Civil War Looms:
Searing The American Soul
Frank Yerby: A Victim’s Guilt
Fugitive Slave Law Click Here
Episode Two: Underground Railroad
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The morning following Garrison’s abolitionist rally at the African Meeting House, Freddie Douglass and Wes Parks discuss plans for Wes’ Underground Railroad station. They must decide where to hide the fugitives, where to construct the secret entrances and exits and the location of Wes’ underground tunnel.
“I don ’t think you ’re going to have any problem,Wes,” Freddie says. “You’ve got enough land to build your tunnel anywhere.”
An underground tunnel means security for the fugitive slaves as well as the family assisting them. Some white abolitionists helping fugitive slaves have underground tunnels, but most do not. By assisting fugitive slaves, white abolitionists weren’t courting any danger ___ especially in Boston. The whites in New England shared the common interest of getting rid of as many blacks as possible.
But colored abolitionists whose homes did not have an escape tunnel risked having their fugitives recaptured and their entire family, legally free or not, sold into slavery. Wes’ land, situated on the north side of Beacon Hill, spilled down towards Roxbury. In the spring, Wes farmed a variety of vegetables. His maple trees and fruit orchards formed a miniature forest. Ruby preserved apples, pears and peaches from their orchards and distributed the preserves to Boston’s black families year round.
“No! I’ll have no problem digging the tunnel,” Wes observes, “just a problem keeping it a secret.”
“You are right about that,”Freddie agrees. “I’d suggest that you dig two tunnels. That way you …”
“Hold on there,” Wes interrupts, “aren’t you getting carried away? Digging one tunnel is going to be difficult enough. I know you don ’t think I’m going to dig two of them.”
“I guess you’re right,” Freddie agrees.
How long do you think the tunnel should be?” Wes asks.
“It needs to be long enough to get your passengers away from the house and hidden until they can be on their way, that’s all,” Freddie replies. “Twenty yards ought to do it, thirty at the most.” Freddie and Wes continue surveying the property, discussing whether to begin the tunnel from the apple cellar in the house or from the barn in the back.
After awhile Freddie begins to vent his frustration with the white abolitionists. “They say they want to help us, but they really don’t,” Freddie complains. “The northern whites just want to get rid of us.” Wes nods his agreement.
“Colored folks can’t even ride on a coach here in Boston,” Freddie continues. “The only reason these people up here in the North are helping get slaves into Canada is because David Walker showed them up as hypocrites.”
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“And they killed him for it,” Wes observes.
“When did he write his book,” Douglass laughs, “almost thirty years ago? And they still haven’t gotten over it.” Wes shakes his head.
“So now all these good Christian white folks are kindly helping us darkies out of their country.” Freddie laughs at the irony. “The American Colonization society is sending blacks back to Africa and Garrison’s abolitionists are sending them to Canada. All the while, they declare themselves to be ‘good’ Christians. I keep wondering what the ‘bad’ Christians are like.”
“But, you’ve got to admit that a lot of black people want to get out of America,” Wes observes. The two ex-slaves stare out over the land, each lost in his own thoughts. Wes is estimating the materials he needs to build the tunnel; Freddie broods about vengeance.
“They act like they still own us,” Freddie says, continuing to voice his frustration.
“I’ll need half again as many timbers, if I begin the tunnel at the house than if I start at the barn,” Wes muses. “Where does the railroad end?”
“Wherever you want it to.”
“I mean where in Canada.”
“Oh!” Freddie says. “St. Catharines near Niagara Falls in Ontario province.” Freddie resumes his rant. “There is no life here in America for blacks. They are in servitude one way or another. They are either slaves or debtors and it’s hard to tell which is worse.”
“Even in Canada blacks won’t really be free.” Frank Yerby had walked down from the house and now joins the conversation. “Besides which, it’s really cold in Canada.”
“Hi, Frank.” Wes greets his house guest, pleasantly. “Freddie, this is Frank Yerby. He’s staying with us for awhile.”
“Yes, I saw Frank last night at the abolitionist meeting.” Yerby and Douglass shake hands.
“Freddie was complaining about how white folks think they still own us.”
“Well, Freddie,” Yerby says, “get use to it. The passage of the Fugitive Slave law gives you a real good indication of their plans and very little is going to change.”
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“And why is that?” Douglass asks.
“Land!” Yerby explains. “Millions of acres of free land! Whites from all over Europe have their hopes and dreams wrapped up in land ownership. Poor Europeans are flooding into America, willing to work like slaves, just for the opportunity to own their own land. White Americans have no intention of sharing their land with anyone, let alone black slaves. That’s why the abolitionists want to get rid of blacks, into Canada, back to Africa, anywhere, just as long as they don’t interfere with their plans to grab as much free land as possible.”
“You don’t think the abolitionists are kinder than the planters?” Douglass asks.
“The planters are the lords of the lash and the abolitionists are the lords of the loom,” Yerby replies.
“You apparently have never been a slave,” Douglass asserts, “You have no way of knowing the level of cruelty and evil to which the slave masters descend.”
“What makes you think these northerners are not capable of the same level of cruelty?” Yerby asks.
