|Captain Childs was seated on the pier bollard
squinting up at the tenuous gray clouds whisping in the blue morning
sky, when the boy approached him. Towering above the wharf, and
swaying gently as the ship rolled in the morning tide, the heavily
rigged masts of the Katie Hines cast a fish net of moving shadows over
the old man’s leathery face.
The boy stopped beside the man and fingered nervously the black button
on his jacket. “Sir,” he asked, “can you tell me who’s captain of this
Captain Childs turned and looked down, blinking the morning sky from
his eyes. The boy was a scrawny Negro dressed in a torn and dirty
cotton suit. Below knee-length pants, lean brown legs were rooted in a
pair of large, high. top shoes, and at the toes, through the wet coat
of mud, peeked the bright glitter of brass.
“Cast adrift from home, have you, boy?” the old captain asked
The Negro boy released the black button and said boldly, “I have no
home.” Then he added earnestly, “Is this your ship?”
Captain Childs nodded his head proudly, and his long white mane
ruffled about his neck and shoulders as he spoke. “That she is, son.
The finest three-masted merchant vessel in all Baltimore. No, sir!
There’s nothing trimmer!”
Wide with great wonderment, the boy’s eyes followed the ship’s
graceful, sweeping lines from bow to stern. He tried to trace out the
intricate rigging of her tall masts, and he blinked with childish
wonder when his eyes were lost in the jungle of ropes and yardarms.
Emblazoned in gold letters on the bow of her black hull, glistened the
words, Katie Hines.” He stared at them emptily, for he could not read,
and they meant nothing to him.
That morning he had first seen the ship’s mast tips and topsail spars
swaying above the sunlit roofs of the ware houses, as he tramped
through the quiet cobblestone streets of Baltimore’s water front. He
had never seen a real ship before, and she was beautiful to him then
as he hurried through the damp street in search of her, with his eyes
riveted to the loose ropes flashing in the morning sun where they
dangled from their aerial trappings.
But now, as he stood beside the Katie Hines straining lazily at her
taut moorings, she was more beautiful than his childish mind imagined
a ship could be.
He turned to the captain, his eyes flashing with eager excitement.
“Sir—sir—” he stammered, “can I go to sea on her?”
Captain Childs smiled, then cleared his throat and pretended
sternness. “Well, now, that’s a big request. What’s your name, boy?”
“Matthew Alexander Henson, and I want to go to sea.”
“How old are you, Matthew?” The old man ran his large, wrinkled hand
affectionately over the boy’s woolly head.
Captain Childs pointed to the boy’s dirty clothes and his mud
spattered shoes. “Looks to me like you’ve been running in rough
“I walked all the way from Washington.”
“Because you want to be a sailor?”
“Yes, sir. May I please, sir, go to sea with you?”
The captain got to his feet and his huge, towering body dwarfed the
boy. His sun and salt-scarred face gave him the look of a heavyweight
who had battled the sea the better part of his life. Except for his
flowing white mane, there was nothing in his youthful, searching blue
eyes, his wind-toughened face, or his massive, squared shoulders that
revealed his sixty years of life.
“Now, tell me the truth, Matthew.” He laid a large hand on the boy’s
shoulder, and squeezed the bony shoulder gently. “What do you think
your folks would say about your going to sea on the Katie Hines?”
The boy’s large brown eyes looked up into the old man’s face with
honesty. “My mother and father are dead.”
“Did you run away from school?”
“I’ve never been to school. I told Aunt Janey I wanted to go to sea
like Baltimore Jack, and she said I could.”
“Did you live with your Aunt Janey?”
The boy nodded his head. “But she isn’t my aunt really. I washed
dishes in her eating place in Washington and slept in the kitchen. But
I wanted to go to sea, and yesterday she gave me a dollar and said I
“And “You walked all the way to Baltimore?”
The boy nodded his head again, and Captain Childs took him by the arm
and led him to the ship’s gangplank.
“You must be all tuckered out after that voyage of yours,” the captain
said, and he beckoned to one of the men on the Katie Hines’ deck.
Captain Childs patted the boy on the shoulder as the man descended the
“Mr. Tracy,” he said with extreme dignity, “meet my new cabin boy, Mr.
Matthew Alexander Henson.” Tracy smiled and bowed as the boy looked up
at the old captain with surprise and gratitude.
