The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cinncinnati sits near the banks of the Ohio River. Ohio was a free state, but the slave-holding state of Kentucky is just on the other side of the river. You can see it clear as day, like an evil twin.
“Whatever your station in life, if you helped slaves, you were committing a crime and you would be punished,” says Jim Berten, a retired GE worker who’s been a docent at the museum since it opened in 2004.
Slaveholders considered black folks property, crucial, but not as important to them as their houses or their land or even their pets. Some took out loans to buy their slaves. Berten says the more highly skilled slaves could be worth upwards of $30,000. Helping slaves escape wasn’t just messing with the racial order, it was an intensely economic issue. Theft. These slaveholders had made an investment.
Berten says the Underground Railroad was no child’s game of hide and seek. It was serious and dangerous. And while some white religious leaders used their Bible to justify slavery, others saw aiding and abetting slaves as their spiritual duty. It wasn’t an act of evangelism. Whites were saving their own souls.
They set out by the dark of night. Running into the woods. Sometimes barefoot. Moving quickly, quietly, breathlessly. Escaping the brutal violence, the rape and beatings at the hands of slaveholders. Sometimes eloping in order to avoid be sold and separated from the people they loved most. Running in the dark in the direction of freedom, a foreign promised land. Trusting that a complete stranger would be there to find them in the darkness and lead them to a safe house. Who were these strangers who risked their lives to help a poor slave they didn’t know, a slave who had not a shred to give them in return? The menacing sounds of horses and dogs and angry white men closing in. Fear and hope propelling her forward, don’t trip on a tree root, don’t step on a thorn, don’t bang into a tree trunk. If only she could fly to freedom. She makes it to the water. She’s afraid, doesn’t know how to swim. But she has to go in so the dogs can’t track her. Her dress is heavy. The river bottom is squishy, slimy. A man in a rowboat emerges from the darkness, pulls her into the boat and begins to row in the darkness toward Ohio. Once on the other side, the chase continues, but a righteous white minister and his family leads her to a hidden cellar room under a trap door in their barn floor. She is safe for now, but she isn’t free. She is still hunted. Her owner will place an ad in the newspapers describing her and offering a reward for her return. The freelance slave catchers – the bail bondsmen of that time – will get busy trying to make a buck off of her. She will emerge from that underground cell only to put her life in the hands of more strangers who will shepherd her to freedom in Canada, what feels like a million miles away.
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring