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Josephine Martin swatted at the dust bunnies drifting through the air in the attic of her parents’ house. The floorboards creaked under her father’s feet as he moved another box from the pile in the corner.
“Are you sure it’s up here?” she asked, anxiously peering over his shoulder.
“Here take this.” He grunted, handing her another box. “It should be. We haven’t gotten rid of anything since we bought the house.” He stopped, stretched his back and looked around the room. “We need to have a garage sale.”
“Let’s find the trunk first.”
Jo tried to keep the impatience out of her voice. She didn’t remember the trunk, but after having the same exact dream for the second time she needed to know if it was real.
Her father looked at her with concern. “I don’t mind helping you, sweetheart, but all this work because of a dream?”
“I know it doesn’t make sense but I had to look and see.”
Her father put down the box he was holding and gently grasped her arms. “Sweetheart, your mother and I are worried about you. You’ve lost weight since Oliver broke up with you and I can see from those dark circles under your eyes you haven’t been sleeping.”
Jo dropped her chin to her chest. “I’m so embarrassed. I thought he loved me and the whole time he was just using me.”
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
“The worst part is that they all knew. My friends, coworkers, supervisors—everyone knew he was seeing my best friend behind my back and didn’t say a word to me. There were pictures online of all of them out celebrating Oliver’s promotion and their engagement last night.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. A fresh wave of anguish washed over her, threatening to take her to her knees. “It hurts so much, Dad.”
Her father pulled her into a hug and she let the tears she’d been fighting fall.
They’d had a whirlwind relationship. Thinking about how excited she was telling her best friend Courtney about her handsome coworker made Jo sick to her stomach. Courtney insisted on meeting Oliver right away telling Jo she wanted to make sure he was good enough for her. Looking back now she could see the lust in Oliver’s eyes when Jo introduced him to her best friend. But she had been blinded by what she thought was love. She wanted to believe the fairy-tale lies Oliver was telling her.
She met Oliver when a consulting firm where he worked hired her. They bonded over being young Black professionals working as system architects developing computer systems for companies and organizations. Jo had never been swept off her feet before and it was thrilling. He was always telling her how beautiful and smart she was. He treated her like an equal in a career dominated by men. Until they were both up for the same promotion.
“I still think you should go back to HR and file an appeal.”
Jo stepped out of her father’s arms and shook her head.
“They’ve already fired me. They aren’t going to take me back.”
“If they knew about how Oliver stole your designs and passed them off as his own they would.”
“The head of HR didn’t believe me when I told him. I showed them my work and they accused me of stealing from him. The way Oliver framed me they could prosecute me for theft.” Jo bit back a sob. “He said Oliver asked them not to have me arrested, just to fire me instead. As if he was doing me a favor.” She shook her head. “Even if I could get them to believe me, I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t take their female employees seriously.”
Her father wrapped his arm around her. “I know it may be hard to believe it now, but you will be okay, sweetheart.”
Jo sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Thanks, Dad.”
She could always count on her parents’ support. Her dad was her biggest champion. There was never any doubt that if she told him about her dream he would help her.
She’d had the dream two weeks ago—the day Oliver shattered her world. It was of an elderly woman standing next to an old trunk in her parents’ attic. The woman opened the trunk and pressed her hand to the inside of the lid. “Your future is here,” she said.
Jo had the dream again last night. It was so vivid and seemed so real she got up and drove straight over to her parents’ house.
“Now, let’s see if we can find this trunk. I know it’s back here somewhere.”
It was a late summer Saturday morning and the sun cast a golden shadow through the small attic window while they worked. Together Jo and her father shifted the boxes out of the corner until a large trunk appeared. They pushed the piece into the middle of the room. She swiped away the dust on top. The wood glowed a warm golden brown, with dips and grooves that marked handiwork done without benefit of modern tools. The wood was arranged in a chevron pattern on the top. Clearly, whoever made it put a great deal of care into the project.
“Are you sure about this?” her father asked.
Jo took a deep breath, nodded, and pressed the latch. The creaking hinges released a faint musky smell and inside there was an old quilt that looked so fragile she expected it would fall apart if she picked it up. Underneath were pictures, cards, and letters scattered among other small items.
