Oct 10 mile 2009

Yesterday I reached Owen Sound, Ontario – my destination since I left Mobile, Alabama on my virtual travel more than 4 months ago. I honor the day with a dawn walk on familiar streets close to home. Home.sunrise

Photo: sunrise at home on Oct 10

On my parallel trip, as a freedom seeking slave in the 1850s, I have a new home. It is amid other Black Americans, now Black Canadians, forming a community where we can thrive and prosper. It will take many days for my tense shoulders to relax, for my heart to stop racing at each noise behind me, to edge toward darkness thinking of sleep rather than flight.

I have spent four months putting Blackness/Whiteness in front of me — travelling an historic route that leads through America’s darkest days and along the divide we have created for ourselves.

My thoughts this morning are personal. I was probably ten. Our family was on a Sunday car ride, one of our most pleasurable rituals. As we skirted the Black area of town Dad told a racist joke. I am horrible at remembering jokes. I remember his every word. He said it in a tone that was sheepish but inviting, intimate. My sisters, brother and I knew the words were cruel and we chided him gently, as he expected. But I grappled with it – maybe in ways I can only now understand and articulate. I was at a brink. Do I decide my Dad is a bigot and alienate myself from him? Or do I accept the call into the club he was offering to me, a relationship where we could exchange code –glances, gestures, jokes. This is what kids want – to be ushered into the inner circle of adulthood by people we love. He wanted what every parent strives for – to shepherd children he loves into a maturity that becomes shared adult lives. The context could have been any mutual “secret” like we hate broccoli together, or we will always love 6:00 a.m. runs, or we will never listen to Beethoven.

But this was about racism. Dad was not maliciously intending to raise prejudiced kids. It was the world he grew up in and that his parents exposed fully, not sheepishly, using racial slurs as ordinary speech. I held Dad’s invitation from that day in the car at bay, inviting myself to forge a path toward something else that I came to understand as tolerance and justice.

This was quiet work growing up, not bold and courageous action. Grappling in a world torn apart by race. I cringed inside when Dad blasted Jesse Jackson’s speeches that we heard on the news or maligned various people of color we encountered. Over time we carved out our shared adult lives in many ways, but not on this. We never had a conversation about race.

In the end we did not need to exchange words. I spent hours on vigil at his bedside in the nursing home. He was curled up in a cocoon, holding on to this world with erratic, raspy breaths. Aides  began stopping in – one after another. Addressing him by his given name or by an endearing nickname he had earned at the nursing home, they came to pay respects. “Goodybye, John. Thank you for letting me take care of you.” “You made me laugh.” One turned to Mom and me and said, “He was my favorite.” I was moved beyond measure. It was true that Alzheimer’s did not destroy his personality totally. He still flashed a ready smile, played tricks on the nurses, and raced through the halls in a rig that staff devised after he broke his hip. He forgot many parts of his life, of course. Most profoundly he forgot that he regarded people with skin darker than his as beneath him. Every aide who came to his bedside with heartfelt condolences and gratitude was a person of color.

This is the inner circle he and I now share.

Our journeys are long, convoluted, mysterious. Some by choice. Some by circumstance. All of them are ours to claim.

So grateful to be home. And still, riding on.

Note: Epilogue and more thoughts to follow.


Oct 4 mile 1965

I am not on the Underground Railroad, or travelling the Underground Railroad, or studying the Underground Railroad. So close to my destination, after 4 months of virtual travel, this compelling American heroism is in my bones. I embody the Underground Railroad. I, a 21st century white woman who has lived in freedom and comfort for all of my 60 years, am swept into a history and legacy that I very humbly and somewhat trepidatiously own. A sisterhood. Hattie Jacobs sealed this for me.

Born into a loving Black family in Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs as young girl did not know she was a slave. “I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them (slave owners) for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment.” This is the kind of nurturing that Michele Norris (June 17 post) and Condoleezza Rice (Sept 28 post) and so many other youth experienced as insulated Black families and Black communities from the hate-filled Jim Crow South. But the world is exposed ultimately and Harriet witnessed Africans leaving the ship in shackles, heard the screams of fellow slaves being whipped, and grieved over loved ones sold to unknown fates.

Slavery terrified Harriet’s early life, motivated and transformed her middle years, and haunted her until her death in 1897 at age 84. We know her struggles and triumphs through her remarkable autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. I am indebted to Harriet Jacobs, A Life by Jean Fagan Yellin for its vast context and historic scholarship as well as the Harriet Jacobs website hosted by the Edenton-Chowan County Tourism Development and developed through a National Park Service grant offered by its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program (our tax dollars!).Yellin book cover

Image: book cover of Harriet Jacobs, A Life

Nothing of course compares to the power of Harriet’s own words, written under her own power (rather than as a told-to work as most other slave narratives) and published through her own contacts and resources — a story so moving and harrowing that its autobiographical authorship was questioned.


