Benjamin Zook – A Short Story

“Benjamin Zook Carter! Put the tablet away and get down here right now!” a harried black mother called from the kitchen. “Breakfast is on the table and we have to go in five minutes!”

Ben knew how far to push it and mom had just activated the panic button by using his full name. A name he hated. He bounded downstairs and began shoveling his mom’s pancakes into his mouth. Between his fourth and fifth forkful he said, “Mom, can I ask you something?” Without pausing, “How come you called me Benjamin Zook and not something cool like Kayne or Keshan?”

“How old are you? Eight?” Mom asked.

“Come on Mom, you know I’ll be ten next week.”

“Ten, well I guess it’s time you ask your granddaddy about your name. How about we go see him next Saturday for your birthday?”

“Fun!” Ben replied after finishing the last of the pancake.

“Hi Dad,” Ben’s mom yelled as she walked into the small apartment.

“Ho ho, looks who’s here. Let me see you. Pretty as ever” as Ben’s mom hugged granddaddy’s bent frame. “And you Benjamin, I wouldn’t have known you. So tall now. Let’s see you must be thirteen.”

“I’m ten today granddaddy,” Ben corrected.

“My, my, that’s right,” Granddaddy replied with a twinkle in his eye.

“Dad?” Ben’s mom began. “Benjamin doesn’t like his name.”

“Oh really? So, you think it’s time he heard the story?” Grandaddy asked. “Well, I knew the day would come. Let’s sit around the table. Lemonade?”

A few moments later with tall glasses of lemonade in front of them, Granddaddy asked: “So why don’t you like your name?”

“It’s not like the other black kids. Deaza says that it’s a slave name and that I should have an African sounding name.”

“Uh huh,” granddaddy nodded. “I understand that. Some of our people have the name of their ancestor’s master. Others took white sounding names to fit in better. But not you, no sir. What do you think my name is?”

“I don’t know,” Ben acknowledged, “your just granddaddy.”

“Well, my name is Benjamin Zook Harrison. Sound familiar?”

“So, I’m named after you?” Ben asks.

“Yes and no. You see I’m named after my great-great-great-grandfather who was a slave.”

“And he was named by his master?  See Deaza’s right.” Ben interjected.

“Let me tell you about it and then you can tell me if you still want to be called Benjamin Zook,” Grandaddy answered.

This was, of course, a long time ago, somewhere around 1853. Several years before the Civil War and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Let’s keep this simple and say your great granddaddy instead of trying to get the right number of greats in there. Anyway, your great granddaddy was a field slave on a plantation in Mississippi. One day he ran away and went north. Now I don’t know all the details. I know he came north but couldn’t find a way to cross where the Illinois flows into the Mississippi river so he followed the Illinois awhile. At some point, he crossed the river, probably at the narrows south of Peoria.

No one is quite sure where but one night he holed up in a dairy barn and was discovered early the next morning. Now rumor had it that if a runaway slave could find the Quakers they would help them get to Canada and freedom. But your great granddaddy had never met a Quaker, all he knew is that they talked strange and dressed plain. The farmer that found him seemed to fit the bill with his plain clothes and impossible to understand language. But he wasn’t Quaker, but German Mennonite.

The farmer and his wife offered your great-grandad food and a place to shelter to regain his strength. But unlike the Quakers, the Mennonites were divided on what to do with runaway slaves. They had experienced their own conflicts in the old country having been hunted and persecuted for a time. The last thing they wanted was to create trouble with the law, yet their religion, especially the Parable of the Good Samaritan, told them to help this man.

A few days later the farmer and your granddad attended a meeting of the elders at their meetinghouse, that’s what they called their church building. The way I heard it passed down there was quite an argument. One side wanted to obey the state and turn your great granddaddy over to the sheriff. Others wanted to take him to a Quaker settlement a few days ride north.

Your great-granddaddy, tired of the voices he couldn’t understand, went out and rested in the sunshine with his back against the side of the building. One of the younger Mennonites, a son of one of the elders soon joined him in the sunshine.  This younger one spoke clearer English and explained to your grandpa what was going on.

They sat and talked for a while comparing their experiences until a young boy ran around the corner. It seemed that a slave-hunter had gotten wind of the meeting and was on his way to the meetinghouse to collect his prize. Your granddaddy was ready to run but the young Mennonite had a better idea and hid your granddaddy in the muck of an outhouse.  This was before plumbing. Outhouses were simple sheds built over a deep hole where folks went to relieve themselves. It was smelly, dirty, and fly infested.

Your grandpa found out later that the slave-hunter’s invasion galvanized the Mennonite elders into protecting him. When asked where your grandpa was hiding at they all stood silent. The slave-hunter threatened and cajoled them trying to find an opening in their wall of silence. He waved shackles in their faces and threatened to burn the place down. The younger Mennonite stepped forward and asked: “How much to buy the runaway?” This caused a stir. To own a slave was forbidden in their fellowship, what was this young man doing?

The slave-hunter thought for a moment. “Tell you what, I need a horse, a good draft horse to haul a wagon of captured slaves back to Mississippi. I’ll trade you a horse for the slave.”  This caused even more discussion among the elders. To help the slave-hunter seemed to be an even bigger sin. Your granddaddy found out later that the young man was recently married and only had the one horse. “Yes,” the young Man replied and a deal was struck.

That young Mennonite retrieved your grandpa from the outhouse and a few days later hired a lawyer to write up the writ of manumission which made your granddaddy a freedman. When the lawyer was writing the document, he asked for your great-granddaddy’s name. Your great-granddaddy didn’t want to carry his slave name any longer so he named himself after the young man that bought his freedom, Benjamin Zook.

“You see Benjamin? Your name is special. I hope someday when you have a son, you’ll also honor the man that bought our freedom.” Granddaddy concluded.

“Benjamin Zook,” the youngster whispered, rolling his name on his tongue as if to see how it tasted with this new information. “Wait until Deaza here’s this!” He announced.

Dale Heinold
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