The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 4 : Curiosities South of the Border. A Child Departs from the Way. The Education of Henry Townsend. | Summary



Anderson Frazier is a Canadian-born journalist who visits Manchester Country in 1881 to interview Fern Elston. He hopes to gain some insight into the odd fact that free blacks once owned black slaves. When he compares this to owning a member of one's own family, Fern attempts to correct him, explaining that she and others did no more than what God and the law allowed. They did not own family; they owned slaves. She then tells him about Henry Townsend.

As William Robbins's slave, Henry serves as his groom and also learns the art of making boots and shoes. He's a quick study and becomes more skilled than the shoemaker who teaches him. Soon after, he starts making boots for Robbins. Even after Henry is a free man, he continues to craft footwear for Robbins, his male guests, and even Robbins's wife and daughter. He becomes known for making "the kind of footwear God intended for feet to have." Henry begins to accumulate wealth and some real estate.

Robbins misses Henry after he leaves the plantation and welcomes his visits to make footwear. He mentors Henry as he builds his business, teaching him the value of money and his labors. While Augustus wishes that his son would have no more to do with his former master, Mildred counsels that it may be beneficial, that "the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be."

One time before Henry is freed, he accompanies Robbins to Richmond, Virginia, to retrieve his black mistress, Philomena, who has run away. During the violent quarrel that breaks out when Robbins confronts Philomena, Robbins brutally punches her as young Henry looks on, screaming helplessly. Robbins is sickened by his own action and sends Henry to calm the children, Dora and Louis, who are in the next room. The following day Robbins drives them back to Manchester, leaving Philomena in Richmond to recover. Seeing how kindly Henry treats his mixed-blood children, Robbins decides that, in a world that could treat them callously, he wants Henry to be there for them.

After Henry acquires some land, he begins building a house with Moses, his first slave. Robbins comes to visit and finds the two men wrestling in the dirt like a couple of kids. Robbins pulls Henry aside and sternly reminds him that he is the master now and must act like it. Moses is his property, not his equal, and the line separating them must not be crossed. Moses is bewildered when Henry walks back, slaps him twice, and tells him he will return later and Moses had better be "doin right ... doin good" when he does.

That evening Henry rides over to his parents' home to share the news about his house and the purchase of his first slave. They are horrified by the latter, and Augustus beats Henry with one of his walking sticks, breaking Henry's shoulder. Bewildered and angry, Henry leaves to seek consolation and guidance from Robbins.

Robbins, in the meantime, has gone to Fern Elston and asked that she educate Henry. Fern is skeptical that Henry can learn, being an adult. However, she consents because she respects Robbins. He has protected her from potential trouble with Sheriff Skiffington's slave patrollers. Henry is the first freed slave that Fern teaches and the most intelligent of all her students. A year or so later, he meets her former student Caldonia. They marry soon after that meeting.


This chapter looks candidly at the issue of blacks owning black slaves as it explores the education of Henry Townsend to be a slave master. The chapter's first section, Curiosities South of the Border, introduces Canadian journalist and pamphlet writer Anderson Frazier—providing him as an objective, puzzled researcher. He is intrigued by the phenomenon of blacks owning blacks in the pre–Civil War United States. His interview of Fern Elston and the story of Henry look at the moral complexities of this curiosity as well as who "educates" Henry.

Henry's first teachers would have been his parents had slavery not separated them during his childhood. He is six when his father achieves freedom; nine when his mother leaves him behind, to be cared for by Rita. For the remainder of his formative years, when basic beliefs and values mature, Henry looks to Robbins as a guiding father figure. In reality Augustus ultimately holds Henry's freedom in his hands. However, the child mistakenly sees Robbins as the man controlling his fate, and he seeks to improve his situation by becoming Robbins's groom. As he moves closer to his master, Henry's view of slavery begins to change. Unlike a lowly field slave, Henry experiences a more benevolent bondage in which he is well fed and well clothed, like a house slave. Later when Henry's parents learn he has bought Moses, they see their son has not learned the most fundamental lesson about slavery—that it is wrong. Robbins, with all his power and authority, has instilled in Henry the slave master's point of view.

The chapter segment A Child Departs from the Way ushers in a change in the relationship between Robbins and Henry. By the time Henry accompanies Robbins to Richmond, the man means "so much to him" that he is shocked and terrified to see his father figure violently strike Philomena. When Robbins sends the frightened teen to calm Dora and Louis, Henry soothes himself as well as the children by using a piece of string to make Jacob's Ladder. This is a children's game inspired by the Bible's book of Genesis in which the patriarch Jacob dreams of a ladder between Earth and heaven. As he observes their interaction, Robbins determines a world with Henry in it will be good for his children. For this reason Robbins makes sure Henry learns everything required to rise above his station within the social system of slavery. Yet, that system is as doomed as the "doomed city" of Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States during most of the Civil War.

This episode also illustrates another way in which slavery corrupts human relationships. Robbins loves Philomena without question. However, when she runs off he pursues her like a runaway slave. He answers her refusal to return to Manchester with violence and threatens to take back her free papers—though he had freed her before the children were born. Slavery's utter authority becomes his tool for holding on to her.

Later Henry's deviation from the values of his parents toward those of a slave master becomes fixed. On the eve of his confrontation with Augustus, Henry stands at the crossroads. It is not too late for him to give up Moses and follow the path of his parents. But being a slave has failed to teach him that slavery is wrong, and his slave master has shown him that wealth and status are achieved by working within the system. Augustus beats Henry with a walking stick and tells him, "Thas how a slave feel!" Henry responds by breaking the stick, saying, "Thas how a master feels." The line is drawn between master and slave, and Henry takes his stand firmly on the side of the master. He further solidifies his choice by seeking consolation and advice from Robbins.

Finally, the chapter segment The Education of Henry Townsend points to Henry's schooling by Fern Elston at Robbins's request. Robbins does not "want to see [Henry] hurt by all that he does not know." However, Fern can only school him in literacy. Though she and her husband have slaves, she cannot teach Henry how to be a slave master. Those lessons come from Robbins. Henry proves an eager and adept pupil who wishes to mirror the status of his mentor. His success is illustrated by his gradual purchase of land closer to Robbins's plantation. By the time of Henry's death "there was nothing separating what they owned."

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