NOTICE: Ethel Wells is a character from The Underground Railroad. This interview examines her internal thoughts, childhood, and experiences throughout the book. I highly recommend The Underground Railroad.
Ethel and I were sitting in a spacious room with blank walls.
Q: Good morning, Ethel., It’s great to have you with us today. How are you?
A: Hello, I’m a bit bruised up, but I’m doing fine.
Q: I’d like to ask you a couple questions about your life. Feel free to stop me if you get uncomfortable about answering any of the questions.
Ethel nods and takes a sip of water.
Q: Tell me about your childhood.
A: I grew up middle class in Virginia. Our family owned a tobacco plantation, so we were pretty well off. The house I grew up in was one of those typical white farmhouses with maroon brick windows. I didn’t go to school, but my father got me a tutor to teach me the basics of reading and writing as well as the truths of Christ. I grew up with His kind light upon my face. Great!
Q: I read in the book that you had a rather special relationship with a girl called Jasmine? Could you tell me more about your friendship?
A: Well, I — we — She was like a sister to me Creative!. My father recieved her mother, Felice, as a present and she later gave birth to Jasmine. I grew up in a pretty vacant house and I didn’t have any other siblings, so Jasmine and I were playmates. Sometimes, we played missionary and native. I would be the missionary bringing the Lord’s light and wisdom to her. But that game never lasted long.
Ethel paused for a couple seconds, looking deep in thought.
The scene behind us switched to a little white girl and a little black girl in a darkened room. The white girl was wearing an apron and she gave the black girl a kiss on the cheek before handing her a plate of mudpies.
Ethel glanced at the scene around her and blushed.
Uh, we use to always play husband and wife and practice kisses and arguments. It was just fun and games, nothing serious.
Q: Did you guys stay friends throughout adolescence?
A: So, I used to think that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family. But, my father made sure that I knew who slaves really were.
Q: What did he teach you?
A: He told me that they were descendents of cursed black Ham. They survived the Flood by clinging to the peaks of a mountain in Africa. On my eighth birthday, he forbade me from playing with Jasmine ever again. After that, we hardly spoke outside of household stuff.
The scene suddenly switched to a stairwell. A middle aged white man climbed the rickety stairs with a candle in his hands, and his white bedclothes disappeared into a corner. . Beside me, Ethel took in a gasp of air.
Q: Ethel, why was your father going upstairs?
A: She lived upstairs, Jasmine did, all the black slaves did. I was so young when I first caught him going upstairs. I wasn’t sure– no I kind of had an idea of what he was doing but I refuse to believe it. The gap between upstairs and downstairs can only be healed by the bible and His word. I–I don’t want to talk about this anymore.
The spacious white room returned around us.
Q: That’s fine. Have you always known what you wanted to do in life?
A: Yes, I’ve always wanted to deliver the Lord’s light to the savages in dark Africa. I use to have this reoccurring dream in which a ship would take me through the violent seas, the perilous mountains, the lions, and the man-killing plants to a village. The natives there would receive me as an emissary of the lord, and praise me as someone who brought civilization to them and liberated them from their sins.
Q: Wow, that all sounds extremely profound goal for an eight-year-old.
A: Yeah, it was, but I didn’t succeed. My father suggested that I go teach school to little children if I wanted my fill of savages. So I did, and I did not get an opportunity to accomplish my goal in life until Cora showed up.
Q: Yeah, can you please tell us more about that.
A: I’m not exactly sure where to start.
Q: How was your relationship with Martin?
A: We were introduced to each other by one of my cousins who worked at the shipping company. I settled and accepted Martin’s hand in marriage because I was so tired of the old maiden gossip around me. It wasn’t true love or anything. It was more of an arrangement for convenience than anything else.I knew that I was never going to find happiness in marriage anyways. Every other one of my dreams had died so I figured, what’s one more? Really interesting!. Little did I know, the marriage caused even more trouble.
Q: How come?
The scene around us changed once more, and this time, Martin stood in front of us with his bushy beard, and stared thoughtfully at the big orange envelope in his hands. Ethel glanced at her husband with a conflicted expression somewhere between fear and disdain. Outside the window behind Martin, a mob of people formed a ring around a big oak tree and sounds of celebration and excitement drifted into the room.
A: I still remembered the first time one of those people knocked on our front door. I was making a chicken pot pie in the kitchen when a tall, skinny man came into our living room, handed Martin an envelope, and went out the way he came in. If I had known that Martin’s father had left him the burden of working on the railway with those sympathizers, I would have never married him. He was so selfish, putting both our lives on the line in North Carolina. Do you know what the residents in North Carolina did to sympathizers? Strung them up and hung them in public. That’s what they did. But Martin didn’t care, he just kept bringing them into our home. I lived in constant fear of being discovered for the last five years of my life.
Q: I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m sure that the people who you helped by giving them food and shelter were very grateful for what you’ve done for them. While we are on the topic, what are your opinions on slavery?
A: I’ve never thought much about the moral aspect of slavery. If God hadn’t wanted the Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains Great!. I had none of that high minded Great word choice! ideas that Martin sacrificed both our lives for. I just wanted to live my life in peace.
Q: Then why did you decide to help Cora when you saw her lying in the attic convulsing in illness?
The room around us turned dark and the ceilings swooped low over our heads. On the dusty attic floor, Cora curled up in a ball and cold sweat beaded on her forehead. Occasionally, low moans would escape her trembling lips.
A: Honestly, I’m not sure what got over me. I guess some of my childhood dreams resurfaced. I was sure that it was a sign from God. He knew that I couldn’t go to Africa, so instead, he sent Africa to me. For three whole days, I sat beside my savage. I fed her food and water, and read the Lord’s wisdom to her to expedite her recovery. Cora was actually more intelligent than I’ve imagined her kind to be.
Q: One last question, this might be a bit difficult for you to talk about, but what was the last thought that crossed your mind before your death?
A: Um, I’m not exactly sure what my last thought was. I remember the panic I felt as people closed in on me, but mostly I remember feeling angry. Angry at Martin for bringing me into all this, angry at Cora for showing up at our house, angry at my father for ruining my friendship with Jasmine, even angry at God for letting this happen to me. I don’t know… it was all very chaotic. Interesting contrast with the idea above “If God hadn’t wanted Africans enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains.”
The room around us returned to its original blank state
Q: Thank you for sharing. Ethel Wells, ladies and gentlemen!