Image: title page of book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself

Yellin’s research helps us venture with Harriet Jacobs into the dark territory of female slavery, where sex was currency. And indeed, sexual bondage is the tragic commodity of human trafficking today. For Harriet, her status as a house slave, her intelligence and persona, and her physical beauty drew the attention of her lascivious owner. “It was clear that at fifteen she did not have the option of choosing virginity nor… of choosing marriage with the young man she loved” (Yellin, p 27) Marriage between slaves was not legal, but slaveowners could give permission for cohabitation in a family relationship. Harriet Jacob’s master gave her no such permission. Slaves always “lived under the auspices of masters who controlled the terms of their most intimate relationships.”

Harriet sought to discourage her owner’s advances by entering into a long-term relationship with a White aristocrat, who became the father of her two beloved children. Her grandmother scorned this liaison and Harriet harbored shame for it through much of her life. She reflected, “still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standards as others.” In her owner’s lifelong obsession with securing Harriet as his sexual property, he pursued her over many years and up and down the East Coast after her escape. I indeed do not judge Harriet or other slave women by the same standards as others.

Harriet’s devotion to family and love of freedom were the driving forces of her entire life, and indeed are characterized consistently as abiding themes in slave narratives. “Whatever slavery might do to me,” she wrote, “it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.” A mother’s protectionism is the essence of many desperate escapes. Despite this fierce love and devotion, families were decimated by slavery. Professor Tera W. Hunter in a great NYT op-ed defies recent attempts to cast slave family life as nostalgia — “Putting an Antebellum Myth About Slave Families to Rest.”

From the skirts of her grandmother; during seven years of hiding and eventual escape; as part of her service to “contraband” slaves in war relief; through decades of establishing schools and teaching Black children; throughout historic civil rights advocacy; during and after the development of her book; and in later years of financial and health decline — she wanted most to have a family home with loved ones at hand. At times she achieved this. She did achieve her own freedom and the freedom of her children, though not in all the circumstances she had hoped.

Harriet’s autobiography is groundbreaking in its authentic portal into the life and heart of a slave woman and freedom seeker, and just weeks ago a similar work came into news. A history scholar verified the identity of a novel and purported semi-autobiography of female slave, Hannah Bond – a contemporary of Harriet Jacobs who escaped from a plantation in Murfreesboro, just 50 or so miles up the Chowan River from Edenton.

My new hero evolved in my mind from Hattie to a revered but warm Mrs. Jacobs,  a leader in the country’s transformation and a witness to so many horrific and turbulent times. The debate leading up to passage of the14th amendment, for example, which gave voting rights to former slaves and for the first time inserted the word “male” into the U.S. Constitution (Yeller, p208), helped to ignite a zero-sum mentality of women’s civil rights vs. Black civil rights. Mrs. Jacobs stood firmly for justice in both camps.

Harriet Jacobs in her book published in 1861: “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is more terrible for women.”

Frederick Douglass in 1869:  “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”  (Yeller, p208)

harriet jacobs

Image: Harriet Jacobs in later years

Women in the quest for freedom and living the great national upheaval of the mid 19th century played out powerful stories. A few that call me….

Harriet Jacobs was social change agent extraordinaire. She accomplished more in her life that I could dare aspire, and endured more than I could ever imagine. Which struggles for justice would she champion today?

Invoking the courage of Harriet Jacobs and riding on.

Sept 28 mile 1944

I am within a few days ride of the final destination on my virtual travels. I slow my pace to draw out the experience. Shorter days and chilly winds mark a change that my spirit confirms.

canada road 4

image: road near Owen Sound, Ontario

But if I were a freedom seeking slave these final miles would feel endless. My walk would quicken to join predecessors who had established a foothold in this new land. To settle. To feel the bonds of my people. By 1841, there were many Black communities. An 1850 newspaper article indicated 24-30,000 Blacks living in Canada.  I would have been well escorted by Black and White anti-slavery activists along the way, organized into the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in 1851. http://canadablkstlmnts.blogspot.com/

In the U.S. racism stood on a belief that freed slaves would be helpless — unable to be self sufficient and to contribute to society. A monumental study of 20,000 free Blacks in Canada refuted this. In 1864, Dr. Samuel G. Howe presented a report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission in Boston.

