In Their Own Words
February 26, 1839
Fanny Kemble Diary Entry on Inability to Help Slaves
On St. Simons Island, Fanny Kemble Butler did what she could for her husband’s slaves, but Pierce Butler felt that was doing too much and ordered her to stop. In one of the most poignant entries of her entire journal, Fanny described the depression, distress, and helplessness she now felt:
“… I have had a most painful conversation with Mr. [a reference to her husband, Pierce Butler], who had declined receiving any of the people’s petitions through me. Whether he is wearied with the number of these prayers and supplications, which he would escape but for me, as they probably would not venture to come so incessantly to him, and I, of course, feel bound to bring every one confided to me to him, or whether he has been annoyed as the number of pitiful and horrible stories of misery and oppression under the former rule of Mr. K [overseer Roswell King], which have come to my knowledge since I have been here, and the grief and indignation caused, but which cannot, by any means, always be done away with, though their expression may be silenced by his angry exclamations of: ‘Why do you listen to such stuff?’ or ‘Why do you believe such trash? don’t you know the niggers are all d–d liars?’ etc., I do not know; but he desired me this morning to bring him no more complaints or requests of any sort, as the people had hitherto had no such advocate, and had done very well without, and I was only kept in an incessant state of excitement with all the falsehoods they ‘found they could make me believe.’ … I suppose, [Mr. Butler] is weary of hearing what he has never heard before, the voice of passionate expostulation and importunate pleading against wrongs that he will not even acknowledge, and for creatures whose common humanity with his own I half think he does not believe; but I must return to the North, for my condition would be almost worse than theirs - condemned to hear and see so much wretchedness, not only without the means of alleviating it, but without permission even to represent it for alleviation: this is no place for me, since I was not born among slaves, and cannot bear to live among them.
“Perhaps, after all, what he [her husband] says is true: when I am gone they will fall back into the desperate uncomplaining habit of suffering, from which my coming among them, willing to hear and ready to help, has tempted them. He says that bring their complaints to me, and the sight of my credulous commiseration, only tend to make them discontented and idle, and brings renewed chastisement upon them; and that so, instead of really befriending them, I am only preparing more suffering for them whenever I leave the place, and they can no more cry to me for help. And so I see nothing for it but to go and leave them to their fate; perhaps, too, he is afraid of the mere contagion of freedom which breathes from the very existence of those who are free; by way of speaking to the people, of treating them, or living with them, the appeals I make to their sense of truth, of duty, or self-respect, the infinite compassion and the human consideration I feel for them - all this, of course, makes any intercourse with them dangerously suggestive of relations far different from anything they have ever known; and, as Mr. O [Thomas Oden, Butler island overseer who replaced Roswell King in 1838] once almost hinted to me, my existence among slaves was an element of danger to the ‘institution.’ If I should go away, the human sympathy that I have felt for them will certainly never come near them again.
“I was too unhappy to write any more … .God will provide. He has not forgotten, nor will He forsake these His poor children; and if I may no longer minister to them, they yet are in His hand, who cares for them more and better than I can… .”
Source: John A. Scott (ed.), Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 210-211.