Captain Childs pushed him gently up the gangplank. “Now, Tracy, take
the boy along to my cabin and let him get a few winks. He’s been
running afoul some rough breakers.”
Mate Tracy led Matthew to the cabin and then, as he disappeared up the
companionway, the boy lay back and stared at the shaft of sunlight
pouring through the porthole at the foot of the captain’s bunk.
Overhead a large brass lantern swung to and fro with the gentle roll
of the ship and cut the shaft of sunlight on its backward swing,
showering the mahogany paneled walls with scattered gold reflections.
This was to be his new home; the magnificent cabin of a real sea
captain aboard a real ship! The thought spread a warm glow of pride,
wonderment and security through his weary body.
There was something about the cabin, something in the clean masculine
quality of it, and in the firm, strong fidelity of the thick, russet
mahogany walls and massive ceiling beams, that was like the nature of
the resolute, but kind and gentle white-haired captain. There was a
spirit of goodness and correctness in it all—a sense of completeness
and rightness of something finished that had waited to be done. It
seemed as though the captain had accepted the homeless Negro with the
patient reserve of a man who waited tirelessly to perform an act of
The boy closed his tired eyes, but before sleep came to him he was
seized with the thought of his stepmother and of his home, a squalid
frame farmhouse surrounded by desolate, sun-hardened fields. He tossed
and whimpered, and his slender body trembled with fear under the
Matthew Henson could not remember his mother, for she had died in 1868
when he was two years old. She had been the second wife of Lemuel
Henson, and no sooner had the earth settled on her coffin than Matt’s
father married Nellie, his widowed neighbor.
From these three unions, Lemuel’s progeny at his death totaled two
girls and four boys. Matt knew that he was Lemuel’s third child, and
was born on August 8 1866, but as he grew up he found it was confusing
to remember who were his full blood brothers and sisters and who were
not. He also found out that his father had been a bit careless in his
marital fidelity to his second wife, as Matt learned he had a
half-brother who was a year younger than he and whose mother was
Nellie. But no one thought much about those details in the lonely
regions of Charles County, Mary-land, where farms were scattered over
the land at five and six mile intervals and where the vital statistics
of birth, marriage and death were more hearsay than a matter of
As far as Matt’s ancestors were concerned, they had for a certainty
existed, but it was impossible to tell who they were. There was white
blood in his veins, just enough to lighten his skin to the ocher color
of a well fingered copper coin, but where it came from no one knew or
cared to say. There was a rumor that Josiah Henson was a close
relative of Lemuel’s. Local legends had it that Josiah Henson was the
original model from whom Harriet Beecher Stowe drew the immortal Uncle
Tom. Josiah Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland, and was a
Negro overseer on the farm of Francis Newman near Port Tobacco, but no
one accurately could say there was a blood tie between Lemuel and
The abolishment of slavery in 1863 did not affect the status of the
Charles County, Maryland, Negro to any degree. For years they had
existed in a semi-slave, tenant farmer plan with the white landowners.
They were usually free to roam the countryside and assist one another
in the harvesting of crops as long as they remained reasonably close
to their homes. But frequently the dark Maryland night was invaded by
white-hooded, terrifying night riders, who searched for groups of
wayward Negroes, or who brandished torches and shrieked as they
galloped through the night for no other reason than to instill in the
hearts of the Negroes the gospel of terror of white supremacy.
Therefore it was not an unusual thing for Lemuel Henson to move his
family shortly after his marriage to Nellie, out of the one room log
hut that had been Matt’s birthplace and into a new two story frame
house he had built himself.
Nellie, particularly, was proud of her new rise in the isolated
society. But her pride for her new home did not last long. When she
found herself with one child after another she grew weary of the whole
thing and began nagging at her husband and, in his absence, beating
Lemuel himself, although kind and generous to his family, was feared
and disliked by his neighbors. They admired his physical strength, but
always at a respectable distance, for they greatly feared his temper.
Lemuel was not a large man. His tremendous strength was confined in a
short body with a broad, thick torso, but he was as immovable and
unyielding as the thick stump of a massive oak, whose long firm roots
clutch the earth with an unshakable grip. He was intractable and
unreasonable, and would unleash a violent temper without any
Long after his death the neighboring farmers talked of the time Henson
became enraged by the friendly request of the three Homer brothers
that he cease feeding his cattle on their acreage. Without a word,
Lemuel broke the jaw of one of the dissenters with his steel-hard
fist, picked up another and hurled him at the remaining brother, and
then packed the three dazed men off, one at a time, and threw them
into the swamp.
