is a gamble. Who has never heard that? It begins and ends with a gamble. A newborn, its tiny heart pumping an odd
fusion of differing bloods, finds soon enough the meaning of the word
“gamble.” It is Celine’s heart pumping that blood. More French than
Negro, she no longer resembles her distant ancestors
who slaved in the fields. Her rare beauty, her features small and
French, and skin the color of caramel, can open doors for her. She has
to take the gamble.
As she walked from
the barn to the chicken coop, the woman
unconsciously did two things—she watched the edge of the woods and
tugged the hammer of the Colt to half cock. The very thought of the
thing in the woods ever touching her again angered her and filled her
Her skin, the color of caramel—not burnt, but light—suggested she was a
mulatto and of about thirty years of age. At birth, she had been named
Celine Boudreaux Chauvin. The two surnames, both French, served as
heavy anchors—always choking her—a constant reminder of the two
different masters she’d belonged to during her short and troubled life.
For many consecutive generations Celine’s ancestors had been owned by
Frenchmen who had grown wealthy growing sugar cane on their palatial
plantations in Louisiana. Her mother and grandmother were also
light skinned, and evidently considered desirable by their lecherous
owners, but Celine’s skin tone was shades lighter than that of her
immediate ancestors. The progression of the lighter and lighter skin
color, spoke of long standing and abusive sexual relations forced
upon those who came before her by numerous previous plantation owners.
By the time of her birth, her tainted bloodline was almost of pure
“Mulatto” or “Quadroon” as such people of mixed blood were sometimes
called, were destined to live a lifetime of confusion—too white to pass
as a dark-skinned person, and not dark enough to be considered a
Negro. Skin color could be a blessing and garner special
attentions—or serve as a reason for an unrelenting disdain, born of
jealousy by fellow slaves. The unwanted attention of the white master
for his light-colored slave was always that of a sexual nature, while
her darker skinned brethren daily chided her as being the master’s
Celine had learned long ago, the lighter the skin, the more desirable
the Negro female seemed to be to the white man. Conversely, the darker
the skin of the Negro male . . . the more the white master feared him,
and the quicker the fearsome dark slave was delivered to the auction
Never did Celine or her mother toil in the fields. Such was an unasked
for benefit to such women and a reason for scorn from those of a darker
skin color. So, like her mother and grandmother, she saw to the varying
needs of their white owners and their palatial mansions. Such needs
could be those which required a hot fire for boiling wash water or of
things best hidden in the dark of night.
A handed-down history proved the three women, Celine, her mother, and
her grandmother, all light skinned, one lighter than the next, were
from a long line of mulatto slave women. Celine correctly understood
the curse of mixed blood had started long before her grandmother was
overpowered and used for carnal pleasure in the Louisiana sugar cane
fields owned by her master, a drunken French-Canadian named Boudreaux.
But records were never kept of such liaisons. No records meant no need
of denials of accusations by wayward men for the wrongs they’d done.
And with Boudreaux’s genes fouling her own, Celine was of the lightest
color thus far. Boudreaux’s illegitimate daughter had inherited
the hazel eyes of her absent father, his thin face and straight nose.
Her ears, small and tight to the head, reminded others of
those of the master’s, as well.
Her blood evolved into something more French than that of her long
forgotten ancestors from Africa. Boudreaux never admitted he’d fathered
a light skinned daughter and she never knew him as her father. She’d
been told many times by other slaves that she could pass as white, and
even as a French woman, and they had urged her to do so,
but the lack of a birth certificate denied her the chance to try.
Shamed by rumors spreading about him, Boudreaux sold his
caramel-skinned daughter—the proof of his betrayal of his wife—to yet
another Louisianan named Jacque Chauvin. Fearing financial ruin from
the rumors which continued, and in order to put them to rest, he sent
Celine’s mother to Fredericksburg to be sold at the weekly slave
auction. Rid of a child he didn’t want, and a mother who could still
tell secrets, Boudreaux thought himself clever.
Chauvin, born a French-Canadian, had fled a dubious past. Although the
child, Celine, was merely a toddler, a sick lust deep within him began
to grow. The desire he had for the young child frightened him, made him
nervous, but not enough to fight it. His decadent mind became clouded
with visions of a naked child—teasing, luring, with arms extended,
begging him to come to her. Desirous to keep the lovely creature near
him, he placed the newly acquired child in the charge of the head
Negress with instructions to teach his newest possession the ways of
the household duties.
As the years passed, Celine’s beauty grew, as did her master’s debased
desires. She developed into a well-endowed young woman and eventually
found herself Chauvin’s new house servant. Before long her duties
became something more than seeing to the needs of the house.
