Author: Paul Laurence Dunbar
First published: serial, 1901; book, 1902
Locale: A small Southern town and New York City
Time: The late Reconstruction period, c. 1900
Maurice Oakley, a wealthy Southern businessman and former slaveowner who is kind and generous, especially to his younger half brother, Francis. Maurice becomes a hardened man after making an example of Berry Hamilton, his black butler and trusted servant, who has been accused of stealing a sizable sum of money from Francis. Largely through Oakley's efforts, Berry is sentenced to a long prison term, and his family is evicted from the Oakley estate. Years later, after Francis admits Berry's innocence and his own duplicity, Maurice becomes reclusive and obsessed with hiding this secret. When the truth is exposed by a Northern newspaper, Maurice goes insane.
Berry Hamilton, the trusted butler to Maurice Oakley. Through thrift and industry, Berry has earned a high standing in the community. His fortune changes drastically and immediately when he is falsely convicted of having stolen more than eight hundred dollars from Maurice Oakley's half brother, Francis. Berry spends almost ten years at hard labor, then is pardoned after a New York newspaper exposes the truth. He goes to New York to find his family in shambles and his wife remarried. After reclaiming his wife, Fannie, he returns to the South with her to their old cottage on the Oakley estate, where they live out the rest of their days.
Fannie Hamilton, Berry's proud and illiterate, but thrifty and industrious, wife. She has served as the Oakleys' housekeeper. After Berry's false conviction, she and her children are evicted from the Oakley estate and make their way to New York. There, Fannie helplessly witnesses her family's disintegration. To survive, she marries Tom Gibson, a gambler. After Tom is killed in a fight, Fannie reunites with Berry, and they move back South.
Leslie Oakley, Maurice Oakley's wife. Kindhearted and long-suffering, she nurses her husband in his insanity and makes amends to the Hamiltons by refurnishing their former cottage and inviting them to return to the Oakley estate following Berry's pardon.
Francis (Frank) Oakley, an artist. As the younger half brother of Maurice Oakley, he is pampered and spoiled. He gambles away a large sum of money that his brother provided for him to go to Paris. His fabrication to cover this loss precipitates the charge against Berry Hamilton and Berry's ultimate imprisonment. Years later, when Francis learns of Berry's fate, he confesses his duplicity to his brother, which in turn leads to Maurice's madness.
Joe Hamilton, a barber, Berry and Fannie's son. After Berry is convicted, he loses his job and is unable to find work. When his family is evicted from the Oakley estate, Joe takes his mother and sister to New York. In the city, Joe is defeated by life in the fast lane. He begins drinking heavily and becomes estranged from his mother and sister. Finally, while drunk, he strangles his lover to death and is sent to prison.
Kit Hamilton, a dancer, Berry and Fannie's daughter. She is beautiful, charming, and condescending. After arriving in New York, she begins going out with William Thomas. Unknown to her, he is married. Afterward, she becomes a show-girl in “Martin's Blackbirds,” a touring revue.
Hattie Sterling, a dancer. As one of “Martin's Blackbirds,” she becomes Joe Hamilton's lover and is instrumental in helping Kit obtain a job in the troupe. Finally tiring of Joe's constant drunkenness, she puts him out. Later that night, he kills her in an act of retaliation.
Mr. Skaggs, a newspaper reporter. As a frequent visitor to Harlem, Skaggs is acquainted with Joe Hamilton. After hearing Joe's account of his father's innocence, Skaggs goes South to the Hamiltons' hometown. There, he forcibly obtains Maurice Oakley's secret about the missing money. His subsequent exposé in the New York Universe leads to Berry's pardon and contributes to Maurice's insanity.
Minty Brown, a visitor to New York, originally from the Hamiltons'hometown. Minty calls on the Hamiltons. Having shunned Minty at home, Fannie and Kit Hamilton condescendingly refuse to accept her visit. In retaliation, Minty exposes the Hamiltons' predicament, which results in their eviction from their apartment and being dismissed from their jobs.
Tom Gibson, a gambler on horse races. As a boarder in Fannie Hamilton's flat, he convinces her that Berry's conviction and imprisonment nullified their marriage and convinces her to marry him. After their marriage, Tom frequently beats Fannie. He is killed in a fight at the racetrack.