During the 1850s, a young slave named Henry Washington ran away from the Virginia plantation where his mother, Mary Cord, was also a slave, and his father was the plantation master. Before leaving, Washington gave his mother a gold ring and promised to return someday to free her.
The mother, who was subsequently sold to a North Carolina plantation owner, heard nothing from Washington for years. But about 1865, at the New Bern, N.C., plantation where she was a cook, Cord, was reunited with Washington in a sudden and unexpected turn of events that became family legend and the subject of a Mark Twain magazine story, "A True Story: Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It."
The story was included in Twain's 1875 book, "Sketches, New and Old." As a gesture of appreciation, Twain presented Cord, who was then the cook at his home near Elmira, N.Y., with an autographed copy.
The inscription on the flyleaf referred Cord to "Page 202 for a well-meant but libelous portrait of herself and also the bit of personal history which she recounted to him once."
Today, the story of the reunion still brings a smile to the face of Cord's great-grandson, Olney resident Leon Condol, 98, who has given Cord's rare and valuable book to the University of Maryland.
"When (Washington) found (Cord), it was so dramatic," Condol said last week in an interview.
Here is what happened, according to Condol, who lives in the Brooke Grove Nursing Home, and other sources, including Twain's published account and that of Dr. Emory Evans, head of the University of Maryland history department:
Cord was working in her plantation kitchen when it was invaded one day by a regiment of black Union soldiers. Cord lost her temper and chewed them out, using an expression she had picked up from her mother.
"She had a saying . . . . She'd say it when she had a falling-out with the other slaves," Condol said: " 'I want you to understand that I wasn't born in the mash, to be fooled by trash -- I'se one of the old blue hen's chickens, I is.' "
One soldier, hearing the outburst, recalled his mother using that same expression at the Virginia plantation.
Cord, meantime, had noticed that the soldier had a habit of brushing back his hair with his hand, revealing a distinctive forehead scar from a childhood injury.
"She saw the scar and she fainted," Evans said. "And the soldier found that she had the ring he had given his mother before running away from the Virginia plantation."
After the Civil War, Washington took his mother to Elmira, where she found work at the Twain farm. He married and had a daughter named Louise Florence, who was to give birth to a son, Leon Condol, Jan. 6, 1888, about one month after Cord died.
Condol said he knows from family stories that Cord lived her last years in Elmira with his mother and grandmother.
As a young man, Condol served in the Navy in World War I and later was a cook and a valet in New York and in Washington. During the 1930s, he was the chief clerk in the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington. Unhappy with working conditions there, he became involved in union organizing.
Condol's wife, Virginia, 94, who lives with him in the nursing home, is descended from a black Baltimore family that was free and prosperous before the Civil War, Evans said. He said that she was a special education teacher before her retirement.
In 1978, as the Condols were preparing to move from their home in Montgomery County's Leisure World retirement community into smaller quarters in a downtown Washington hotel, they met Olney antique dealer Diane Grimes, who agreed to appraise the couple's furniture and help them sell what they no longer needed.
"One day he brought out this book signed by Mark Twain," Grimes said.
"He knew that it was valuable . . . and it was decided that the thing to do was present it to the University of Maryland history department," she said. But before it could be turned over to officials there, it was misplaced.
"Leon thought at first that it had been stolen," Grimes said. But several weeks ago, "in helping them clear out their things from the hotel and move here to the nursing home, I found the book in the back of the closet," she said. "Leon had wrapped it in plastic so the mice couldn't get it . . . and put it someplace that he thought would be safe."
University officials now have the book, along with family photographs and documents that will be the focus of a special Condol display in the McKeldin Library, Evans said. He said the exhibit also would include transcripts of interviews conducted with the Condols by the university's oral historian, Martha Ross, several years ago.
The Twain book, with its autographed inscription, will go to the rare book room.
"We feel very fortunate to get these things, because they give a feel and sense for black family life and upward mobility over a long period of time," Evans said.