For that holiest of moments that was shared by all alike, nothing could be too beautiful.  And he knew, too, that nothing he could give the church would carry further the whole meaning of his life." (p. 179)  Then Amos donated $243 for the school.

     Amos was buried in Jaffrey, NH and within a year, even though she was much younger than Amos, Violet was laid to rest beside him.  They were 91 and 73 when they died in the early 1800s.  it is reported that the silver service was used for many years and that the Jaffrey School Fund "is still in use". (p. 181)  Certainly $243 did not last 150 years but perhaps the author meant to say that the original fund established by Amos continues with other donations.

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