“[The] refugees earn a living and gather property; they marry and respect women; they build churches and send their children to schools; they improve in manners and morals—not because they are picked men but simply because they are free men.”   https://www.owensound.ca/live/history

This is part of the “march of history” that Ruth Simmons, former president of Borwn University who grew up in a sharecropper family, described to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The march from tribal culture in Africa, into and out of bondage, through Jim Crow, and toward justice as it evolves. “This is who we are,” she says.

Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in Jim Crow Birmingham, knows about the “unhealed wounds” of slavery, “the unfinished business of race in America.”

c rice

photo: Condoleezza Rice

The scars are here in Ontario, so far from where the pain was inflicted. Riding on.

Sept 24 mile 1921

It is my 60th birthday. A spectacular clear, crisp morning of early fall. I bicycled to work the long way – along a creek, around a lake and beside a river. The magnificence of it – the beauty of my city, the strength in my legs and lungs, the sense of belonging — sweeps me away even now in the retelling. I am steeped in deep gratitude this day.

Had the freedom-seeking slaves been able to cast their vision 150 years into the future they would not, I believe, have begrudged me the profound pleasure of this morning. And they would have reveled in their descendants who can savor the same experience. But they would have spoken clearly – the Underground Railroad is an enduring passage; freedom seeking is ongoing work. The message is a gift I accept gratefully on this, my 60th birthday.

Riding on.

Sept 20 mile 1851

I am well into Ontario on my virtual trip, crossing from Buffalo, New York into Fort Erie, Ontario by way of the Peace Bridge across the eastern edge of Lake Erie, where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. As with freedom seekers who travelled this route in the decades before the end of the Civil War, following the North Star has served me well.

Fleeing is a desperate measure. Even slaves enduring hardship and inhumane treatment had attachments they were leaving – family, spiritual community, burial site of a loved one, memories or places where life flourished in small ways, and perhaps the hope that redemption would move in like a cool breeze and lift them all out of bondage.

Fleeing the U.S. must have been easy, almost a nonthought. How could they have had any attachment to this country? Despite the basis that “all men are created equal,” they were property. In the Dred Scott case of 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that all Blacks — slaves as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Slaves, though, were not thinking about the ability to sue or to vote. They were thinking about a life without whippings and the fear of being sold, of a life where they could learn to read and their children could go to school. They were thinking about humanity, basic freedom, the right to pursue happiness. For many this quest was called Canada. An estimated 30,000 freedom seeking Blacks reached their destination. http://www.pbs.org/wned/underground-railroad/stories-of-freedom/abolition-slavery-canada/

I am headed to Owen Sound, about 190 miles north of Buffalo. Slavery here and in much of upper Canada (Ontario) was impractical without large plantations driving an economy of manual labor and with harsh winters of many unproductive agricultural months. The Upper Canada Abolition Act of 1793 freed any slave who entered  Ontario, and gave any child born of a slave mother emancipation at the age of 25. With this, Upper Canada became the first British territory to pass an antislavery act. In the other Canadian provinces, slavery was essentially eliminated by 1800 through various court actions. http://canadablkstlmnts.blogspot.com/

So after 1850 Canada, not the “free” states of the North where bounty hunters had dominion, was the promised land. The Underground Railroad crossed the border through the heroics of Black and White abolitionists in the U.S. and Canada. The refugees settled all across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, but most came to the area of southwestern Ontario to places such as Windsor, Fort Erie, Chatham and Owen Sound. http://blackhistorycanada.ca/events.php?themeid=21&id=6 

Some conductors and station masters escorted freedom seekers far distances until reaching safe Canadian soil; the Rankin family made numerous such trips from Ripley, OH; Harriet Tubman led escaped slaves into Canada. Numerous free Blacks and former U.S. slaves made their abolitionist mark on both sides of the border.


Photo: Mary Ann Shadd, African American and African Canadian anti-slavery activist

Shadd plaque

Photo: Plaque of Mary Ann Shadd, U.S. and Canadian Black civil rights leader before and after emancipation. It reads, in part: “African Americans came to Canada in increasing numbers after the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Some settled in segregated communities; others, like Mary Ann Shadd, promoted full integration into society….” http://www.ontarioplaques.com/Plaques_ABC/Plaque_ChathamKent12.html

What was the experience of Black refugees to Canada? Were they welcomed there? It seems, yes and no. Or maybe — yes eventually. The settlement of Buxton gives one story.

buxton settlement

Photo: Buxton Settlement historic plaque

Text of plaque: “From the shores of Lake Erie to the seventh concession, from Dillon Road on the east to Drake Road on the west, Buxton’s ordered fields are dotted with churches and homes from the epic experience of the Underground Railroad. In 1849, Reverend William King arrived with fifteen former slaves at a 3600 ha tract of swampy, forested land. More refugees followed, buying and clearing 20 ha homesteads, establishing industries, churches and schools. The settlers created the regular pattern of roads and drainage ditches seen today, transforming the landscape into the prosperous Elgin Settlement, as it was then called, where neat cottages spoke of industry and thrift, and children received a classical education. Buxton lives on today through descendants of these determined immigrants who carved out a free life for themselves and their families on the tranquil plains of southwestern Ontario.”

