On Day 6, the writers had a day to write and relax and watched the film Safe Harbor in the evening. Their prompt was to write about their response to Safe Harbor. What would it have been like to have to navigate unfamiliar terrain in order ot achieve freedom? What did you learn from the documentary that you didn't know before?
Despite its rather silly-sounding voice actors and occasionally over-dramatic language (the divide between the North and the South as a divide between Good and Evil? I don't think so), the documentary Safe Harbor presented the history of the Underground Railroad in a way that made it possible to actually imagine what it might have been like escaping through it. Rather than simply saying, “Yeah, it was hard to escape, only “x”-many slaves did it,” the documentary used personal stories and showed us the terrain the escapees walked – a terrain my fellow Instituters and I have come to be at least partially familiar with.
I have difficulty truly picturing the courage it would have taken to actually leave your home, even that home was a place of bondage, and everything you know, for one shot at freedom. I just imagine how tired, physically tired these people probably were at the beginning of their journey, from years and years of back-breaking work. Then I imagine the physical and emotional exhaustion of the actual escape. Wading through water is tiring. Sleeping outside, or in a barn, or even just a different place every night, is exhausting. When I am exhausted, I can hardly think straight, let alone find the will to traverse a forest or put myself in a situation where I will be hiding from hunting dogs and men with guns.
I was also very interested in all the towns mentioned along the way. I've heard of American utopic experiments, but never Pandenarium. And I never knew there was such a thing as towns of freed slaves. I would be very interested to know what has happened to these communities – which are still around today? How do they remember their history? These sorts of questions have become vital to my mind, after my experience of visiting the area around Ashland and talking to three coal-region residents about their lives. Ashland, particularly, has illustrated for me the deep, deep importance of remembering local history. A parade which has been occurring on Labor Day since the beginning of the decline of the mines is not planned this year, not so much because of a lack of money, but because of a lack of interest. This parade tied Ashton's mining past to its present for so long, and now it has disappeared because people aren't interested. It seems to me that a lack of interest in local history is unraveling the ties which kept this community together.
From the outset, the film Safe Harbor established that the Underground Railroad was “not about trap doors and hidden tunnels”; it was about people coming together to do amazing things. The Underground Railroad was a landscape of, well, landscapes – forests, fields, streams, creeks, safe houses, barns – but it was also a landscape of people. Blacks and whites, Native Americans and people of mixed races were all part of this struggle to freedom. A layered landscape, these people occupied all levels of involvement, from outspoken abolitionists to quiet and fearful supporters and “everywhere in between”, not to mention slave catchers and spies (black and white). Even status was a layered concept: free, free but capturable, enslaved. This made the Underground Railroad as important a landscape to read accurately as any.
Since the Underground Railroad was a landscape that needed to be interpreted, escaping to freedom along its path must have been harrowing. Today, we tend to assume that fleeing slaves followed a clear-cut path, or were lead the entire time by a benevolent guide or guides. However, the Underground Railroad was nowhere near this tame, its followers could never be so passive. People using the network had to fight their way north; they had to be constantly aware, constantly reading, constantly active in their relationship with the landscape. It is also easy to forget the sheer distance they had to cover, confounded by the fact that the majority of slaves would have never seen a map, would have no idea what the geography of the United States looked like. Beyond their frantic drive to go north, north, north, they had to actively construct mental maps as they traveled. To be so engaged with the landscape, and for this engagement to be crucial to not only your freedom but your physical life, must have connected the people using the Underground Railroad to the earth in ways we can only imagine. How sweet their own piece of land must have seemed after this.
I was unfamiliar with Pennsylvania’s specific role in both covert and public acts of abolition, and it was interesting to learn that Pittsburgh was a stronghold for free blacks and hub for aiding escapees. The film also introduced me to the “experimental colony” of Pandenarium, a settlement established by abolitionist Charles Everett that granted escaped slaves houses, land, resources, and $1000. Though the endeavor was not as successful as anyone would have hoped, it’s notable that this is yet another instance where Pennsylvania is envisioned as a sort of utopian society, harkening back to the ideas of Joseph Priestly and Samuel Coleridge in the founding days of the commonwealth.
Honestly, Pennsylvania winters can be quite miserable—I complain indefinitely about them (even in the summer, apparently)—and this is from the perspective of someone who always has a warm home to which she can escape. It doesn’t surprise me that many slaves trying to flee from bondage eventually returned to the South because of the hardships they faced trying to navigate through northern woods and marshes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to face a Pennsylvania winter without the comforting certainty of eventual evasion into the warmth of indoors.