Chauvin, enamored of the beguiling creature, overpowered the teenaged
girl and in his own wife’s bed, had his way with her. Caught in
the act, his wife demanded he rid the house and his heart of the
threat, as she railed against the one female her husband wanted more
than the woman he’d married.
The auction house in Fredericksburg was faltering, business fluctuated
from heavy to hardly worth pounding the gavel. The easy money to be
made with the slave auction would never again be as lucrative as it
once had been. In the past, before issues of morality as they
pertained to slavery became the fodder for all conversation, the do’s
and don’ts of preachers, and the confusion of war, the unspoken desire
of all men of wealth was to own slaves—more than they
needed—black-skinned status symbols.
In the decade before the war began, the topic once used as a way
to brag of one’s wealth had become muted and discussed only in private.
Politically, the buying and selling of Negroes had become something
best left unsaid and deals were consummated behind closed and locked
doors. Self-serving interpretations of well chosen Biblical scriptures
regarding slavery separated the God-fearing men and women of the North
from their counterparts of the Southland. The country was fracturing
The fields remained as productive as ever, but the number of slaves had
reached its zenith. Rumors that the Federal Government was intent upon
freeing the slaves had taken root. John Brown, a small, swarthy, frail
man from Ohio tended the ever-growing vine of abolition and
railed against the rich southern gentlemen he felt hindered his
singular purpose in life.
The southern people hated the man and sought him. In fear for his life,
John Brown fled to Kansas with the ineffective mission he found within
the pages of his Bible. As the North and South chose sides, decisions
had to be made. In its present state, slavery was dying, the system
archaic, but not yet dead.
And the sandstone auction block on the corner of Williams and
Charleston Street in Fredericksburg suffered only the wear and tear of
children standing atop it slashing the air with wooden swords. With the
exception of an occasional auction, the sandstone block on the corner
became a silent sentinel to the past.
Tink Strickland swayed, drunk and sweating in the heat of the noonday
sun. The pavement burned through the soles of his boots, and the heat
from sun-baked bricks radiating from the surrounding buildings scorched
like a second sun, turning his already rose-red liquored face a darker
shade of red.
He’d counted the money in his pocket many times over. He scanned the
crowd to see who his competitors might be. He worried who he might
approach for a loan if he won his bid but came up short of funds. He
wondered if the small bank in Hopewell would really loan him the money
he’d asked for. They said they would, but he doubted they even had
money to loan.
Fredericksburg sweltered in the mid-summer’s heat and the hot, muggy
wetness of an Atlantic breeze wafted through the town as if God, in His
infinite wisdom, was punishing the small village and its inhabitants
for becoming one of the largest slave auction centers in all of
Virginia. Over a door behind the sandstone block at the edge of the
street hung a rough-sawn pine plank. Painted upon it in loud
circus colors were the words: SLAVE AUCTION EVERY SATURDAY NOON.
NEGROES FOR SALE. From a barred and shuttered storage room below the
sign, muffled cries and moans from the slaves inside ruptured from the
throat of the door each time it was unbolted and opened. A
sand-and-litter-filled dust devil danced around the sandstone auction
block, and gaining strength, broke free. Leaves, sand and paper
followed the invisible curse from God as it twirled and danced up the
street. Some saw the dust-dervish as a warning from above and departed
the auction before it started. But not Tink. He held his footing and
drank from an almost-empty bottle.
Delbert McBride stood soaking wet as sweat cascaded from his
hairline. His heavy jowls and the folds of a fleshy neck sagged
over the sweat stained collar of the shirt and tie he must have bought
when he was fifty pounds lighter. He stared longingly at the
brown jug of rye whiskey sitting in a basin of cool water on a three
legged stool behind him. Bending forward from his auction stand, he
nearly lost his balance. Regaining his stance, he took the handwritten
note extended to him by the owner of an aged and worn black man
standing at the base of the auction block.
“Genl’men. Any ah y’all what’s got any
interest in git’n yer’self a darkie today, step on up.” Delbert waited
for the crowd to respond. Two of the six remaining prospective buyers,
either disinterested in the lot of Negroes on display or beaten down by
the heat, turned and left. The old black man did not interest the crowd
of bidders and his owner helped the elderly man dismount the block.
Four bidders remained and Tink was one of those four. Without further
ado, Delbert ordered the next slave to be brought forward, but
again, no bid was offered, nor was any interest shown
in the middle-aged black man. McBride neither cared nor cajoled
the prospective buyers. His face indicated he could care less if the
auction continued or not and instead of one at a time, he beckoned the
next lot of two slaves forward, one male, one female.
