“All things are difficult before they are easy.” ―Thomas Fuller, African Slave 1710-1790
Thomas Fuller was 14 years old when he was taken from his native West African home and sold to a Virginia planter. We have no record of what he experienced during this time, outside of the sure knowledge that his life of freedom had turned to one of suffering and difficulty. But, Thomas had a gift—he was a brilliant mathematician. Sold to Elizabeth Cox of Alexandria, Virginia, he became a field hand on her 240-acre plantation. Over the years his ability to calculate seed requirements, yield expectations, costs, profits, and other high-level equations earned him the name, “The Virginia Mental Calculator.”
As the anti-slavery movement grew, reports of Fuller’s abilities became a testament to the effort to educate enslaved people. Two skeptical businessmen traveled from Pennsylvania to test Fuller’s abilities. He was asked how many seconds there were in a year and a half. Without pencil or paper, he answered, 47,304,000. On being asked how many seconds a man has lived who is 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours old, he answered in a minute and a half, 2,210,500,800. One of the men told him he was wrong, having done the calculations in advance. Fuller immediately replied, “Stop, master, you forget the leap years!” He was right, of course.
Yet, he was illiterate, as was his owner, Elizabeth Cox. So valuable was he to the management of her plantation, that she turned down several lucrative opportunities to sell him to other planters. From what is written, it seems Fuller made a life for himself that had importance, and it seems he held a bit of personal pride in the great value his talents brought to his work.
Like many in prison, Thomas Fuller was dealt a hand of cards that were stacked against him from the beginning. His statement that, “All things are difficult before they are easy,” applies perfectly to the transition of people coming out of incarceration. For reentrants, if there are too many difficulties, they can quickly end up back behind bars. It takes great fortitude and character to forge a productive life after suffering violent, life-altering events. Fuller did that, and so do many of our reentrants from long term prison sentences, when given the help they need.
In the end, the 80-year old slave passed away at the Cox farm. An obituary in the Boston Columbian Centinel newspaper gave tribute to his amazing mind which prevailed in spite of being denied a formal education:
“Thus died [Thomas Fuller] this self-taught arithmetician, this untutored Scholar! — Had his opportunities of improvement been equal to those of thousands of his fellow-men, neither the Royal Society of London, the Academy of Science at Paris, nor even Newton himself, need have been ashamed to acknowledge him a Brother in Science.”
Working on easy,