She pressed her hand against the faded floral paper on the inside of the lid the same way the woman in her dream had. There was a tearing sound when a piece of wood popped out behind the paper that covered it.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” her father whispered as Jo pulled a long thin tin box from its hiding place. She opened the lid and pulled out an envelope and another piece of paper.
Her hands shook as she read the writing on the front. In a bold script it was addressed to an Ada Mae Colton with A. M. Colton listed for the return addressee.
Her father knelt next to her, as she pulled two pieces of paper out of the envelope. She opened the first one and read.
September 7, 1860
I will refrain from calling you my dearest, as I know how those endearments upset you.
Halcyon is no longer a home now that you are gone. I can’t bear to be in the house with Julia. I have sent her to the house in Jackson and do not plan on ever letting her set foot in Halcyon again. Now I wander this house alone. Thoughts of you and our son haunt my dreams at night. It is the sharpest knife wound to my heart to hear that you have married, but I know it is for the best. I know he is a good man, as you would not settle for anything less and that assures me he will be a good father to our son.
War is coming, and I will have to fight. You should be safe where you are. I do not believe Illinois will join the Confederacy but guard your freedom papers closely. Enclosed are enough funds for you and your family to flee as far north as Canada if need be. I have made arrangements with my solicitor that when the time comes for me to depart this earth Halcyon will pass to you and our son.
You will forever be in my heart,
She opened the second piece of paper and drew a sharp breath.
Certificate of Freedom
March 1, 1859
I, Colonel Absolem Madden Colton, do hereby make it known to all that the female slave known as Ada Mae age to be known as about twenty years and her son known as Stephen age six months are free. They are no longer to be counted as my property nor can they be claimed as property of my wife Mrs. Julia Colton.
I hereby declare Stephen to be my son and heir. He is entitled to claim such rights and privileges as a free man of the United States of America.
Colonel Absolem Madden Colton
Halcyon Plantation, Colton, Mississippi
“I heard stories but I didn’t believe them,” her dad said.
Her father took a deep breath. “My great-granddaddy used to tell me how we were descended from a freed slave, a woman named Ada Mae Martin. She was free before the Civil War. He said his great-grandfather was a man named Stephen Martin and we had mixed blood. Stephen was the son of the man who owned his mama, a confederate general.” He shook his head. “I didn’t believe him. Who would want to believe that? It would mean…”
Jo wrapped her arm around her father, leaning against him. “It’s okay, Dad.”
Jo shared her father’s anguish, knowing that their ancestor had been forced to bear the child of a man who owned her.
His hand shook when he held the delicate parchment up to the light.
“Dad.” Jo spoke softly. “I want to go and see Halcyon.”
Her father looked at her with surprise. “It’s probably long gone.”
“Maybe—either way I want to go to Mississippi.”
His eyes searched hers. “Why? What are you hoping to find?”
“I’m not sure, but I know I need to see it with my own eyes.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
She stood on tiptoe and placed a kiss on her father’s cheek. “Thanks, Dad, but I think this is a trip I want to make on my own.”
He tucked the letter back in the envelope. “We better go tell your mother about this. Your brother and sister will be here soon, and we can talk about it over dinner.”
Jo suppressed a groan. The last thing she wanted to do was share the letter with her brother and sister.
“Thanks, Dad, but I’m going to pass.”
“Your brother and sister—”
“You need to stop making excuses for them. I’m tired of putting in the effort and not getting anything in return.”
“I hate that you feel that way.”
“Just because we’re family doesn’t mean we have to get along.”
“They may not act like it but they do care.”
“Dad, you know that’s not true. We’ve never been close. The twins share a bond that I’ve just never been a part of.”
Her father sighed. “I still don’t understand what you’re hoping to find when you get to Mississippi.”
“Maybe nothing, maybe a little bit of myself…our history.”
“You can’t run away from your problems, sweetheart.”
“You and Mom have always supported us kids and you’ve always given us a safe place to land. I want to do something different. I can use this trip to heal and figure out what I want to do next. I’m scared if I don’t take a chance on something new again I never will.”
