Tragedy & Triumph

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

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From my book, Tragedy and Triumph, Elmira, New York, 1835-65

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

The black man leaned forward in his seat and in a staccato voice, as if reading from a list, said, “Under no circumstance draw attention to yourself. Work to become a trusted part of the community. Confide in no one; simply keep your own counsel. Always be on your guard. Do not attend any abolitionist meetings, associate with anyone labeled that way. You must appear indifferent to the cause. Remember this well: you have volunteered to help fugitive slaves reach freedom. If you fail in this, you fail us all.”

Elizabeth nodded solemnly.

Joshua Edwards scowled at her as they sat across from one another on two wooden chairs. The small room, located in the musty third floor of the university’s library, contained little furniture other than the chairs, and a table filled with jars of glue, needles, thread, and books that needed to be mended. A small window nailed shut to its casement in the corner let in little light. Elizabeth wished that she could open it but remained seated as she waited for him to speak again. There was no sound in the room; a dense silence that spoke of the heaviness of their meeting pervaded the air.

Rigid and mute for several minutes, head tilted back, the freed slave looked down his nose in wordless contempt at the still woman before him, her hands folded in her lap in the attitude of prayer. He glared at her through heavy eyebrows, his mouth tight and jaw set hard. Elizabeth watched as he breathed deeply through his nostrils, the hair on his mustache and beard laboring back and forth. His hands, tightly fisted on his knees, looked as though they could spring out suddenly to strike her.

She thrust out her chin, narrowed her eyes into slits, and glared back at the man, determined to endure his intimidation. Unbearable minutes passed. A sharp pain spread from her shoulders and rippled down her back, and she bit her tongue to blot out any thoughts of moving about to relieve it. She could show no weakness or fear. If he wanted to see her unwavering resolve, she would show him. Elizabeth leaned closer to his face so that she could feel his breath on her cheeks.

Finally, he spoke. “Mrs. Sutherland, you will give food and clothing, and possibly a bed to harbor anyone using your station. Most of your runaways will be exhausted and hungry from the long trip. Don’t be surprised if they become terrified of any sudden noise or suspicious person. God knows, some will be weak, in pain or sick. If there is a problem along the way, you will be alerted by another station master fifteen miles from down the line.”

She remained silent as he lit a large cigar and leaned back in his chair so that his immense frame was balanced on two pine chair legs. “Someone should be with them to guide them along, but not always,” he continued. “The runaways will be told where you live and they’ll be looking for a lighted lamp in the back window at night; they’ll follow the light. That is the signal that it’s safe to enter the shelter of your home. Do you understand this? Well?”

He sucked on the cigar, blew smoke into the air above his head, and regarded it as it hung trapped in the corner of the ceiling. He looked at the woman before him. “I must tell you that I personally hate many well-meaning volunteers who act as conductors. They’re useless and probably compromise the escape route, the other conductors, and the fugitives— God help them—clawing their way to Canada. It should be a Negro man’s job. There, I’ve said it. Woman should stay at home, mind their own business, and let men run this business.”

He grunted, blew another cloud of cigar smoke in the air and stared. Elizabeth tried to remain unreadable, even though her dress was soaked through the shoulders and her hair was wet against the sides of her straw bonnet.

“Mrs. Sutherland, do you understand the Fugitive Slave Law? Are you prepared to pay a fine or go to jail, if caught harboring runaways? You will be accused as a thief, someone taking stolen property. Mrs. Sutherland, look at me.  Have you ever seen the inside of a jail? Are you prepared to suffer abuse and degradation at the hands of men who care little about the sanctity of womanhood? Are you?” the voice boomed.

“Yes, of course I will,” Elizabeth replied clearly, enunciating each word as though the man were hard of hearing. “And, no, I have not seen the inside of a jail,” she replied softly after some thought.

“And the rest? Are you ready to be called a criminal, a thief, a fanatic who willingly breaks the law of our land?  My God, woman, there are some who would like to see you hanged for treason. Maybe some lawyer would like to use you as an example and you’ll be pilloried for sedition. That can happen, you know.”

She sat still; her heart raced and her breath exhaled in short bursts. Elizabeth listened and then lifted up both palms towards his face as if to stop his words. “I will have to endure whatever happens. Any hard treatment I get will be small compared to what will happen to the runaways if I’m caught.”

“Don’t be mistaken, Madam,” the man said.  He spat brown liquid on the floor by the hem of her dress.

She did not look to see if the spit stained her dress, instead looked into his face, his eyes, his open mouth.

He continued, “The slaves will be returned as recovered property. If you are caught, no one will help you. No one will want to implicate themselves. Friends and family will turn their backs to you and walk away for good. And all for strangers, Negro strangers. Are you prepared to risk your life for a bunch of people you’ll never see again?”

Strangers. Most of the people that she had known in her life: Truman, the fine people who buried her father, the men and women who turned away their faces if a free slave walked down the street, they were the strangers. There was only one person she trusted: Adam, and he was not as committed to help as she was.

She sat before the man and shivered. She took a deep breath and asked, “How will I be alerted to feed or to harbor a runaway? Will someone tell me beforehand or should I wait until someone knocks on my backdoor in the middle of the night?”

“You will be told in a very simple way. Be prepared. You need to do all of your shopping at the green grocer on Mercury Street. You will never hear the term ‘runaway slave’ from anyone. It’s too risky.”

The man looked out of the window and coughed. “Your husband, Professor Sutherland, supports your involvement in this? He will be implicated if you’re caught, a federal offence.”

“Yes, he does,” she lied. Then she smiled.

Joshua Edwards’s composure vanished. He pointed his finger in Elizabeth’s face and growled, “Listen you, this isn’t about glory for helping fugitives, or awards you can hang on the wall and share when your women friends come to gossip in the afternoon. It isn’t about you and your refined sensibilities at all. It’s about people who are trying to escape a filthy, rotten, dirty world where they’ve had to put their trust and faith into white-skinned people, the same damn color of skin that has tortured and oppressed them for as long as they can remember. If you make a mistake while helping these fugitives, it isn’t merely a mistake. It’s a sin on your lily-white skin.”

He got up and thundered out of the room. Her cheeks felt hot as though they had been slapped. In the silence for several minutes, she listened to her own breathing.  Fast, then slow, and slower. She shook her head from side to side as though to revive some resolve that was firmly imbedded inside her and stood up from her chair. She removed her hat, raked her damp hair with both hands, and drew a deep breath.  She would not listen to the voices that whispered in her mind.  She would not listen to the doubt in the man’s words. There was a small sliver of hope inside her and she held on to it.

“Strangers,” she said to the empty room.  “I must get ready for them.”

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