Turning away from the prospective buyers, Delbert toweled the sweat
from his face. He ordered the unsold slaves back into the sweltering
holding cell and promised them he would tell their masters, drinking
and carousing at Dingle’s, to come and get them. As he told them the
lie, he checked the level of rye in the brown bottle again—in another
half hour, it, too, would be empty. And to Delbert McBride that meant
the deadline for the auction to end had to be moved forward. Due
to the excessive heat of the noonday sun, Dingle’s Inn at the far
corner beyond Williams and Stevens Street was already enjoying an
impressive amount of customers and on a day like this, they would be
drinking heavily. To Delbert’s way of thinking, they would be drinking
his beer and whiskey.
The lot Tink had waited for stepped onto the block. Only he and another
gentleman in a white summer suit now stood in front of the auctioneer.
The white-suited man had been glancing at Dingle’s doors, also. He
appeared to be as interested in the female as Tink but his chalky face
shouted “heat stroke.”
As Delbert called for “The Viewing,” the last of the two slaves stepped
forward—a young and light-skinned colored woman and a tar black and
mean looking young male. The woman lifted her cotton dress and
stepped upon the block. Tink watched as the age-yellowed skirt opened,
exposing her calf, her knee and a portion of her caramel-colored thigh.
His pulse increased as he gasped at the vision before him. The
loose-fitting trousers he wore began to bulge and his hands began to
His competition no longer able to tolerate the thought there was cold
beer waiting for him at the corner tavern, stood and trudged through
the heat to Dingle’s Inn.
Another wasted day, thought Delbert. He wanted desperately to be
finished with the failure of a sale.
“Mister,” called Delbert as he looked in all directions. “Let’s
put an end to this bullshit. Make me an offer on this fine looking
creature. Too fancy, too delicate to work in the field, but she’d make
a fine house servant. How much you gimme for her?”
Tink knew to the penny how much he had in his pocket—one thousand three
hundred forty-two dollars and thirteen cents.
“You want me to make you look good to your boss.
That it?” Tink asked.
“Well, you know how it is. Wouldn’t hurt none to get rid of some of
these darkies. Don’t want the day to be a wash.”
“Well, let’s talk,” responded Tink, who for the first time in a long
time, felt in control of something and intended to make the best of it.
“I help you, you help me. My wife’s mad as hell about me being here.
Make me look good to her and I’ll help you shine for your boss. I got
me five hundred forty-two dollars and, let’s see,” as he dug into his
pocket and grabbed the loose change, “and four cents. That’s your’n if
you’ll sell me both that high yellow and that buck over yonder,”
pointing at a young, hard-muscled black man of about twenty years of
age, and quickly thought his terms dangerous. “I kind’a think
that one’s a mean nigger. He always stares at you with hate eyes, does
Already in his hand, Delbert held a pencil and receipt book. “What be
your name, good Sir?”
From generations of frenzied in-breeding and the continued infusion of
dominant genes, Celine’s caramel color was set fast and unyielding. How
many times she’d been told that with all of her features, her color,
her eyes, the cut of her nose, silkiness of her hair, she could have
run away and lived the life of a white woman, or a fine French lady,
but such an escape was impossible and she knew it.
Tink’s first child by Celine was named Malcomb and the boy was cursed
with his father’s genetics. His skin was lighter than all of his kin
born before him.
Despite the continuation of the blood curse, Celine loved the boy and
found the world a better place with him in it. Tink’s drinking soon
became his second favorite pass time. With God’s grace—or curse—Celine
again became pregnant. Jacob arrived nine months later and on Christmas
eve. Foolishly Celine threatened to take her son and run. The
threat garnered her a backhand across her face. She fell backwards into
the corner, landing on the butter churn. When she rose she held the
handle of the churn, and wielding it like an axe she swung it
with a force intended to kill, but her aim was poor. With one
hand Tink caught the handle in mid air, and with the other he
grabbed her tiny wrist and twisted her to her knees.
“So. Lets see how it feels,” he snarled. With his threat came a cruel
As she lay crumpled on the floor, Tink drug out the bill of sale and
sneered at her, his clothing rancid with days old and soured sweat, his
breath foul with the smell of cheap whiskey, he said as he pointed his
bony finger at her, “You best remember who you are. You’re a nigger, my
nigger,” and read aloud the words . . . says here 'a mulatto Negro,
female,' and I’m glad as hell there ain’t no mention of the total
waste of a hunnert dollars I spent to buy you.”