Amos Fortune, Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

Yates became interested in the life of Amos Fortune when she noticed that his and Violet’s tombstones were the same height; traditionally, the man’s would be higher. Considering this to be an unusual expression of equality, she became curious about the man and conducted an extensive search for documents relating to him. The limited evidence available provided a bare outline of Fortune’s life. Yates chose to flesh out this outline with events, thoughts, and dialogue that indicate a deep respect for the man and his accomplishments but that create an impression of an almost too saintly man.

In the context of historical accounts of the treatment of slaves, Fortune was indeed fortunate to be sold in New England and to be bought by a Quaker family (although the book glosses over the fact that Quakers were supposed to be opposed to slavery). Fortune was never treated in a cruel manner either by Copeland or by Richardson. Each permitted him a certain amount of liberty and paid a small amount for his work which, as stated, was much less than they would have paid a white man. Eventually, Fortune did achieve the status of a free man, which most slaves were not able to attain.

In spite of these “fortunate” aspects of his life, however, Fortune was still a slave. The theme of attaining freedom and liberty from enslavement runs throughout the book. Nevertheless, Fortune himself refused manumission when the Copelands spoke to him of it because of the treatment and segregation afforded former slaves. When Caleb died before fulfilling the promise of granting his freedom, Fortune gracefully accepted his sale to Ichabod Richardson. Richardson taught Fortune the tannery trade and treated him well, but after twenty-three years of labor, Richardson obligated Fortune to work for four more years to pay for his freedom. Fortune agreed to this commitment without expressing resentment. It was not until the death of Ichabod that Mrs. Richardson remitted the debt and Fortune’s full freedom was granted on May 9, 1769. He was almost sixty years old.

Throughout his forty-four years of slavery, Fortune never expressed bitterness about his bondage. Even after gaining his freedom, he accepted without rancor the constable’s warning not to settle in Jaffrey and the allotment of separate pews in the church gallery, although he was accepted as a member. No emotions were evident in Fortune when racial slurs were spoken to him. It was not until near the end of his life that he briefly expressed hatred for the way in which he was treated by a white man.

Although his beloved sister Ath-mun was not taken by the slavers because of her lameness, Fortune dreamed of her arrival and saved money so that he could set her free. She never appeared, but three times he saved to purchase the freedom of the women he married. Neither of the first two women was in good health, and they did not survive a year of marriage. The third marriage, however, proved to be more successful. The purchase of Violet Baldwin included her four-year-old daughter, Celyndia. Violet and Celyndia accompanied Fortune to Jaffrey and helped him to establish a tannery. Thus, Fortune secured freedom for four slaves without complaining about the ill treatment that caused the early deaths of his first two wives or about the exorbitant prices that he was asked to pay.

Fortune completely embraced Christianity, which may help to explain his attitude and actions. He was considered a leader by other slaves but never plotted to run away or rebel; he counseled waiting for the day when freedom would come. He believed that education would resolve the treatment experienced by African Americans, and the fund for Jaffrey schools established in his will was intended to help “free” whites and “bless” his own people. Although the theme of freedom and its attainment pervades this book, Fortune is not portrayed as a fighter. He is, rather, an example in the nonviolent tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.

When Fortune, Violet, and Celyndia moved to Jaffrey, the nearby Monadnock Mountain became significant in terms of its physical and symbolic presence. Monadnock is Indian for “the mountain that stands alone.” Fortune held conversations with the mountain and looked to it for signs to help in decision making. “Stands alone” could be the theme of Fortune’s life, as he stood alone in the face of adversity and as he stood alone in accomplishment and spirit among the heroes of his time. A measure of the sentiment felt by his contemporaries may be seen in the words chosen by Parson Laban Ainsworth for Fortune’s tombstone: “Sacred to the memory of Amos Fortune who was born free in Africa a slave in America he purchased liberty professed Christianity lived reputably and died hopefully Nov. 17, 1801.”

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