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A Revealing Interview with Terrell Dempsey, Author of Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World

by Jennifer Ciotta

Mark Twain expert Terrell Dempsey uncovers the truths of African American slavery in Hannibal, Missouri, Sam Clemens’s hometown, in Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World. The existence of slavery in Hannibal during Twain’s childhood and adolescence was rarely discussed until Dempsey revealed his compelling findings in Searching for Jim.  A lawyer running his own firm in his long time residence of Hannibal, Terrell Dempsey took time out of his busy schedule to discuss Searching for Jimwith Jennifer Ciotta of Literary Traveler.

Literary Traveler: Please tell us about Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World.

Terrell Dempsey: It is the story of slavery in the town of Hannibal, where Sam Clemens grew up. Literally, it is something I just stumbled upon.  We have a big tourist industry in Hannibal.  With Mark Twain’s success the town immediately started celebrating its connection with its famed author. Even though slavery was the theme with the Adventures of Huck Finn and Puddn’head Wilson, it got completely swept under the rug.  And I supposed, being the father of bi-racial, adopted girls, and as they grew up and starting becoming cognizant of the racial divides that exist in society, I knew that Missouri had been a slave state but there wasn’t any evidence around whatsoever.

So I began doing research and just found that this world looked very, very different in the years before 1865.  For instance, I was shocked to discover that though presently the African-American population in Hannibal is around 5 percent, yet in 1850 nearly a quarter of people here were slaves, in service to the other 75 percent.  If you want to understand Mark Twain, you have to understand the world that Sam Clemens grew up in.  And for any number of reasons that real story had been hidden.

LT: What was your inspiration for writing Searching for Jim?

TD: As I wrote in the introduction of my book, I’m an accidental historian.  Hannibal has a wonderful public library that has archives.  One of the most amazing, serendipitous events of my life was finding out that there were copies on microfilm of the newspapers from about 1848 to the Civil War.  Of course, this was extremely significant, because what did Sam Clemens do as a boy after his father died?  He was apprenticed to a newspaper.  He worked for at least 3 different newspapers here in town.  The most significant being right about the time he was 12 years old.

The family was poor when John Marshall Clemens, Sam’s father, was alive, but in dire straights after he died.  Therefore, Sam’s mother apprenticed him out to a newspaper.  Sam then went to live there as part of his apprentice agreement.  It’s kind of unusual for a small town to have caches of its newspapers.  The big New York papers were preserved, but if you go to most small communities they don’t have that, at least back that far.

What happened was in the 1920s, a cache of these newspapers had been discovered in the attic of a house, which was occupied by one of these newspaper men.  The man that discovered them realized their significance and gave them to the state historical society and put them on microfilm.  Nobody had ever worked the microfilm before.  I got in there and it was amazing the things that we uncovered, for instance, the extent of slave trading that was going on, the nature of slavery.

I’m an attorney, I work full-time, but I really didn’t set out to write the book, instead the story grabbed me and it had to be told.  I went to the local college and hired 2 history major research assistants, along with a couple of volunteers, and we went through and found everything dealing with slavery in those resources.  I kept tumbling onto other things, and sometimes in weird places.

One of the most interesting letters I found was for sale on EBay.  The seller was gracious enough to make me a copy and send it to me.  I went up to the New York Historical Society and sifted through the papers of John Rogers, who was a very famous sculptor in the 19th century but lived here in Hannibal in the early 1850s and was the offspring of an abolitionist family.  His letters back to the Boston area were very descriptive of the slavery that was going on here.  When he decided to become a sculptor, his first sculpture was of a slave sale.  Of course the only place he lived and experienced slavery was right here in Hannibal.  The story unfolded on me once I realized the magnitude of slavery in Hannibal.  It was just something I had to do.

LT: How long did the whole project take from the researching stage to the publishing stage?

TD: I don’t want to discourage anyone.  It took me a full three years with the help of three wonderful research assistants.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s like anything else you love doing.  The time just whizzed by while we were doing it.  The problems were all good problems.  I never fretted that sometimes at three in the morning that I’d wake up with an incredible insight and run to the word processor and start writing.

