In Old Plantation Days

The Defection of Maria Ann Gibbs

There had been a wonderful season of grace at Bethel Chapel since the advent of the new minister, and the number of converts who had entered the fold put the record of other years and other pastors to shame. Seats that had been empty were filled; collections that had been meagre were now ample. The church had been improved; a coat of paint had been put on the outside, and the interior had been adorned by a strip of carpet down the two aisles and pink calcimining on the walls. The Rev. Eleazar Jackson had proved a most successful shepherd. The fact was shown by the rotundity of his form, which bespoke good meals, and the newness of his clothes, which argued generous contributions.

He was not only a very eloquent man, but had social attainments of a high order. He was immensely popular with the sisters, and was on such good terms with the brothers that they forgot to be jealous of him. When he happened around about an hour before dinner-time, and some solicitous sister killed for him the fattening fowl which her husband had been watching with eager eyes, Mr. Jackson averted any storm which might have followed by such a genial presence and such a raciness of narration at the table that the head of the noose forgot his anger and pressed the preacher to have some more of the chicken.

Notwithstanding this equality of regard on die part of both brothers and sisters, it was yet noticeable that die larger number of die converts were drawn from die tenderer sex—but human nature is human nature, women are very much women, and die preacher was a bachelor.

Among these gende converts none was more zealous, more ardent or more constant than Maria Ann Gibbs. She and her bosom friend, Lucindy Woodyard, had “come th’oo” on the same night, and it was a wonderful event. They shouted all over Bethel Chapel. When one went up one aisle the other came down the other. When one cried “Hallelujah I” the other shouted “Glory!” When one skipped the other jumped, and finally they met in front of the altar, and binding each other in a joyous embrace, they swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the hymn that was rising even above their own rejoicings, and which asserted that,

“Jedgement Day is a-rollin’ round’,
Er how I long to be there!”

It was a wonderfully affecting sight, and it was not long before the whole church was in a tumult of rejoicings. These two damsels were very popular among their people, and every young man who had looked with longing eyes at Lucindy, or sighed for the brown hand of Maria Ann, joined in the shouting, if he was one of the “saved,” or, if he was not, hastened up to fall prostrate at the mourners’ bench. Thus were the Rev. Eleazar Jackson’s meetings a great success, and his name became great in the land.

From the moment of their conversion Lucindy and Maria Ann went hand in hand into the good work for the benefit of the church, and they were spoken of as especially active young members. There was not a sociable to be given, nor a donation party to be planned, nor a special rally to be effected, but that these two consulted each other and carried the affair to a successful issue. The Rev. Eleazar often called attention to them in his exhortations from the pulpit, spoke of the beautiful harmony between them, and pointed it out as an example to the rest of his flock. He had a happy turn for phrase-making, which he exercised when he called the two “twin sisters in the great new birth o’ grace.”

For a year the church grew and waxed strong, and the minister’s power continued, and peace reigned. Thai as the rain clouds creep slowly over the mountain-top and bring die storm thundering down into the valley, so ominous signs began to appear upon die horizon of Bethel’s religious and social life. At first these warning clouds were scarcely perceptible; in fact, there were those unbelievers who said that there would be no storm; but the mutterings grew louder.

The first sign of danger was apparent in the growing coolness between Lucindy and Maria Ann. They were not openly or aggressively enemies, but from being on that high spiritual plane, where the outward signs of fellowship were not needed, and on which they called each other by their first names, they had come down to a level which required, to indicate their relations one to the other, the interchange of “Sister Gibbs” and “Sister Woodyard.” There had been a time when they had treated each other with loving and familiar discourtesy, but now they were scrupulously polite. If one broke in upon the other’s remarks in church council, it was with an “Excuse me, Sis’ Gibbs,” or “I beg yo’ pa’don, Sis’ Woodyard,” and each seemed feverishly anxious to sacrifice herself to make way for the other.

Then they came to work no more together. The separation was effected without the least show of anger. They simply drifted apart, and Lucindy found herself at the head of one faction and Maria Ann in the lead of another. Here for a time a good-natured rivalry was kept up, much to the increase of Bethel’s finances and its minister’s satisfaction. But an uncertain and less genial note began to creep into these contests as the Rev. Eleazar Jackson continued to smile upon both the ardent sisters.

