CXXIV. The Quest for Human Equality and Dignity

Five years ago I wrote a story about the Network to Freedom, the runaway slaves and the abolitionists who risked life and property along the Underground Railroad. Recently, I watched the film 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the 1853 memoir, available on Amazon, Twelve Years a Slave, of Solomon Northrup, a free black man abducted and sold into slavery. This is the story of one man’s quest for equality and dignity. There are many such stories, and they haven’t ended with antebellum America. Yet today, humans suffer in bondage. Never is it untimely to recount the human quest for equality and dignity. I published my story under my byline in Middletown Life Magazine, Middletown, Del., in December 2008. Here is the link to that story: The Quest for Human Equality and Dignity.

Underground Railroad Terminology, Workers and Statistics

Pilots ventured south to encourage slaves to run away and gave directions along the way. “Stockholders” donated money. Agents directed fugitives between stations. When the “cargo” reached a “station” or “depot,” the stationmaster gave not only shelter, but food, clothing and care for broken bones, cuts, and sometimes bullet wounds. The conductor’s job was the most dangerous of all, overseeing a fugitive’s safe journey from station to station to final destination. That final destination was most often Canada, out of reach of the long arm of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act ruling runaway slaves stolen property and therefore liable to be returned from the North to their masters in the South.

The enactment of this law coincided in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin making cotton and the slaves more valuable. By 1840, cotton was the most valuable commodity in America, and rewards for captured slaves were high. Moreover, Northerners benefited from slavery by finishing raw goods from the South and returning them to the South. This economic climate notwithstanding, from about 1810 to 1860, the agrarian economy in lower Delaware shifted from labor-intensive cotton and tobacco crops to the capital-intensive crops of grains and fruit such as peaches, making owning slaves a liability; so, slave ownership dropped from about 95 percent to around 24 percent.

Workers along the Underground Railroad came from all walks of life – shopkeepers; farmers; Quaker Indiana businessman Levi Coffin, often called the president of the Underground Railroad, and with his brother and sister-in-law, said to have started the Underground Railroad in North Carolina; millionaire Gerrit Smith, who twice ran for United States president; and former runaway slaves like Harriet Tubman, who returned at least eight times to her native Maryland to free others. Only about five percent of fugitives made it to freedom in the North, according to the video documentary Whispers of Angels.

Samantha Mozart

 

8 Responses to CXXIV. The Quest for Human Equality and Dignity

  1. Hello Samantha, thank you for this post. I will link to your 2008 story hopefully on the weekend. There was a novel I read some years ago, I wish I could remember the title. It was so hard to read of the cruelty of one to another. The export of slaves from West Africa to the US and UK. It was told by a woman and the ‘journey’ to the steps of English parliament in about the 1700’s or 1800’s. I’ve tried to find it on internet with no luck. I will keep on searching. It really brought home man’s brutality yet among it all the desire of the slaves to retain dignity. It was a riveting read though extremely painful.
    I haven’t seen the film, but intend to though I am nervous about seeing it. I know that son David took his girlfriend to see it a few months ago on her birthday but she was too distressed to watch it all the way through. Those of us who have learned of slave trafficking must never forget. By not forgetting we may as you say develop kindness – I would add compassion to all who are no different to us. Our blood runs red no matter the colour of anything else.

    • True, Susan, what you say about compassion towards all. I guess I didn’t find “12 Years a Slave” shockingly distressing, though distressing indeed, because I am familiar with the plight, living here in the U.S. But, I will say, the Deep South can still be a scary place, even for a Yankee (a Northerner) such as I, when you’re in the bowels of redneck country. I am so glad I got to research and write this story. I learned a lot. I have always thought of my pen as a sword — to use it as such is my primary objective in storytelling.

      I’d be interested to know what you think once you’ve read my magazine piece. I emailed it to Beatrice about a month ago, and she really liked the story it told.

      I would love to read that book you mention. The story line sounds familiar. But, I don’t recall the title or author. Let me know if you find it.

      Thanks for your deeply thoughtful comment, as always.

