Home -> Other California History Books -> California Sketches - Second Series -> Uncle Nolan

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Uncle Nolan.

He was black and ugly; but it was an ugliness that did not disgust or repel you. His face had a touch both of the comic and the pathetic. His mouth was very wide, his lips very thick and the color of a ripe damson, blue-black; his nose made up in width what it lacked in elevation; his ears were big, and bent forward; his eyes were a dull white, on a very dark ground; his wool was white and thick. His age might be anywhere along from seventy onward. A black man's age, like that of a horse, becomes dubious after reaching a certain stage.

He came to the class-meeting in the Pine-street Church, in San Francisco, one Sabbath morning. He asked leave to speak, which was granted.

"Bredren, I come here sometime ago, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I has lived forty year, or more. I heered dar was a culud church up on de hill, an' I thought I'd go an' washup wid'em. I went dar three or fo' Sundays, but I foun' deir ways didn't suit me, an' my ways didn't suit dem. Dey was Yankees' niggers, an' [proudly] I's a Southern man myself. Sumbody tole me dar was a Southern Church down here on Pine street, an' I thought I'd cum an' look in. Soon 's I got inside de church, an' look roun' a minit, I feels at home. Dey look like home-folks; de preacher preach like home-folks; de people sing like home-folks. Yer see, chillan, I'se a Southern man myself [emphatically], and I'se a Southern Methodis'. Dis is de Church I was borned in, an' dis is de Church I was rarred in, an' [with great energy] dis is de Church which de Scripter says de gates ob hell shall not prevail ag'in it! ["Amen!" from Father Newman and others.] When dey heerd I was comin' to dis Church, some ob 'em got arter me 'bout it. Dey say dis Church was a enemy to de black people, and dat dey was in favor ob slavery. I tole 'em de Scripter said, 'Love your enemies,' an' den I took de Bible an' read what it says about slavery - I can read some, chillun Servants, obey yer masters in all things, not wid eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as unto de Lord;' and so on. But, bless yer souls, chillun, dey wouldn't lis'en to dat - so I foun' out dey was abberlishem niggers, an' I lef' 'em.!"

Yes, he left them, and came to us. I received him into the Church in due form, and with no little eclat, he being the only son of Ham on our roll of members in San Francisco. He stood firm to his Southern Methodist colors under a great pressure.

"Yer ought ter be killed fer goin' ter dat Southern Church," said one of his colored acquaintances one day, as they met in the street.

"Kill me, den," said Uncle Nolan, with proud humility; "kill me, den; yer can't cheat me out ob many days, nohow."

He made a living, and something over, by rag-picking at North Beach and elsewhere, until the Chinese entered into competition with him, and then it was hard times for Uncle Nolan. His eyesight partially failed him, and it was pitiful to see him on the beach, his threadbare garments fluttering in the wind, groping amid the rubbish for rags, or shuffling along the streets with a huge sack on his back, and his old felt hat tied under his nose with a string, picking his way carefully to spare his swollen feet, which were tied up with bagging and woolens. His religious fervor never cooled; I never heard him complain. He never ceased to be joyously thankful for two things - his freedom and his religion. But, strange as it may seem, he was a pro-slavery man to the last. Even after the war, he stood to his opinion.

"Dem niggers in de South thinks dey is free, but dey ain't. 'Fore it's all ober, all dat ain't dead will be glad to git back to deir masters," he would say.

Yet he was very proud of his own freedom, and took the utmost care of his free-papers. He had no desire to resume his former relation to the peculiar and patriarchal institution. He was not the first philosopher who has had one theory for his fellows, and another for himself.

Uncle Nolan would talk of religion by the hour. He never tired of that theme. His faith was simple and strong, but, like most of his race, he had a tinge of superstition. He was a dreamer of dreams, and he believed in them. Here is one which he recited to me. His weird manner, and low, chanting tone, I must leave to the imagination of the reader:

Uncle Nolan's Dream.

A tall black man came along, an' took me by de arm, an' tole me he had come for me. I said:

"What yer want wid me?"

"I come to carry yer down into de darkness."

"What for?"

"Cause you didn't follow de Lord."

Wid dat, he pulled me 'long de street till he come to a big black house, de biggest house an' de thickest walls I eber seed. We went in a little do', an' den he took me down a long sta'rs in de dark, till we come to a big do'; we went inside, an' den de big black man locked de do' behin' us. An' so we kep' on, goin' down, an' goin' down, an' goin' down, an' he kep' lockin' dem big iron do's behin' us, an' all de time it was pitch dark, so I couldn't see him, but he still hel' on ter me. At las' we stopped, an' den he started to go 'way. He locked de do' behin' him, an' I heerd him goin' up de steps de way we come, lockin' all de do's behin' him as he went. I tell you, dat was dreafful when I heerd dat big key turn on de outside, an' me 'way down, down, down dar in de dark all alone, an' no chance eber to git out! An' I knowed it was 'cause I didn't foller de Lord. I felt roun' de place, an' dar was nothin' but de thick walls an' de great iron do'. Den I sot down an' cried, 'cause I knowed I was a los' man. Dat was de same as hell [his voice sinking into a whisper], an' all de time I knowed I was dar, 'cause I hadn't follered de Lord. Bymeby somethin' say, "Pray." Somethin' keep sayin', "Pray." Den I drap on my knees an' prayed. I tell you, no man eber prayed harder 'n I did! I prayed, an' prayed, an' prayed! What's dat? Dar's somebody a-comin' down dem steps; dey 's unlockin' de do'; an' de fus' thing I knowed, de place was all lighted up bright as day, an' a white-faced man stood by me, wid a crown on his head, an' a golden key in his han'. Somehow, I knowed it was Jesus, an' right den I waked up all of a tremble, an' knowed it was a warnin' dat I mus' foller de Lord. An', bless Jesus, I has been follerin' him fifty year since I had dat dream.

In his prayers, and class-meeting and love-feast talks, Uncle Nolan showed a depth of spiritual insight truly wonderful, and the effects of these talks were frequently electrical. Many a time have I seen the Pine-street brethren and sisters rise from their knees, at the close of one of his prayers, melted into tears, or thrilled to religious rapture, by the power of his simple faith, and the vividness of his sanctified imagination.

He held to his pro-slavery views and guarded his own freedom-papers to the last; and when he died, in 1875, the last colored Southern Methodist in California was transferred from the Church militant to the great company that no man can number, gathered out of every nation, and tribe, and kindred, on the earth.

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