There is another big danger and this is not a joke either.  I was driving and talking with my wife about something I was writing and I ran a stop sign and hit another car.  When I talked to my editor, I was not the first person she knew who had done that.  But it’s true when you get into a project like this; it requires a life of its own.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity.  Like my father always said the harder you work, the luckier you get.  I had an awful lot of good luck in finding materials.  I had nothing but support from the academic community, the Mark Twain world, from academics to passionate hobbyists.  They were the most supportive group of people I have ever met in my life.

LT: What did you find out about Mark Twain’s relationship with slaves?  Who did he base the character of Jim upon?  Did Twain’s family own slaves?

TD: Step back because this is a 300 page answer.  Nobody knows who the character of Jim is based on.  One of the terrible things about slavery is that it made all those people anonymous since they were property.  Personally, I don’t think this idea that there was a real person associated with every character that Mark Twain wrote in a novel is a valid notion.  It’s very popular here and helped with the tourist industry, however no one knows who the model for Jim was.

Slavery was an integral part of Sam’s boyhood.  His parents owned slaves.  Sam’s father was one of those guys who always moved onto the next valley because the grass was going to be greener.  When John Marshall Clemens and his wife were first married, they had six slaves.  They were assets thus when his business prospects shrunk, John and his wife sold the slaves.  When they moved from Tennessee to Missouri in the 1830s, they only had one slave.  Evidently they moved to Hannibal with that one slave, but lost him/her soon thereafter.  John went broke and through a bankruptcy.

Slaves were always around the Clemens house.  The family leased slaves.  People do not realize this but in Missouri there was not an agricultural use for slaves.  Instead they were investments.  When you think of slavery in Missouri in Twain’s day, you need to think of slaves as investments, as our modern day 401Ks.  The way you got value out of slaves was leasing them to other people as household servants.  The best way to envision how common slavery was: having a slave in the house is like having an electric dishwasher today–virtually everyone middle class or above has one.  The majority of families in the county owned slaves.

You’ll see some people manipulate statistics. They’ll count slave owners and say that only eight to 10 percent of the population owned slaves. But that’s not the correct way to do it because the head of the family owned the slaves.  A family may have seven to eight members.  When we actually look at the number, way above 70 percent of the people owned slaves.

Thus, the slavery that Twain was familiar with was something he whole-heartedly endorsed as a young man. Though he became a progressive thinker on race, there was nothing about slavery that bothered him as a youth.  He certainly used the “n word” on occasion.  We have letters where he did that.  He experienced every aspect of slavery.  His father bought and sold slaves as an investment.  Twain’s father sued a man and got a judgment against him.  Since the man did not have money, Twain’s father collected his debt in the form of a nine year-old slave girl, and sold her at public auction.

At any given time there were up to a dozen slave traders in Hannibal.  Twain writes at one point about a group of chained slaves who were waiting to be put on a river boat, a common site at this time.  There was a smaller slave market in Hannibal, compared to New Orleans.  Slaves were purchased here during Sam’s time since there was a large demand for them in the cotton belt.

When you think of slavery in northeast Missouri, you have to think of it like so.  At that time, there was not a banking system as we have now with federal insurance.  It was risky.  Therefore, slaves were a good way to pass down your estate to your children as well as a good retirement tool.  Slaves multiplied.  Once a year your female slaves would reproduce thus increasing the value of your portfolio.  Then you would lease them out year to year, the contract lasting from Christmas Day to Christmas Day.  The person who rented the slave agreed to provide a change or two of clothing, a pair of shoes and agreed to pay for any doctor visits that were necessary–all for $25.  This was the world that Twain grew up in.

Sam also wrote about having to eat and sleep with the slaves.  There was a myth that there were slave quarters everywhere, but they actually generally slept on pallets on the floor, in the kitchen or in an out building or basement.  When you think of living arrangements for slaves, without sounding demeaning, think of how a dog sleeps.  They were expected to sleep on the floor, out of the way.  They had to be the first ones up to start the fire, empty the night chambers, etc.