  2. My Dear,
    You have brought back so many memories that I have not thought about in a long time. I remember the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. I remember it from my history class. We had a History teacher that was courageous. Even though it was illegal to mention it and it was not in any of our History books, (I am from the Deep South) he dared to teach us about it.

    I have heard and read about 12 Years a Slave and hope it comes to Europe because I would love to see it.

    What I didn’t realize though were that the majority of the slaves never made it through all the way. That is so sad. The United States and especially the Deep South has lots to answer for. They destroyed many lives and tore apart people in families that will never be able to know their ancestral background, and I for one am one of them.

    Thank you for this informative article.

    Shalom,
    Patricia

    • Well, I’ll tell you, Patricia, back in 1967, my husband was sent to U.S. Navy training school in Brunswick, Ga. We came down from the Phila., Pa., area and lived on St. Simons Island for four months. I was blown away when an older woman, a native Georgian, said to me one day, “You never call a black man ‘Mr.’ You always call him by his first name.” But that kind of discrimination didn’t occur only in the South. We had our own de facto segregation in the North, as well, as you know. The history we were taught in school was white man’s history — women and people of color apparently didn’t do anything worth remembering. Your history teacher was indeed courageous.

      But, the worst, to me, is the separation of slaves’ families. I cannot imagine having my children torn from me, or my husband, or anyone close to me. And, at least I have the ability to trace my ancestry.

      That William Still had the wherewithal to record these escaped slaves’ stories is a treasure for us. His mother escaped slavery in the Deep South twice — the first time with her four children and was caught. The second time, she had to leave two of her children behind to expedite her travel. She got to New Jersey, got married, had more children, among whom was William Still. Many years later, when he was recording the stories of escaped slaves, his brother from the South showed up in his office.

      This is a fascinating story. I learned a lot. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to write it.

  3. 12 Years a Slave was playing here in Cuenca for a while, but the day we planned to see it threw us a monkey wrench. We missed it. Alas. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know or remember the bit about the Fugitive Slave Act or that slaves were not really safe unless they made it to Canada. Fascinating post, my friend!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Thanks, Kathy. It was a good movie, factually accurate. I don’t suppose Netflix ships to Cuenca. I didn’t exactly pull my story facts from my mental archives, as I’m sure you realize. I didn’t know about the Fugitive Slave Act, either. It was enlightening research. The Congress enacted all sorts of compromise legislation back then — ante- and post-bellum. I am fascinated by the one where they decided they’d free the slaves as long as they could ship them all back to Africa. What most blows me away, though, is William Still’s interviewing the escaped slaves, recording their stories and publishing them in a book. I have the book, got it from Amazon. Also, I found out that I grew up on the land outside Phila. where Thomas Garrett’s family farm was. The home is still there. This may account for the egalitarianism among present day inhabitants there — Drexel Hill, Pa.

      I will return to visit you soon — at your blog. Have been following three friends who spent April taking the A-Z blog challenge. I was busy enough reading and commenting; I don’t know how I could have written daily posts, too.

      Hugs from Delaware where it’s dark as night and rainy.
      Samantha

  4. Mankind continually treats others of different races cruelly from kidnapping people from Mexico to work in the orchards and fields to forcing women and children to work in the factory “sweat shops”, to underpaid females in todays time.

    Or look at what Hitler did to the Jewish people or the cruelty taking place in Africa or even in Russia. Why is it that some people consider people of different races a threat? It truly is sad.

    Thank you for reminding the world of the cruelty that existed. Hopefully, people will grow kinder and smarter… EVENTUALLY!

    • It’s not only race against race, or culture or religion against the like, but also it carries across to cruelty to animals, Gwynn.

      I don’t think it will ever change, for the most part. It’s in human nature. All we can do is learn our history and by so doing make a few others aware, and maybe derive more kindness.

      Anyway, you have no idea (’cause you’re not sitting here) how beautiful the dogwood tree outside my window looks at this moment this evening, in full white blossom against the slate gray sky in the rain. A metaphor for kindness indeed.