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Trials and tribulations of slaves come to life [Commentary]

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There are no known photos of James Too, but here I am talking with him about his life as a slave in Maryland, and later in Texas, when he was a young man.

He tells me professional slavers captured him in west Africa, but isn't sure exactly where, because current African nations were more territories than countries when he was taken around the age of 12 or 13. He had gone into the jungle to collect wood, and, just like that, in a relative moment, would never again see his family.

He was tied up, marched to the waters, chained in a ship's hold and transported to a land called Cuba, he thinks — or maybe to a strip of land outside Georgia — he's not sure. But despite his misfortune in being snatched from his homeland, he did survive the passage, seeing himself as one of the lucky ones. He was alive. The unlucky ones had been thrown into the seas if they died or were found to be sickly. 

Wherever he was in this faraway land, he and the other survivors who spoke the same language were separated one from the other so communication among themselves was impossible. For two weeks to a month, they were seasoned — fattened up, says Mr. Too — to be sold at market. At the Baltimore auction, he fetched $250  — a good price — but girls fetched more, especially if they were pregnant. "They wanted the girls to breed," Too says. And a good-looking woman could bring upwards of $700.

James Too is a character brought to life by O.H. Laster, a West Virginia-born Columbia resident who has, in real life, lived, it seems, multiple lives. One of 14 children of a coal-mining family, Laster is a world traveler who served in the Peace Corps, taught psychology at two New York universities, traveled to 38 cities to rally support for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, worked for the National Institutes of Health and, in retirement, continues as a fitness trainer and Zumba instructor. This innovative man transforms before your eyes into a 150-year-old former slave bringing his memories to light.

"I didn't have so many problems in Maryland," he says. "Maryland was a schizophrenic state that was half-free and half-slave. Here, they treated you decent."

Too's owner, Mr. Donmerstast, was born in Scotland. His wife, who was from a non-slave holding family, taught Too to read and write, greatly increasing his value and allowing trust so he could work off the plantation. But when the Civil War began, the Donmerstasts sold James and their other slaves to new owners in Texas. Those owners already had a slave named James. Hence Laster's James became James Too.

The Donmerstasts, as well as other slave owners, saw that the North welcomed able-bodied black men into the Union army, and they never believed the war would reach Texas, which had seceded from the Union in 1861 and which functioned as a supply state to the Confederacy. So James Too and the other slaves were hidden from Union troops as they were marched to the Mississippi River, then sent on by wagon to Texas. James Too found his life far more difficult in Texas.

I stop here because James Too will share his life story during the Emancipation Day celebration of "Juneteenth — From Slavery to Freedom: The Trials and Tribulations of James Too" on Sunday, June 23, from 3 to 5 p.m., at the Bain Center. The free family program, which is presented by the Howard County Center of African American Culture, will feature O.H. Laster as James Too; African dance with Kwame-Ansah-Brown; singer Terry Burks; and Diane Brown as Too's interviewer.

For information, call the African American Culture Center at 410-715-1921. The Bain Center is located at 5470 Ruth Keeton Way, in Columbia, and can be reached at 410-313-7213.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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CultureFamilyJuneteenthMartin Luther King Jr.Peace CorpsNational Institutes of Health
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