One day, while bringing a load of wood to his farm over the
rain-washed wagon trail, one wheel of Lemuel’s ox cart sank to the hub
in a slushy pool of mud. Instantly, Matt’s father lost his temper and
he began whipping furiously at the beast in harness, and the ox
strained but he could not move the cart. Enraged, Lemuel seized the
sunken wheel and lifted it clear of the imprisoning mud and bellowed
and cursed at the animal to move on.
In the days that followed, the father became strangely sullen and
silent. No one knew he had ruptured himself when be had lifted the
cartwheel from the mud. He, perhaps, did not know it himself. Matt was
sitting beside his father in the doorway of their house when he first
noticed the thin stream of blood flowing from his father’s nose.
Gripping the door jamb, Lemuel tried to get to his feet. As he leaned
forward, blood gushed from his mouth. He lay back weakly and the blood
formed a large pool on the floor around his head. Nellie, frightened
and hysterical, did what she could, but the man died at the feet of
his thin legged children, who grouped around him, a circle of
bewildered, puzzled, tear-stained faces.
Lemuel’s death had little effect on Nellie, except that she became
even more surly and her beatings were more regular. She grew indolent
and became indifferent to the house and fields that were once her
proud possession. The crops deteriorated from lack of care, and she
drove the oldest children out to salvage the harvest as best they
could, while she set the younger ones, like eight-year-old Matt, on
mean and tiring chores, disciplining their clumsy failures with her
knotty, hard-spiked stick.
Matt spent three years under the cruel tyranny of his stepmother
before he decided to run away. It was a few months after his eleventh
birthday, and he reached the decision during the three days he lay in
bed unable to walk after the severe beating Nellie had given him for
spilling a pail of water on the kitchen floor.
He had often lain awake in the large upstairs room, listening, over
the sleeping sounds of his brothers and sisters around him, to the
talk of the men coming from the room below where Nellie entertained
them. There were always the sounds of a jug being passed around, of
singing and of noisy laughter, which was pierced by Nellie’s strident
giggle, and then, when these sounds had died down, someone would talk
of the fabulous city of Washington.
Matt did not know where Washington was, nor how far, but he gathered
that it was north of Port Tobacco. He knew the road in front of their
house led to Port Tobacco, so he decided he would go to Washington.
It was winter, but he would not let that, nor the fact that he had no
shoes and only a light cotton jacket and a flimsy pair of trousers,
detain him any longer in the house of his hated stepmother, One night
when the house was hushed and he could hear Nellie’s heavy breathing
coming from the room below him, he slipped quietly down the creaking
stairs and moved cautiously toward the cupboard.
He was stuffing his pockets with scraps of food when he heard Nellie
stir; then she spoke.
“Who’s that?...Who’s there?”
He heard her leave the bed and start across the room, and he ran for
the stairs. She seized him by the arm as he flew by and whirled him
around into the moonlight.
“What you doin’, Matt, stealin’ food?” She spat out at him, “You
damned little thief!” and she struck him across the face. She raised
her arm. “I’ll teach you,” she cried, and she hit him again.
Matt struggled free and ran up the stairs, and threw himself on his
bed. His face hurt and his body trembled as his heart beat wildly with
fear and anger. He covered his face, but he could still smell the
heavy odor of sleep from Nellie’s body.
“I hate her,... I hate her... “he sobbed over and over. He could hear
Nellie softly cursing to herself as she moved about the room below. He
ray listening quietly; his anger and fear cooled, and he fell asleep.
When he woke it was still dark. He felt on the table for his brother’s
knife, found it, and then sat up in bed and began cutting his blanket
into large squares. He folded the squares several times, wrapped them
tightly about his feet and ankles and tied them. Then, cautiously, he
stole silently out of the house and into the cold winter night.
All that night the boy tramped over the narrow, ice-coated wagon road,
terrified with the fear that he might be stopped by someone and
questioned, and eventually re-turned to Nellie and the paralyzing
beating he knew she would give him. The stories he had heard whispered
among the Negroes of the feared night riders haunted his frightened
mind. Looming black shadows became a dark horse and rider waiting to
dash down on him, and the sound of the wind rustling the brush was the
sound of Negroes hiding in the shadows from the terror of the
white-hooded riders. His thin blanket shoes became wet and cold, and
he ran down the icy road, sometimes to keep warm and sometimes to
escape the terrifying shadows that closed around him.