When we watched “Safe Harbor” yesterday, one part that surprised me was the somewhat lengthy discussion of John Brown’s efforts. Before last evening, I really only associated John Brown with the violent slave rebellions in which he was involved in the South, and for which he was later hanged. It was pretty fascinating to learn more about his work in the North and his efforts in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. I feel like these parts of his life are often overlooked in American history books, which is just another example of how incomplete any compilation of history really is, since often it comes from a specific perspective. We have spoken about the complexities of writing about history, especially the ethical factors that are involved in making factual claims. How do we know that what we are claiming is the only true interpretation of a historical event (in which we were presumably not involved). In one part of the film, the narrator described the Mason-Dixon line as a division between North and South, “good and evil”—at which point Lily and I exchanged wary glances. Should a historical film describe an event as a dichotomous split between “good and evil?” While my personal views of that part of history probably do mesh with that claim, I guess that statement also flicked a switch in my brain, reminding me that all history is biased in some way. That history is biased is not necessarily bad, just inevitable. And something that should always be kept in mind as a listener/reader/writer of historical events.
I’ve never been lost in the woods.
Not really, desperately, its-getting-dark lost. I’ve been turned around on road trips hundreds of times, but that’s not the same at all: driving, you take your environment with you. So I’m going to take a wild guess that I don’t have any experience worth comparing to a frantic, fugitive scramble north.
I was told this story, and I forget where the teller had read it. There was an academic, years back, a philosopher dedicated to studying the good and evil in human nature. He thought it was mostly evil, so devoted his research to the Holocaust. There’s so much material there. So his work was going very well, until he got to one village. It was in Austria, or in France. It was deeply religious. And he found that during the war, dozens of Jews, many families’ worth, had sheltered safely there. The villagers had taken them in, said they were their own, and cared for them through the whole war. The scholar stopped dead. For a while, he searched for a reason, an ulterior motive. His entire body of work seemed transmuted, because now he couldn’t say that people had no inherent goodness.
I should go back and find out his name, someday. But isn’t it funny—I heard the story of that village again tonight? Sugartown seems to have been a remarkable place.
I have said before, in one of these journals, that every so often history is surprising. This is an occasion I don’t mind repeating.
Last week, we hiked through Weiser Forest, explored coal towns, and kayaked down the West Branch of the Susquehanna Valley. All of these terrains were unfamiliar to me, and thankfully, we had an expert to lead the way. Once I felt fatigue and hunger starting to set in, the only thing that kept me motivated to keep going was the thought of a meal and much-needed R&R in my cool, comfortable bed away from the bugs, the heat, and the unknown.
Apparently, I would not have survived a day on the Underground Railroad, a journey that was thoroughly risky and treacherous. The desire for freedom is a powerful force, however, according to the film, only the most cunning and determined survived the trek to Lake Erie along the streams and rivers. Waterways provided much better protection because they did not retain a person’s scent. The Railroad, in its most authentic sense, did not consist of houses with secret passageways and hiding spots, as most people think. Sometimes the exodus was organized, but often times it was spontaneous, and many slaves had to wander through the land without any real map or directions. Sorrow Songs, hymns expressing the struggle of these travelers, actually contained hidden messages about how to reach the “Promised Land”. Those who completed the journey would attempt to ride a boat across the water to Canada. But going north did not guarantee Freedom, and it definitely did not promise any amount of equality. In fact, one of the only places that the black slaves were on equal levels with their white counterparts was on a privateer ship, where all members were able to vote on when to fight. Attempts were also made to create a 1000-acre utopia filled with orchards and apartments where equality and freedom would reign. But like most utopias, the town never prospered for very long and freed slaves were unrightfully taken by slave catchers and punished without a fair trial.
We need to hold on to these artifacts, stories, and historical places of the Railroad, so that all to come will be reminded of this country’s fight for freedom, something that many of us take for granted each and every day. Today, we will be exploring the Underground Railroad and though I will never be able to place myself entirely in the shoes of a fugitive slave, I know that this experience will be powerful, poignant, and wholly inspirational.
The trials and tribulations presented during the course of the film Safe Harbor are things far removed the manner in which most of us in modern America live. Personally, I cannot fully comprehend what it must have been like to travel those long miles upriver, literally in the river. Traveling through the water was the safest course of action to avoid leaving a scent for hunting dogs, and many of the escaping slaves would not have had decent footwear, if any. Walking for dozens, hundreds, of miles is something that exists only in concept in my mind, as I do not think that I would possess either the physical strength or the spiritual that would be required to keep struggling, to keep fighting toward a distant goal of freedom.
I knew that there were many people involved with the attempts to allow blacks to live their lives as free men, whether legally free or escaped, but I never realized that there was a community, Sugargrove, wherein blacks could live without worry from the citizens. Interestingly, these citizens used the same Bible to validate this rationale that much of the rest of the nation used to validate the treatment of blacks as rightfully slaves.
Also, I didn't realize that there was a significantly large population of blacks that served on sailing vessels. It was on these vessels where many of them were shown what it was like to have self-value, and they also received equal treatment from whites much of the time, as they were fighting and working together. In retrospect, though, this does make sense, which makes me question why slave masters would allow their slaves to go on such journeys that could award them with individuality.
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