Later that night Jo stood at her dining room table with a glass of wine, looking over the various papers, letters, postcards, and photographs that were in the trunk. Her father’s family history was laid out before her. She sorted everything into piles by date. There were WWII letters from her second great-grandfather. A small journal filled with notes detailing army nurses’ training from his sister. A registration card for the Pullman Porters’ union from Ada Mae’s son Stephen. And other mementos that spanned over a hundred and fifty years of history. But nothing more from Ada Mae.
Jo opened the letter from Colonel Colton again. War is coming, and I will have to fight. You should be safe where you are. I do not believe Illinois will join the Confederacy but guard your freedom papers closely. Her pulse quickened as if she were feeling the same fear Ada Mae must have felt on the eve of war, wondering if she and her son would be secure. She looked at the piece of paper that gave Ada Mae and her son their freedom. One aged piece of parchment changed her family’s history.
She spent the rest of the evening at her computer learning everything she could about Colton, Mississippi, and the plantation house called Halcyon. She found a grainy black-and-white picture of the plantation house. She leaned forward studying the image on her screen and the words in her dream came back to her. “Your future is here.” Before she went to bed that night, Jo booked a flight to Mississippi.
A few days later, as the plane descended into Jackson, Jo looked out the window. Instead of the vast fresh water ocean of Lake Michigan, she saw just a few small ponds and rivers dotting the landscape. She picked up her rental car and began the drive to Colton. The city quickly dissolved into countryside with stands of trees separated by farmland. The only crop she recognized was corn. She was a city girl born and raised and already completely out of her element. By the time she made the hour-long drive from Jackson to Colton, she’d convinced herself this was the worst idea she’d ever had. But there wasn’t much of a future left for her back in Chicago. Oliver was making sure everyone knew she’d been fired, eliminating almost all of her job prospects. She blinked back her tears and focused on the road ahead. Colton might just give her the fresh start she needed.
The green fields gave way to a small cluster of low buildings next to railroad tracks. She drove past an old train depot, following the GPS directions into a town square that looked like something out of a picture book from the 1950s. Downtown Colton was made up of four blocks with a park in the middle. On her way to the town hall she passed by the smallest library she’d ever seen with a little bookstore next door. The grand building took up one whole block at the end of the square. Jo pulled into a parking spot right up front and smiled. No one would ever have to circle the block looking for a parking spot in Colton. She got out and looked up at the large brick building. This was it, the first step in learning more about Ada Mae and why she didn’t get the house she was promised. A bright blue bird swooped down in front of her, hopping alongside of her as she climbed the steps. It cocked its head chattering at her with its bright red beak.
“What do you want?” She laughed at the little bird’s antics. “I’m sorry but you can’t come inside with me.”
The bird lifted into the air and flew right past her nose before darting away. Jo walked into the building with a smile. She was greeted by the faint musty smell of age combined with antiseptic cleaner that reminded her of her elementary school hallways. From the directory at the entrance Jo learned that all of the town services were here including the town jail and a courtroom. She shook her head with a smile, this really was like a town you’d find in an old TV show from the 50s. Looking down the hall she spotted the sign for the office and headed in that direction. An older White woman, her hair cut into a severe bob, sat typing away at an ancient computer when she walked in. She peered at Josephine over the tops of her bright red reading glasses that matched the lipstick that made the wrinkles on her pale skin stand out.
“Can I help you?” she asked, in a tone that suggested she wasn’t going to be much help at all.
Before she could answer, a younger woman who shared Jo’s same dark brown skin with close-cropped hair that showed off large eyes that were so dark they were almost black came through another doorway marked Mayor.
“Grace, have you seen the printout for… Oh, hello,” she said with a friendly smile.
“Hi, I’m Josephine Martin.” Jo extended her hand. “I’m here looking for…well I’m not exactly sure.”
“I’m the mayor, Mae Colton. Come on back to my office and we’ll see if we can figure out what you need.”
The administrative assistant cleared her throat. “Mayor Colton, I can take care of this for you.”
“Grace, I know you’re busy looking for the contract from the county for garbage disposal I asked you for two days ago,” Mae answered, with a raised eyebrow. “This way, Ms. Martin.”
Grace pursed her lips and glared at them as Mae led her past the front desk and into her office. Jo looked around and wondered if she had just wandered onto the set of Mad Men. Mae took her place behind a huge oak desk that dwarfed her petite frame. There were two chairs covered in dark burgundy vinyl to one side and a smaller version in front of the desk. “Take a seat,” she said gesturing to it.