When day came, he left the road, still fearful that he might be
recognized or questioned by a passing farmer. He skirted the road
through the woods, but, when he could no longer stand the pain of his
gnawing hunger, he approached a farmhouse and asked for food. After
the woman brought him a plate of eggs, she eyed him curiously, and
slyly asked him pertinent questions. He bolted his food, and fled back
into the woods in a panic of fear.
He ran through the woods haunted by the vision of Nellie pursuing him.
He scurried across an open field and burrowed into a damp, moldy
haystack, and lay shivering from the cold and trembling with fear.
When night came he crawled from his dank nest and tramped off down the
lonely, frozen road.
Janey Moore, the sole owner and operator of “Janey’s Home-Cooked Meals
Cafe,” was a gentle, plump Negro, who shared her pitiful lot with
stray cats, drunks and hungry runaway boys with the same charitable
generosity she would have shown if they had been members of Deacon
Webster’s respectable parish.
“They’s all children in the eyes of God, only the homeless ones is
more hungrier,” Janey would say as she watched food and profits gulped
down by starving, penniless and wretched human beings.
That is why, when one morning Janey found a ragged, shivering and
hungry-looking boy, with his feet wrapped in muddy rags, huddled in
her doorway, she instantly took him as a token of the presence and
workings of God.
She listened sympathetically while Matt told her his story, and when
he talked of his stepmother, Janey shook her head sadly and said, “My,
my, she sure is a cruel woman!” Then she placed a second plate of
bacon and eggs under Matt’s wide and thankful eyes, and asked, “Has
you got kin folks here in Washington?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, without looking up.
“Well,” said Janey gently patting Matt’s hand, “I knows my duty to the
Lord is to feed His hungry little ones, and I doubts if He would ever
forgive Janey for turning you back into the cold.” She started to
remove the dirty dishes; then she placed them back on the counter.
“Can you wash dishes, boy?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Matt eagerly, “and cut wood and carry water...
Janey laughed pleasantly. “My, my, the good Lord sure enough sent me a
versatile man! Now, son, you got yourself a job, and you can start
with these dishes!”
The nine months Matt worked for Janey Moore, as dish washer and later
as cook and waiter, were happy ones for the boy. They gave him a sense
of independence and security. Janey, whom he soon called “Aunt Janey,”
installed a cheap little bed in one corner of the greasy kitchen. At
night, after she had locked up the restaurant and tramped off to her
own lonely quarters, the boy lay down on his hard bed and felt warm
and secure. He had a kind of benevolent friend in the woman. Never in
his hungry childhood did he ever remember being so close to so much
food as there was around him in the kitchen.
Wrapped in a dirty piece of toweling under his mattress was all of his
worldly wealth. Each week he placed the dollar and a half Janey paid
him in the dirty toweling, letting his riches accumulate to staggering
proportions. Never had he been so rich, and as the spring months
approached he dreamed of buying himself his first wardrobe.
The afternoon that Matt purchased the first new clothes he had ever
owned, he laid them out on his little bed and studied them
thoughtfully. He could not decide whether to wear the striped cotton
suit that looked like mattress covering, or the white, single-piece
one with the buttons all the way down the front, which the salesman
had called a suit of light summer underwear. He made up his mind,
dressed, put on his new high-top brown shoes with the magnificent
brass toes and strode out into the restaurant.
At first the customers just stared at him; then they nudged one
another and broke out into peals of laughter. Matt stood looking about
him bewilderedly, until Janey rushed up and pushed him back into the
“Matthew Henson,” she stammered in embarrassment, “don’t you know we
never wears our underwear on the outside?” She lifted her skirt and
tugged at her underclothes. “Here, boy, here is where you wear it,
like I do my petticoats.”
Janey walked boldly back into the lunchroom and silenced the laughter
with a stern scowl. "Don’t none of you ever laugh at that poor innocent boy again,” she
told them, glaring about angrily. “That’s the first time he ever had a
suit of underwear next to his skin, and it don’t do no harm letting
the whole world see it.” Then tier expression changed to admiration.
“But land sakes alive, did you ever see such a fine pair of shoes with
them shiny brass toes?”