That sounds idyllic. Not all new African Canadians had the same experience. My friend, Lisa, who grew up in Owen Sound pointed me to Speakers for the Dead, a short documentary from the National Film Board of Canada that you can watch online. Contemporary residents talk about restoration of a Black pioneer cemetery that was desecrated. There is a race history in Owen Sound and nearby Priceville that Black and White voices relate in labored speech. “Darky school,” “secret,” “be careful to go out there….” Undercover and more blatant discrimination forced out some Blacks and created tension until the 1930s, and maybe beyond. The promised land has some heroes, some glory, and some shadows.

This is where I am headed. Riding on.

Sept 17 mile 1834

My real miles today are in Duluth, MN, a port city on Lake Superior. It is an early autumn bicycling escape to the magnificent shoreline but also an important destination on my Underground Railroad journey.

I am standing at the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East in downtown Duluth. The inscription of the memorial reads: “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent” (Edmund Burke). Here in this large plaza with numerous inspiring quotes are bas-relief images of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — itinerant circus workers accused, falsely, of raping a white woman. They were lynched here by an angry mob on June 15, 1920.   http://www.claytonjacksonmcghie.org/

duluth memorial

After 1880 and well into the twentieth century lynchings were a hideous form of mob rule – overwhelmingly in the South and overwhelmingly White supremacy acts against Blacks.  The Tuskegee Institute documents, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 lynchings in the United States —  3,437 Negro and 1,293 white.  http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html

But here – in Duluth? View this photo of mob and victims to know the depths of our inhumanity. Which disturbs me more — the brutalized victims dangling in public view or the sadistic Duluth citizens smiling for the camera at the scene of the crime?

“….If you read the papers of that day, you’ll find that every week there was a lynching someplace in the country. So it got fanned up here in Duluth and they estimated as many as 9,000 people actually witnessed these lynchings. We’re speaking about a city that at that time probably was about 85,000, 80,000.. . . Well the editorials in both the News Tribune and the Herald, which were different papers in those days, were very much appalled by the lynching and so were many of the better class people were really shook up that this took place here because it’s not the best thing to take place in your city of this size. Most lynchings that were happening were not happening in cities as large as Duluth. I mean police departments are usually adequate to take care of it, except possibly in the Deep South.”

Oral history of  William Maupins, a Black resident and civil   rights leader raised in Duluth in the aftermath of the lynchings http://collections.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/html/oraltext_wmaupins.htm

Hatred boiled over that night in downtown Duluth. The reverberations of blatant racism are as horrific as the incited mob – including editorials in some papers that valued lynchings to control Blacks and the circulation of postcards of the victims hanging from the lamppost.

The Black population of Duluth in the 1920s declined by sixteen percent. But Blacks who stayed worked with many outraged Whites and took action, forming a local branch of the NAACP that was launched with a presentation by W.E.B. DuBois in March of 1921. Led by Black activists, Minnesota passed anti-lynching legislation, criminal justice protection that the U.S. never accomplished.

Duluth has made concerted efforts to not only acknowledge the violence of June 1920, but to use the power of the event to move the community to greater tolerance. I ate at a restaurant with an anti-racism sign displayed prominently at the entry.

Duluth Community-Stand-Against-Racism-Sign

The City of Duluth and many civic partners have executed a gutsy campaign against white privilege.

duluth anit racism

I became aware of this shame of Minnesota history several years ago when I read The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History by Warren Reed. While doing genealogic research the author realized with horror that his great grandfather, who he knew and loved, was a leader in the mob on that night in 1920 and was only one of three men who served time for the offense. Reed traced the family of one of the victims and travelled to Missouri to make amends for the sin of his forebear. And he was the final speaker in the 2003 unveiling of the plaza dedicated to Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, still the most substantial memorial to lynching victims in the US. Reed surely lived Burke’s words — it was impossible to remain silent.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie stand in timeless dignity on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East in downtown Duluth. It is a redemption of sorts for an injustice on this ground that is unimaginable on a cool autumn afternoon. George Bernard Shaw’s words on the concrete wall give me deepest insight of the past and greatest hope of the community we can create.

“A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: ‘Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil, the other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.’ When asked which dog wins he reflected for a moment and replied, ‘The one I feed the most.’”

