Wikipedia defines slavery as “a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold and are forced to work.” This fits the bill for what happened for a long period time right here in this country, which is odd to believe given how much we believe in freedom.
I was checking out some information from National Geographic and a timeline on their education website. It lists the first slaves coming to America in 1619. Slavery wasn’t officially abolished until 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, which claimed about 623,000 lives. That’s a long time to be fighting to be free. Our own fight to be free spanned from when we declared independence in 1776 until 1783, less than 10 years. It took slaves almost 250 years to be free and even that didn’t give them total freedom. Their fight would continue through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Some black Americans are still only now being recognized for their efforts and contributions to WWII. That fight’s not quite over, especially now when groups like Southern Poverty Law Center are reporting increases in hate groups and activities. Scary.
Slavery still happens. Human trafficking happens still, even in this country. The sex trafficking business is still in hot demand in various countries. Children are often the victims but adults can be too. Scary. For the moment, though, I want to focus on that initial flight to freedom for some in this country. The “Underground Railroad” was an important element in helping freedom happen for black Americans. It was very risky – getting caught could mean death; changing climates and lack of resources along the way and there was always the risk of getting lost. Many had to ask themselves if it was worth the risk or not.
You see, they couldn’t just run to the North. They had to go all the way to Canada for their freedom, another country and coming from the South… that’s no walk in the park. Part of the problem is during those days, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was still enforced. In fact, that law became harsher after the Compromise of 1850 when California entered the Union as a free state. No my friends, the run to freedom had to go all the way to Canada. If you were running during the winter, that’s one tough road.
National Geographic has a fun little interactive site for kids, but I rather enjoyed it (hmm what does that say?), that walks a person through the choices a slave running for his or her freedom would have had to make. Harriet Tubman, often referred to as “Moses” for her role in the Underground Railroad, helped many slaves get to freedom. She, too, was a runaway slave that went back to free many. She had help though from folks such as Thomas Garrett, William Still, Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony. The interactive provides spirituals and even the sound of bloodhounds used to find fugitive slaves. Can you imagine trying to sleep in a safe house but hearing those dogs outside?
Once in Canada, slaves would be truly free… having the right to vote and even own land. Neither of those would happen in the U.S. for a very long time, even after slavery was abolished.
Being a “pilot,” “conductor,” “passenger” or being the homeowner of a “station” was a risky business. Homeowners could be arrested for being a station, even in free states. The same goes for pilots and conductors. Passengers (slaves) were often returned to slavery, if not harsher punishments. What would make people take such risks?
Freedom. The idea of not having to do for someone else that’s what. The idea of not being reduced to a thing or item, not respected, having families torn apart for the sake of money or labor… that’s what. Knowing that you could be seen as a human being and not an object, thinking for yourself, working for yourself, not being poorly treated… that’s what.
I’m lucky to say I never had to face those choices; I never had to worry about someone else dictating to me how my life would be because I was seen as subhuman; I never had to be taken from my family or my family from me because we were just slaves to someone; I never had to run for my freedom and I’m thankful for that!
Some were so desperate to escape, they became very creative. Legend has it that Henry “Box” Brown literally shipped himself to freedom, stuffing himself into a large wooden crate from Richmond to Philadelphia. Abolitionist John Fairfield managed to sneak 28 slaves across a border by disguising them as a funeral procession. You do what you must to be free.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela
It’s not enough to “allow” people to their right to vote, to own land or simply not dictate to them how to live their lives. It’s not enough to call someone free because they don’t wear chains or get whipped. To be free, the rest of us must work to make sure everyone is truly free. I said it before… many are still dreaming of being free whether that be because they’re emotionally or physically being abused or being held captive as a sex slave or other forced labor.
The children in Detroit aren’t really free if they live in fear. I took some action and I’m not sure I did any good but I can hope. I choose to at least try my hand at some type of change. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but how can things change or improve if action isn’t taken? It doesn’t have to be every day, month or year, but taking even small steps to help someone find their freedom – whether that be helping a friend lose those emotional chains or help some kids learn to avoid violence and break the vicious cycle, then you’v done something. Things won’t change without action; people can’t be free if nothing is done.
So on that note – I leave you with “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – an old spiritual that allegedly was a way to help fugitive slaves get north. The gourd refers to what most people call “The Big Dipper” – a constellation that has the North Star and served as a guide for fugitive slaves.