WAYLAND — Some relied on the light of the north star to guide them to safety, and they were known as freedom seekers.
“The Slave Experience and the Underground Railroad” presented by Jerry Bennett was highlighted at the Wayland Historical Society on April 15.
Bennett squeezed 400 years of history into a couple of hours as he took us through the tragic past of slavery and the hope for freedom.
The Underground Railroad was a story of freedom seekers, the ones who helped them, and the ones who tried to cut them down.
Bennett first got interested in the history of slavery and The Underground Railroad a decade ago when his daughter,
Erin Bennett, illustrated a couple of children’s books on the subject.
The song “No More Auction Block” is a slave song that talks about the free men fighting in The Civil War. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and abolished slavery.
In 1850 Frederick Douglass was already paving the way for freedom in Rochester.
Bennett told a story about the year long process of slave trading. Slave traders relied on help from England, France, and Portugal to get hundreds of slaves from Africa.
“Captain John grew up in the slave trade. He eventually captained his own slave ship. We ship out all of our goods to our mother country in England,” Bennett said. “Captain John finds out there is need for rice laborers, and he knows how to enslave the good workers in Africa.”
Most of the slaves working the fields in America were kidnapped from their villages in Africa. They were anywhere from 15 to 50 years old to be hard workers.
These slaves were taken to castle like structures in America and held there to be bought or traded.
“The Door to No Return” is a true account of Cape Coast Castle that was one of the most famous holding places for slaves, and it is still standing today.
There were bracelets made with bells by the mother country to be used in the purchasing of slaves.
“Captain John knew to pick up more slaves than was needed, since many slaves would die on the ship ride over,” Bennett said. “There were a number of cases when slaves would jump the ship, and they would be considered lost cargo. Captain John would get reimbursed for lost slaves.”
Eventually Captain John Newton felt conflicted by what he was a part of and created one of the most beloved songs of all time “Amazing Grace.” This talked about his journey from a slave trader to priesthood.
Charleston was like the Ellis Island of the slave trade. Slaves were taken to Charleston to be auctioned off in droves.
The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston is still standing and has fascinating and disturbing things about that time period.
“In the 1930s out of work writers and authors were sent to interview the last remaining slaves who were all in their 90s,” Bennett said. “You can hear all of their stories at the museum. It is really fascinating. They were all forgotten and during the Civil Rights Movement they were dusted off. Many of these stories have been turned into books now.”
“Many of the young female slaves were made to breed with the white slave owners, so that they could have access to free slaves through the slave laws,” Bennett continued. “A child could be born into slavery.”
In the case of The Underground Railroad it was really all about using the train system as code for freedom seekers to use.
“Some would hide underground or hop on a train, but it really has nothing to do with being underground or the railroad,” Bennett said. “Many would jump on a ship to get away, and would find a nice captain that would take them to Canada.”
When the Abolishist came into full swing they would refer to these people as the Slave Saviors.
In the 1830s the trains became a very popular thing, so a lot of that language was used to describe freedom.
“Frederick Douglass was like the station master, the railroad was the route, and the tickets were the tickets in your heart to freedom,” Bennett said. “There were many who chose to help the freedom seekers by shelter, odd jobs, or supporting anti-slavery.”
Bennett told the story of Frederick Douglass going from being a slave, to finding freedom, to befriending people like Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton.
In 1860 Harriet Tubman helped immensely in the dawn of The Underground Railroad movement.
Tubman claimed the train never went off track, and she never lost a single passenger.
William Still wrote about the first hand accounts of freedom seekers on The Underground Railroad. Most of the code freedom seekers used were train terms.
In 1854 there was an account of a slave finding freedom in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and most of that is true. It was like publishing the key to freedom.
The history of slave quilt making was very powerful in the success of The Underground Railroad as well.
“The North Star would guide them to freedom, the flying geese would show them where to go in the day, and if the cabin was a dark patch it was safe,” Bennett said. “If your home was built in the 1840s or 1850s there is a strong chance it was used on The Underground Railroad. You might find a secret passage way to a root cellar. There are many out there.”
Many slaves stayed in Canada and enjoyed their newfound freedom, but some returned to get their families after The Civil War.