Facing the past, the dogs within me — and riding on.

Sept 11 mile 1710

I have just passed Angola, New York on my virtual travels – my eighth and final state before leaving the U.S. and crossing into Canada. This is blissful bicycling – long, level stretches with Lake Erie on my left and a westerly at my back. The kind of riding that lets me shed anxieties and trifles along the way until I have sunk into contemplation. There is zen on the open road.

I travel in the home state of Sojourner Truth, esteemed abolitionist born a slave in New York. After forty years in bondage she gained her freedom when NY abolished slavery in 1827. She became a social change agent of enormous impact — recruiting Black troops; speaking in many formal setting about race relations, the injustice of slavery (“You have teachers for your children but who will teach the poor slave children?”), women’s rights; meeting with President Lincoln; and publishing her extensive narrative. Sources: http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/abolitionism/abolitionists/Truth.htm; http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/Default.htm#SLAVERY

sojourner truthPhoto: Sojourner Truth

sojourner truth marker

Photo: Akron, OH historical marker   Site of Sojourner Truth’s Speech on Women’s Rights

Sojourner Truth’s life, remarkable in every way, is even more extraordinary by the fact that she never learned to read or write. Fearing that Black literacy would undermine the power structure of slavery, states enacted laws forbidding and punishing education, with penalties including stiff fines and physical punishment. It surely takes a lot to squelch the will to learn.

Frederick  Douglas, born a slave in Maryland (where literacy of slaves was discouraged but not outlawed) cobbled together enough instruction to lift himself into a powerful abolitionist leadership role. “Education means emancipation; it means light and liberty.” http://pathways.thinkport.org/about/about4f.cfm

Some Blacks who became literate, either during or after their years in slavery, recorded their experience in slave narratives, a powerful literary genre that helped catalyze the abolition movement. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/abolitionism/narratives.htm

henry bibbbibb bookImages: Engraving of Henry Bibb and title page of his slave narrative

“This work has been written during irregular intervals, while I have been travelling and laboring for the emancipation of my enslaved countrymen. The reader will remember that I made no pretension to literature; for I can truly say, that I have been educated in the school of adversity, whips, and chains. Experience and observation have been my principal teachers, with the exception of three weeks schooling which I have had the good fortune to receive since my escape from the ‘grave yard of the mind,” or the dark prison of human bondage.”

Narrative Of The Life And Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself  Published by the Author, 1849.

In the late 19th century illiteracy was very common and reading and writing were not considered vital to survival in many of the subsistence circumstances of manual labor and child rearing. Blacks, largely without access to education for decades, lagged significantly.  “In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate, and 80 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1900…still 44 percent of blacks remained illiterate.”  http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/lit_history.asp

Segregated schools dominated education in the North and the South based on the Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson ruling by the Supreme Court in 1896, until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas outlawed “separate but equal” in 1954. What was happening in Black families and communities during that time? As in slavery days, aspirations and the quest for dignity could sometimes transcend the barriers. I am thinking of Michele Norris’ family experience in Jim Crow Alabama. Black parents were so committed to the quality of education that in one community each family bought a volume or two of an encyclopedia so together they could create a resource for their children who were banned from the public library. And she talked about Black parents and teachers at segregated Parker High School in Birmingham, setting high standards to make it one of the finest secondary schools in the country, because they knew educational excellence was the only way out of a racist-bound life.

That education is the path to prosperity remains true. Tragically, the achievement gap remains true also. Here in MN overall, about three-quarters students graduated on time from high school in 2011, but only 55 percent of students of color, a trend that has persisted. You can see the writing on the wall early in a student’s career. In the Twin Cites 70% of White non-Hispanic students but only 36.5% of students of color reached 3rd grade reading standards in 2013. http://www.mncompass.org/education/#.UjY9dr4o4ig

But Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Henry Bibb would undoubtedly see a bigger truth — that there is no such thing as setting sights too high. Dr. Ruth Simmons knows this well. “I would not have thought it possible for a person of my background to have become president of Brown University.” Born into extreme poverty of sharecropping, Dr. Simmons navigated the Jim Crow South and earned a position of leadership where she daily faced the photo of the first Brown U president, a slaver holder. Reflecting on the march of history, she knew “this was just as it ought to be.” http://video.pbs.org/video/2227537695/Dr. Ruth Simmons

Photo: Dr. Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University

Denial of literacy is, to me, the heart of the inequities that has held back an entire race, indeed — that has impoverished us all. We are still bearing the painful, shameful price of educational deprivation. And we are still walking the path of forebears who saw and pioneered the way forward.

Reading, writing, and riding on.