Following a star to the North and freedom

WHEN I WAS A small child growing up in New York City, my mother taught me to sing "Follow the Drinking Gourd." She said it was an old song the slaves had sung at night, and that the gourd in the title was a code word for the Big Dipper, which helped guide those who ran away to freedom in the North.

That summer, I stayed on my grandfather's farm in North Carolina. We didn't have running water, and each morning Grandpamp lowered a bucket on a rope into the well beside the house and hauled it up by turning a big crank he had built out of two-by-fours and an old pine log.


When the water came up in the bucket, it was sweet and cool, and we would taste it out of a long-handled tin dipper that hung on a nail beside the crank.

One night we went outside and looked for the dipper in the sky. It rose low above the pine branches just behind the pasture, and the North Star was the merest glimmer of light over the tobacco shed.


I was reminded of those days by the planetarium show currently at the Maryland Science Center, "Stars of Freedom." The program is a fascinating multimedia account of how runaway slaves used the North Star to navigate their way to freedom along the secret escape routes known as the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad had run through North Carolina, and Grandpamp still remembered someone telling him as a boy that the closest "station" to us on the line had been in High Point, some 30 miles away, where the Quakers had helped fugitives fleeing north with food, clothing and horses.

From there, runaways could head northeast toward Washington and Baltimore, or west into the Shenandoah Valley. Some even traveled due east, toward Dismal Swamp on the Atlantic coast, hoping to lose their pursuers in the dense morasses of that malarial and godforsaken place.

Several North Carolina men later published memoirs of their escapes. In 1838, Moses Roper, who was born in Casell County, wrote his "Narrative of the Adventures and Escape from American Slavery." And in 1858, a slave born on the Hawes plantation in Hanover County wrote down his "Experiences of Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years."

But by far the largest number of the more than 100,000 runaways who reached freedom in the North came from Maryland. In the years before the Civil War, more slaves escaped to the North from Maryland than from any other state.

Their numbers included Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Samuel R. Ward and James W.C. Pennington, Hezekiah Grice and Henry Highland Garnet, all of whom became leading figures in the Abolitionist movement after they attained their freedom.

In a letter to historian Wilbur H. Siebert dated March 27, 1893, Douglass wrote that his involvement with the Underground Railroad predated by many years his own escape from bondage:

"My connection with the Underground Railroad began long before I left the South," Douglass wrote, "and was continued as long as slavery continued, whether I lived in New Bedford, Lynn [both in Massachusetts], or Rochester, N.Y. In the latter place I had as many as eleven fugitives under my roof at one time."


Some runaways found refuge in vessels sailing from the ports of Baltimore and Annapolis. Others made their way in small boats up the Chesapeake Bay and into the Susquehanna River, where they were met by anti-slavery activists in Pennsylvania.

In Western Maryland, runaways used the so-called Appalachian route, which was one of the most important passages to the North and extended as far south as Alabama and Georgia.

The Eastern Shore, too, was honeycombed with secret escape routes. Many of these trails were blazed by Tubman, known as "the Moses of her people," who between 1849 and 1865 made 19 separate trips back to the South to rescue family members and others still living in slavery.

Tubman fled her plantation on the Brodas estate in Bucktown, Dorchester County, in 1849, after a slave from another plantation warned her that her master was about to sell her and her brothers.

She made up her mind then and there to run away. Years later, she described her thoughts at that moment:

"There's two things I got a right to and these are Death and Liberty," she recalled. "One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me."


If blacks risked their lives by running away, so did the whites who helped them.

On June 29, 1850, The Sun reported that James I. Bowers and his wife, of Kent County, both "well known to entertain strong anti-slavery sentiments," had been seized in their home by angry slave-owners, who tarred and feathered the couple and ran them out of the community.

In Baltimore, Rabbi David Einhorn so immersed himself in abolitionist activities that he was driven out of the state as soon as the Civil War began. He fled to Philadelphia, where he continued to crusade against slavery.

When fugitives finally reached freedom in the North, it was a moment few of them ever forgot.

Recalling the morning she crossed over into free territory in Pennsylvania, Tubman said: "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

On his arrival in New York after a perilous journey, Douglass could hardly contain his elation:


"The dreams of my childhood and the purposes of my manhood were now fulfilled. A free state around me, and a free earth under my feet! What a moment this was to me!

"A whole year was pressed into a single day. A world burst upon my agitated vision. It was a moment of joyous excitement which no words can describe. Sensations are too intense and too rapid for words. Joy and gladness, like the rainbow of promise, defy alike the pen and pencil."

I have learned many of these fugitives' tales in the years since my mother taught me to sing "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and told me what the words meant. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman -- their stories seem woven into the very warp and woof of my consciousness.

I recall something else from that time as well, an old memory now made more vivid by having seen "Stars of Freedom" at the planetarium:

The night Grandpamp and I went out to see the dipper in the sky, he showed me how to find the North Star by following the line made by the two end stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, which point straight as an arrow to Polaris, the last, faint star in the Little Dipper's handle.

"That way's north," he said.


And I remember asking him that night whether he thought slavery would ever come back. He looked at me and smiled and said no. Still, I was only a child and terribly afraid of the white people who lived around there. So I found it a comfort to know which way to run, just in case.

Pub Date: 1/26/97