The pastor at Bethel had made such a glowing record as a financier that the Bishop had expressed his satisfaction by a special letter, and requested that at the June rally he make an extra effort to raise funds for the missionary cause. Elated at this mark of distinction, and with visions of a possible Presiding Eldership in his mind, Mr. Jackson sought out his two most attractive parishioners and laid his case before them. It was in the chapel, immediately after the morning service, that he got them together.

“You see, sisters,” he said, “Bethel have made a record which she have to sustain. She have de reputation o’ bein’ one o’ the most lib’l chu’ches in de Confer’nce. Now we don’t want to disa’point the Bishop when he picks us out to help him in such a good cause. O’ co’se I knowed who I could depend on, an’ so I come right to you sisters to see if you couldn’t plan out some’p’n that would make a real big splurge at de June rally.”

He paused and waited for the sisters to reply. They were both silent. This made him uneasy, and he said, “What you think, Sister Gibbs?”

“Oh,” said Maria Ann, “I’m waitin’ to hyeah f’om Sis’ Woodyard.”

“Oh, no,” said Sister Woodyard politely, “don’ wait on me, Sis’ Gibbs. ‘Spress yo’se’f, ‘spress yo’se’f.”

But Maria Ann still demurred. “I couldn’t think o’ puttin’ my po’ opinions up fo’ Si’s Woodyard,” she said. “I’d a good deal ruther wait to hyeah f’om my elders.” She laid especial stress on the last word.

Lucindy smiled a smile so gentle that it was ominous.

“I ain’t holdin’ back ‘ecause I cain’t think o’ nothin’,” she said, “but jes’ ‘ecause I ain’t been used to puttin’ myse’f forrard, an’ I don’t like to begin it so late.” And she smiled again.

The minister began to feel uneasy. Figuratively speaking, both of the sisters seemed to be sparring for wind, and he thought it better to call the council to a close and see each one separately.

“Well,” he said hurriedly, “I know you sisters will come to some conclusion, an’ jes’ ‘po’t to me on next Wednesday night, an’ I will pass a kind o’ ‘view over yo’ plans, an’ offer a su’jestion, mebbe. We want to do some’p’n that will bring out de people an’ mek ’em give gen’ously of their means for de benefit o’ de heathen.”

The two sisters bowed very politely to each other, shook the minister’s hand, and went their different ways.

It must have been Satan himself who effected the result of having both women hit upon the same plan of action. Maria Ann was pleased at her idea, and hastened to church on Wednesday evening to report it to the pastor, only to find that Lucindy Woodyard had been before her with the same plan.

“I mus’ congratulate you, asters,” said the Rev. Eleazar, “bofe upon yo’ diligence an’ yo’ fo’thought. It must V been P’ovidence that directed bofe yo’ min’s in de same channel.”

Both the sisters were aghast They had both suggested dividing the church into soliciting parties and giving a prize to the one collecting the highest amount of money. Perhaps the Devil was not so much concerned in making their minds revert to this as it appeared, as it is a very common device for raising money among negro churches. However, both the women were disappointed.

“I’d jes’ leave draw out an’ let Sis’ Gibbs go on an’ manage dis affair,” said Lucindy.

“I’d rather be excused,” said Maria Ann, “an’ leave it in Sis’ Woodyard’s han’s.”

But the minister was wily enough to pour oil on the troubled waters, and at the same time to suggest a solution of the problem that would enlist the sympathies and ambition of both the women.

“Now I su’jest,” he said, “that bofe you sisters remains in dis contest, an’ then, instid o’ throwin’ the competition open, you sisters by yo’se’ves each be de head o’ a pa’ty that shall bring de money to you, an’ the one of you that gets the most f om her pa’ty shall have de prize.”

Lucindy’s eyes glittered, and Maria Ann’s flashed, as they agreed to the contest with joyful hearts. Here should be a trial of both strength and prowess, and it would be shown who was worthy to walk the ways of life side by side with the Rev. Eleazar Jackson.

Joyfully they went to their tasks. Their enthusiasm inspired their followers with partisan energy. Side bantered side, and party taunted party, but the leaders kept up a magnificent calm. It was not they alone who knew that there was more at stake than the prize that was offered, that they had more in view than the good of the heathen souls. There were other eyes that saw and minds that understood besides those of Lucindy, Maria Ann and the preacher.

Pokey Williams, who was very warm in the Gibbs faction, called from the fence to her neighbor, Hannah Lewis, who was equally ardent on  the other side: “How yo’ collection come on, Sis’ Lewis?”