Jo sat down and pulled the envelope from her bag. “I’m here about Halcyon.”
“The old plantation house? What about it?”
She cleared her throat. “I’d like to see it.”
“Well, this is interesting.” Mae sat back. “Can I ask why?”
Jo handed Mae the envelope. “I recently came across some documents that show my family has a connection to the house.”
Mae looked down at the handwriting on the front and drew in a breath. She pulled out the sheaf of paper and started reading. She looked from the letter to Jo and back again. “Holy shit,” she whispered. “Grace,” she yelled, still looking down at the letter.
Grace popped her head in the door.
“I need all the files you have on Halcyon, including the tax records, and current title holder. If you don’t have them, call the county office and have everything sent here.”
Grace frowned. “What do you need it for?”
Mae stared the woman down until the older woman stepped back with her lips pressed into a thin line.
“Sorry,” she grumbled when Grace left. “I was just appointed as mayor after…well, there was an incident a couple of months ago and the town was put into receivership. I was asked to serve as interim mayor and—” she held her arms out “—here I am. It’s been a bit of an adjustment for some people. We’re a small town with limited resources so there’s only one administrative assistant. Grace is used to working with Judge Beaumont and we’re struggling a bit to find our footing together.” She tilted her head toward the doorway.
Jo gave her a sympathetic smile. She couldn’t begin to imagine the challenges of running a small town. She could appreciate what Mae had to deal with as a young Black woman, trying to change the status quo.
Mae carefully folded the letter and put it into the envelope, handing it back to Jo. “You realize what this means don’t you?”
“That we’re related?”
“Yes, we must be cousins.” She smiled. “The roots of the Colton family tree run deep and are so damn tangled it’s hard to figure them out. But if you’re Black and you descend from one of the enslaved people who worked on the Colton Plantation, odds are we’re related.”
Jo held up the letter, pointing to Ada Mae’s name in the corner. “She could be your namesake.”
Mae tapped her lips. “I was always told Mae was a family name but I never knew who it was from.” She sat up straighter and grabbed her phone. “Are you free for dinner?” Jo nodded as Mae held up a finger. “Hi, Mom, I’m bringing company for dinner tonight. No, not him, it’s a surprise.” She hung up the phone and rubbed her hands together. “Now that that’s taken care of, let’s take a drive over to Halcyon.”
As they drove out of town Mae pointed out that the park across the street was named after Colonel Absolem Madden Colton.
“I have to admit it’s strange to see a park named after a man who owned our family.”
“Parks, monuments, and schools—the South is filled with reminders of the Confederacy,” Mae said.
“You’d think they won the war.”
“There are still folks out there who have a hard time letting go of the idea of a South that never really existed. They’re the same people who think slaves and plantations like Halcyon were just like what they’ve seen in old movies.”
Mae’s Jeep zipped down the road toward the mansion. She explained that Halcyon was only ten minutes outside of town and the way she drove it was even quicker than that. They turned down the long driveway and Jo got her first glimpse of the plantation. They pulled around a large oak tree that stood at the center of a circular driveway to the front of the house.
“Are you okay?” Mae asked when Jo took a deep breath, hesitating before she got out of the car.
Jo gave her a shaky smile. “I’m good.”
“I’m sorry we can’t go inside, but we can walk around the exterior.”
Wide upper and lower verandas were supported by four large columns on three sides of the house. The shutters that remained hung precariously at different angles, but the front door stood solid under the large arched window. Although worn with time and half overgrown with weeds, the house still had a whisper of how impressive it must have been. How could something that was once so beautiful and grand have been built from so much pain?
When they finished their tour, Mae turned to her. “I don’t get it—what do you think you can do with this place?”
“I don’t know yet. I can’t explain it but I feel like I’m supposed to be here.”
Mae put her arm around Jo’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s head to my folks’ place for dinner. They’re going to want to hear all about this.”
The wind rustled through the large oak tree on the other side of the driveway and the scent of eucalyptus filled the air. Jo could have sworn she heard a voice saying: “Your future is here. Welcome home, baby girl,” in the wind when she walked back to the car.
End of Excerpt