An Unbreakable bond


The cherry and nutmeg-striped headscarf hasn't been worn in 85 years, but it is as easy for Nan Agle to envision as if it still were tied to her "Mammy's" head. The kerchief is bold and lively and radiates spirit.

Eliza's spirit.

Eliza Ann Benson, a former slave, helped raise Nan and her two older sisters at the turn of the 20th century. Before that, she defied the era (1880s Baltimore) and the odds to become the court-appointed guardian of her former white owners' four orphaned children, including Agle's mother.

Agle turned 100 last week, and her memory is fading. She can't always remember the way from the assisted-living center's lounge back to her room, but her memories of Eliza are detailed and sharp. "I never saw Eliza's head bare, you know. I never saw her without her headscarf," she says.

Long after Benson died, Agle grew up to become a children's book author and art teacher at Friends School for 14 years. She published at least 21 stories for kids. Agle's most popular children's series, the Three Boys books (co-written with Ellen Wilson and published in the 1950s), chronicled the adventures of triplets. But, her best-known book is Free to Stay, the only book she wrote for adults. The story it tells - Eliza's story - "took a lifetime" to write, Agle once said.

A party commemorating Agle's centennial was held Saturday at the Sykesville center where she lives. There was yellow cake and ice cream, bouquets of flowers emitting a dusky spring scent, and a proclamation signed by the nation's first couple, George and Laura Bush.

About two dozen of Agle's descendants and a few close friends came from around the country. There were old photographs and anecdotes about Agle's remarkable creative output; she continued to sketch nature scenes and write poems into her late 90s.

This is the favorite poem of her granddaughter, Jane Wolfe, of St. Petersburg, Fla.:

Going downhill fast

Don't know if I'll last

Till noon

Or past.

And, Wolfe's fondest memories were her childhood visits to her Nana at her Catonsville home.

"On a fine morning, Nana might say, 'Let's go outside and see if we can find some fairies.'

"I would never have thought to say to her, 'There are no fairies.' You would look for the fairies unconditionally. You'd ask butterflies, 'Have you seen any fairies?' But you would know for a fact that you were just playing."

Given Agle's still-healthy imagination, perhaps it's not such a stretch to wonder if Benson herself were an unseen guest at the party.

Benson's relationship with her former owner's four children and their children, formed a kind of circle. "She was there for all of my childhood," Agle says. Benson shepherded her young charges through their early lives. And Agle, in her way, helped to preserve Benson's life.

Free to Stay is based on Benson's life story, as she related it to a 10-year-old Nan on a summer day. The book, which first was published in 1985 and was reprinted by Arcadia Press in 2000, is based upon Agle's memories of that day.

Reading Free to Stay can be uncomfortable, and not just because Agle preserves a Southern, black vernacular in which all white people are referred to as "Marse" (for "Master") or "Miss." For instance, Benson reacts with indignation when asked if she's pleased that President Lincoln freed the slaves:

"Me be glad he turn loose all my people, turn dem outa house an' home, trained and untrained, young an' old, to root hog and die? Where dey go? ... Least he could do be ship 'em back to wherever dey come from so's deys could make a fresh start. No, he had to turn 'em loose widout even a mule to ride on."

In the book, Benson continues: "Freedom work both ways, chile. I was free to go an' free to stay. By dat time, wild horses couldn't pull me away from Miss Braddie."

Ira Berlin, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park and an expert on slavery in the United States, doesn't doubt the veracity of Agle's account. But he says that Benson's views were shared by a small minority.

"The number of black people who thought emancipation was a bad idea you could count on your hand," he says. "That just wasn't a prevalent opinion. Most people were doing everything they could to get out of slavery."

In 1840 at age 4, Benson was given to a baby girl, Anne Catherine Bradford Harrison, known to her family as "Braddie."

Staying on

The two girls became inseparable; when Braddie wed the firebrand journalist and author Edward Spencer, Benson turned down a chance to marry and have children of her own. She preferred to live with and work for the newlyweds. "It would never have crossed her mind to leave," Agle says. "She was a member of the family."

And that's how Benson saw herself, according to the book. When the 10-year-old Nan asked Benson how much she had been paid to cook and clean after the slaves were freed, Benson retorts that Edward Spencer "knew better than to insult me wid money. We all work together: him, Miss Braddie ... an' me. We a fam'ly."