“Oh, middlin’, middlin’; de w’ite folks I wok fu f done promise me some’p’n, my grocery man he gwine give me some’p’n, an’ I got fo’ dollahs in little bits a’readv.”

“Oomph,” said Pokey, “you jes’ boun’ an’ ‘termine to ma’y Locindy Woodyard to de preachah!”

“G’way Tom hyeah, Pokey, you is de beat-enes! How you gittin’ on?”

“Heish, gal, my w’ite folks done gi’ me ten dollahs a’ready, an’ I’m jes’ tacklin’ evahbody I know.”

“Ten dollahs! Wy, dey ain’ no way fu’ de preachah to git erway Tom Maria Ann Gibbs ef you keep on!”

The two waved their hands at each other and broke into a rollicking laugh.

The rally in June was the greatest the annals of Bethel Chapel had ever recorded. The prize decided upon was a gold watch, and on the evening that the report and decision were to be made, a hall had to be procured, for the chapel would not hold the crowd. A brief concert was given first to get the people in a good humor,and to whet their anxiety, and though the performers were well received, little attention was paid to them, for every one was on the qui vive for the greater drama of the evening. The minister was in his glory.

When the concert was over, he welcomed Lucindy and Maria Ann to the stage, where they sat, one on either side of him. The reports began. First one from Lucmdy’s side, then one from Maria Ann’s, and so alternately through. It was very close I The people were leaning forward, eager and anxious for the issue. The reports came thick and fast, and the excitement grew as the sums increased. The climax was to be the reports of the two leaders themselves, and here Lucindy had shown her shrewdness. Maria Ann’s side had begun to report first, and so their leader was compelled to state her amount first. There was a certain little reserve fund in the pocket of her opponent with which young Mrs. Worthington was somewhat acquainted, and it was to be used in case Maria Ann should excel her. Maria Ann made her report, reading from her book:

“‘Codin’ to de returns made by my pa’ty, which you hev all hyeahed, they hev collected  one hun’erd an’ eight dollahs; addin’ to that what I hev collected by myse’f, fifty-two dollahs, I returns to de chu’ch one hun’erd an’ sixty dollahs.”

Down in her lap Lucindy did some quick, surreptitious writing. Then she stood up.

“‘Co’din’ to de returns which my pa’ty hev made, an’ which you hev all hyeahed, they hev collected one hun’erd an’ two dollahs, an’ I, by my own individual effort” —she laid wonderful emphasis upon the last two words, “bring in sixty dollahs, mekin’ the total one hun’erd and sixty-two dollahs, which I submit to de chu’ch.”

There was a burst of applause from Lucindy’s partisans, but Maria Ann was on her feet:

“I forgot,” she said, “de last donation I received. Mrs. Jedge Haines was kin’ enough to give me a check fu’ ten dollahs, which I didn’t add in at fust, an’ it brings my collection up to one hun’erd an’ seventy dollahs.”

The volume of applause increased at Maria Ann’s statement, but it wavered into silence as Lucindy arose. She smiled down upon Maria Ann.

“I’m mighty thankful to de sister,” she said, “fu’ mindin’ me o’ some’p’n I mos’ nigh fu’got. Mis’ Cal’ine Worthington desired to put her name down on my book fu’ twenty dollahs, which brings my collection to one hun’erd an’ eighty dollahs.”

Mrs. Worthington looked across at Mrs. Haines and smiled. That lady raised her chin. An ashen hue came into Maria Ann Gibbs’ face.

With great acclamation the watch was awarded to Lucindy Woodyard, and in congratulating her the Rev. Eleazar Jackson held her hand perhaps a little longer than usual. Mrs. Worthington was standing near at the time.

“If I had known it meant this,” she said to herself, “I wouldn’t have given her that twenty dollars.” The lady saw that she was likely to lose a good servant. When the meeting was out the preacher walked home with Lucindy.

On the following Thursday night the Afro-American Sons and Daughters of Hagar gave a dance at their hall on Main Street. Maria Ann Gibbs, the shining light of Bethel Church, went, and she danced. Bethel heard and mourned.

On the next Sunday she went to church. She walked in with Mose Jackson, who was known to be a sinner, and she sat with him near the door, in the seat of the sinners.

The Rev. Eleazar Jackson went Lucindy’s house and they walked to church together. Lucindy had increased her stock of jewelry, not only by the watch, hot by a bright gold ring which she wore on the third finger of her left hand. But if Maria Ann cared, she did not show it. She had found in the tents of the wicked what die could not get in the temple of the Lord.


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.