However, Sam was a very sensitive person.  Later in life when he was famous and living on the East Coast, he was friends with abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, he would reflect back on these injustices.  In fact, he actually despised abolitionists as a young man.  When he was 18 or 19 years old, as a trick, he jokingly set up an abolitionist organization.  He wrote to the Boston Vigilance Committee from St. Louis, telling them that he had just been released from prison, where he was incarcerated for helping slaves escape.  He wrote that he needed money to live and they sent him $25.  It was a great joke at the time.

In another instance, Sam talked about a slave child who worked in their house who sang all the time.  It drove Sam crazy.  He asked his mother to make the slave boy stop singing, however, she told him that the boy missed his own mother thus she did not have the heart to tell the boy not to sing.

In 1853 he left Hannibal and went to New York.  Twain married into an abolitionist family and he had a change of heart.  He later wrote that all white people owe an incredible debt to all black people.  He wasn’t being abstract or theoretical–he had in mind things his family had done.  It is fascinating the transformation that Twain underwent.

LT: You uncovered some unsettling facts about slavery in Hannibal, but what surprised you most?

TD: When I thought of slavery I thought of agricultural, an Aunt Jemima figure.  Instead, the face of slavery was children working as domestic slaves.  It just appalled me.  Also, among wealthier families, white children were given slaves.  Can you imagine what it would have been like to be the slave of a 14 year-old girl?  That scares the hell of out me.

LT: Has the black community embraced or disputed your findings?

TD: Totally embraced.  I have been in every church in Hannibal.  I have spoken at Martin Luther King Day celebrations.  I am very close to the black community, especially the leadership in Hannibal.  I am very aware of the fact that I’m a white guy who wrote this story.  Are there a couple of people who wish a black person wrote it or think it’s ironic that a white guy did it?  Yes, but the overwhelming response was happiness that this story has finally been told.

The nice thing is that the Museum here in Hannibal has really changed, including the issues of slavery whereas before there was nothing about it.  Since the book has come out, it has changed the way everybody thinks about and approaches Sam Clemens in Hannibal.  It’s a more balanced story now.

LT: How large is the black community in Hannibal today?

TD: It’s about 5 percent of the population.  We have 18,000 inhabitants therefore around 2,000 are black.  It has really shrunk.  In 1900 it was over 10 percent but young people are heading off to the cities.

LT: Our February theme is Black History Month.  How do you think Mark Twain has contributed to black/African American history in this country?

TD: Huckleberry Finn is the first novel where a black character is really given a soul.  I’m not trying to be naive.  I know there are times in that novel when Twain is rather patronizing toward Jim.  It’s the first black character in American literature where he is a whole being.  And that is such a tremendous contribution.  Twain underwent such a radical transformation from his childhood.  Huckleberry Finnis a liberating novel.  For the first time a black man is something other than wallpaper, a caricature or a stereotype.

People get hung up from time to time about the use of the “n word.”  You just have to accept the fact that nigger was a word that was in daily, common usage.  And perhaps did not carry the explosive nature it carries today.  From my personal opinion to the consensus of literary experts like Shelley Fisher Fiskin, Mark Twain opened the door for black characters.

LT: Lastly, we are offering a Mark Twain Steamboat tour run by the National Trust in July 2007.  The main stop will be Hannibal.  How was Twain regarded here in his lifetime, and how is he regarded today?

TD: Hannibal has embraced Mark Twain since he left here in June of 1853 since his brother would print Sam’s letters from back East in the local newspaper.  There is no more beloved son of Hannibal than Mark Twain.  He always has returned to this town in his literature whether he calls it St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing–he would tell you that.  The good side of that culture still exists here.

We’ve wrestled with the demons of racism and slavery–we have overcome that to a large extent.  It is a better place for Sam Clemens having been from here.  If Mark Twain got off that steamboat with your literary travelers, he would feel right at home in Hannibal today just as he did then.