In 1882, Braddie Spencer died at age 41 from tuberculosis. Sixteen months later, Edward Spencer succumbed to a kidney ailment.

The Spencers left behind two sons and two daughters. The house the family lived in on North Arlington Avenue in West Baltimore was sold to pay Edward Spencer's debts.

Four orphans

According to Agle's book, the four children were ordered to appear in Baltimore Orphans' Court. The judge who saw them wanted to send them to separate foster homes. When an outraged Benson protested, the judge agreed to place them in the same orphanage.

Benson then stood up and made what must have seemed a preposterous suggestion: That she, an African-American and a former slave, be made guardian of the four white children.

"The chillen are not orphans, Your Honor. I stand in Miss Braddie's stead now she and Marse Edward are both gone. ... I know e-zackly how she an' Marse Edward want dem reared, an' I am de onlies one on earth do know.

"Wid de Lord's help, I kin manage somehow."

Seated nearby in the court was the wealthy philanthropist John W. McCoy (his portrait is displayed in The Peabody Institute), who offered to contribute the then-substantial sum of $50 a month for the children's upkeep as long as they needed it.

The judge granted the request, and Eliza and the children went to live in a boarding house on Fayette Street.

The children thrived. Robert worked his way up from sweeping floors to supervising the Pennsylvania Railroad's warehouses in Europe and the United States - a position that netted him his own private railroad car.

Lindsly graduated from City College and became a farmer.

Katharine was a musician and received a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

And Emily was a pioneering female photographer, according to her great-nephew, Sidney Wanzer, a Concord, Mass., physician. "She was quite remarkable in her own right," he said.

When McCoy died in 1889, he left $200 a year for the next 15 years to the two Spencer girls, according to records kept in Baltimore's Orphans' Court. In 1904, Emily and Katharine were to split a final gift of $2,000.

The Baltimore Museum of Art owns a photograph of Benson taken by Agle's mother, Emily Spencer, and the Maryland Historical Society owns four more. But the historical society has no other documentation of the story, according to the museum's librarian, Bea Hardy.

'A grain of salt'

"You do have to take family legends with a grain of salt," she says, "But the story seems to fit the photos, and we don't have any contradictory information."

Once the children were grown, Benson went to live on Mosher Street in West Baltimore with Emily Spencer, her husband, Charles Hayden, and their three daughters: Ruth, Katharine and Anne - or Nan.

Benson died at age 85 in 1921, and her adopted family fulfilled her final wish: She is buried in the same plot as Edward Spencer and her beloved Miss Braddie in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery.

It's a moving story. Curators of Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in June, found it so touching that at least one photograph of Benson will be included in the museum's permanent collection.

Yolanda Pruitt, the museum's manager of external relations, knows that not everyone will agree with Benson's opinions, but said that doesn't make her story unworthy of preservation.

"It's part of our history," she says. "It's certainly not unheard of for African-Americans to have those feelings, nor does it diminish her story."

Free to Stay - like all of Agle's writing - focuses on familial love but steps around less pleasant feelings. Considerable anguish is implied in the book, but readers have to scan between the lines to find it.

Though at age 100, Agle suffers from dementia, she has moments of startling acuity, and her response when this observation is posed to her is one of them:

"Yes," she says, "the same as in life."

Agle's two published autobiographical sketches display the same tendency to emphasize the positive. Given short shrift are Agle's troubles: a neck ailment that forced her to drop out of Goucher College after her freshman year. Her divorce from Harold "Pat" Cecil in the 1940s after 19 years of marriage.

Happy memories

But she dwells at length on happy memories: an idyllic-sounding childhood. The two sons from her first marriage, the late Bradford Hayden Cecil ("Chip") and Harold Ridgely Cecil ("Ridge"), who lives in Neavitt on the Eastern Shore. Her happy, 33-year second marriage to insurance adjuster John Agle, who died in 1980.

Nan Agle even describes her first steps at age 10 toward becoming an author, when family friend and Newbery Medal winner Elizabeth Foreman Lewis would phone to ask about the various pets on the Catonsville estate.

"What has the donkey been doing?" Lewis would inquire, and in the next breath, instruct: "Write it down."

And so she did.

Free to Stay initially was printed in 1985 under the title A Promise Is to Keep (Zondervan, 160 pages) and was reprinted in 2000 by Arcadia Publishing ($18).

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