In spite of Janey’s tenderness and unselfish affection, Matt grew
restless and discontented with his life in the shabby Washington
restaurant. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and adventure
that extended beyond the limits of Janey’s kitchen. Janey admitted
shamefully to her-self that the boy should have an education, but she
had grown more and more to depend on his help, until she felt she
could not afford him the time to go to school. And all the while
within Matt the urge to expand, to grow, to express himself, increased
It was Baltimore jack who implanted the idea in Matt’s mind that he
forsake Janey and the restaurant for a life at sea. Baltimore Jack had
once been a slave in New Orleans. The son of the plantation owner who
was Jack’s master was filled with romantic illusions of running away
from home and taking to the sea in search of the buried treasures of
bygone brigands. when he carried out his plan the youth insisted that
Jack accompany him. But instead of finding treasures, he lost his life
in a drunken knife fight in a Cuban rum house, and Jack, freed of the
bonds of slavery, signed on a merchant vessel and began a long and
exciting career on the sea.
At least, Baltimore Jack made it sound exciting to Matt, who listened,
enraptured by the daring of his older friend. As the hot summer months
came to Washington, Matt’s restlessness and his longing to follow an
adventurous life at sea grew. Lost in a daydream of men battling the
sea, the elements and themselves in a mad race for millions of
glistening gold pieces, Matt shuffled about Janey’s kitchen wrapped in
His loyalty to Aunt Janey would not let him speak of what was on his
“If you was a wee older, boy,” Janey said, “I’d say you was mooning
over a lady love.”
What was the use of hiding the truth any longer? “I want to go away,
Aunt Janey,” he blurted out.
“What’s the matter? Ain’t I been good to you?”
“It’s not that. You’ve been better to me than anyone I ever knew. I’m
anxious to see things...to see the world.”
“Sailing. I want to be a sailor.”
Janey turned her large brown eyes full on Matt. “I see! That big
blabber-mouth’s been putting ideas in your head. Things ain’t like he
says they are.”
“That’s who I mean, son,’ Janey said, nodding her head gravely. “All
that stuff about him finding treasures of gold, getting shipwrecked,
and them knife fights. That’s all poppycock, boy. He’s talking like
that ‘cause they’s the things he’s wanting to do, but not being a
white man he can’t.” Janey turned her back on Matt and measured sugar
into china bowls. “I’m not going to stand in your way if you wants to
leave. It won’t be easy for you, boy, ‘cause there’s things you’ll be
learning about your people which is easier to learn when you’re with
them. Maybe that’s why God made so many black folks, so’s we’ll stick
together and help each other.”
Puzzled by what Janey said, Matt remained silent.
“When was you planning to leave?” Janey asked as she set the sugar
bowls on the counter.
“Sunday afternoon. I’ll go to Baltimore and get a job on a ship.”
“All right, son,” she said quietly.
Sunday afternoon Janey came to the restaurant and helped Matt pack his
few belongings. Then she made sandwiches, and placed them with some
fruit in the bundle the boy had tied with a bright bandanna
“Never forget your Aunt Janey,” she said, and she bent down and kissed
When he turned to go, Janey called him back and hugged him tightly
once more, as she pressed a dollar bill into his hand.
“Now you... get!” she said through her tears, pretending annoyance,
“and don’t let me see you around here no more.” It was a brisk autumn
night that found Matt happily tramping the deserted road to Baltimore.
In him was an immeasurable sense of peace and courage. Among the
myriad dark shadows of the night he no longer experienced the terror
that had lurked on the icy road that led him away from his stepmother.
He no longer paused to listen, above the wild pounding of his
frightened heart, for the hoof beats of the riders who haunted the
night. His fear was gone and be was free.
He felt himself a single, infinitesimal life cell, freed and isolated
from the world. Guided by the starry sky, he was passing into a great
and beautiful adventure. Ahead of him, wrapped in the silent,
impenetrable mystery of the night, lay something to be discovered,
something to conquer. It signaled to him inwardly in the ineffable
sense of freedom that swelled in his heart. It beckoned to him in the
gentle scurry of the wind as it brushed across the treetops.
The day broke clear and sunny as he shuffled over the cobblestones of
Baltimore’s streets, hushed and wet with morning dew. He found himself
facing a long pier; at the far end was the figure of a white—haired
man, and beside the pier lay the Katie Hines, gently straining at her
End Chapter 1
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