“Northern whites are different because of their religion,” Douglass rationalizes. “They
are God-fearing people and for that reason they don’t treat us like animals.”
“I think you’re confused,” Yerby replies. “Either you don’t know or don’t understand the facts.” He stares at Douglass with a look of pity. Before Freddie can reply, Ellen Ingraham emerges from the house to join them.
“Mr. Douglass,” she says, “I am so happy I found you.”
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“And why is that, Mrs. Ingraham?” Freddie asks, his face lighting up at the sight of the beautiful octoroon from Mississippi.
“I had hoped that you could put me in contact with Dr. Randolph,” Ellen says.
“Oh, him!” Freddie Douglass is visibly disappointed. “I was hoping that I, myself, could be of some service to you.”
“Oh, but you can,” Ellen replies.“You see, I wish to contact Dr. Randolph on a professional matter. He told me last night that he was planning to open an office here in Boston. I wanted to know how soon we might expect the opening.”
“Dr. Randolph?” Freddie’s tone indicates how little the black abolitionist respects the Rosicrucian Society’s grand master. “Are you referring to the P.B. Randolph with whom I shared the podium at the Vigilance Committee Meeting, last night?”
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“The very same,” Ellen replies. She is barely able to contain her excitement. “Do you know how to contact him in his New York office?”
“I believe he is located in Stockbridge in upstate New York, just south of Syracuse.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Douglass,” she says. Then Ellen flies out of the yard, neglecting to say goodbye to anyone.
“Well, I never ___,” Ruby exclaims when Wes tells her about Ellen’s strange behavior. “What’s gotten into her and who is this Dr. Randolph she’s talking about?”
“You know this doctor?” Wes asks Freddie.
“Doctor!” Freddie scoffs, “P.B. Randolph is no doctor. The last time I heard of him, he was cutting hair and claiming to be able to communicate with the dead.”
“What?” Ruby says.
“Yes!” Freddie declares. “He is associated with the spiritualists. Some say he has been able to contact departed family members. Others say he’s part of New York’s free love movement.”
“Free love movement?” Ruby gasps.“What is that?”
“A number of women are beginning to say that marriage is just another form of slavery,” Yerby answers. “They are concerned with women’s rights. Free love is a way of venting their frustration over being dominated by men. The spiritualist and free love movements overlap the anti-slavery movement which is why so many women are abolitionists .”
“You don’t think that Ellen …?” Ruby stops in midsentence. “You can’t believe Ellen …!”
“I don’t know about your friend,” Freddie says,“but I have heard that many white women have become thoroughly infatuated with Paschal Beverly Randolph. They support him financially and politically.”
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“Ellen ’s not white!” Ruby declares. Then after a short pause, Ruby asks Freddie.“Why does he call himself, doctor?”
“Randolph sells concoctions and love potions,” Freddie tells Ruby. “His customers, men as well as women, swear by them.”
Wes thinks about Kpadunu, his childhood friend in Dahomey. Kpadunu belonged to the roots and herbs guild and taught Wes much about medicines and poisons. “Love is a magnetic force,” Wes remembered Kpadunu teaching him. “Hate needs fear to project its will upon a subject. When individuals share love, will needs no other agent.”
Ellen Ingraham loses no time contacting P.B. Randolph. “I wish to consult with you, immediately,” she writes. It seems like an eternity, waiting for his reply. So long, it seems that Ellen becomes distracted. She overlooks the simplest of her household chores. Dwight notices the changes in Ellen. She becomes irritable whenever he tries to talk to her. Dwight worries. Something is wrong. The children also notice the change in their mother. After two weeks Ellen receives Dr. Randolph’s reply.
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“My dear lady,” he writes, “although my circumstances will not permit me to return to Boston at this time, you are most welcome to come to Stockbridge for a consultation. Please inform me of the time of your arrival and I will make suitable accommodations.” Even before she finishes reading his letter, Ellen knows what she will do.
“Oh, Abby,” Ellen cries, “you’ve just gotta go with me. I can’t go by myself. What would people say?”
“Fiddle-Dee-Dee!” Abby taunts, “they’d say the same thing about you whether I went or not.” Ellen and Abby love each other like sisters and they fight like sisters. Abby had decided to accompany Ellen when she first heard about the plan. Abby wouldn’t miss out on this adventure for anything in the world. Besides I also might need some consultation with this Dr. Randolph, Abby laughs to herself. Abby is having some fun by keeping Ellen guessing. Sometimes sisters are mean to each other, especially if one is white.
“But Abby, two sisters traveling together will not cause any concern,” Ellen continues to plead, unmindful of the mischievious twinkle in Abby’s eyes. “Afterwards we can continue on to New York City, if you like; I’ll even pay for the trip.”
This last remark angers Abby. She reacts by flashing Ellen a venomous look. “Since when do I need some uppity nigger to pay for me?”
“Oh, Abby, I didn ’t mean ___,” Ellen says, wringing her hands together in despair. Her beautiful green eyes began to swell and a great flood of tears tumble down her cheeks. “It’s just that I had not realized how really lonely I have been, and Dr.Randolph seems to know exactly what I feel and how to help me. Oh, Abby, if you don’t help me what am
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I going to do?” Ellen’s tears drowns out her words and she begins sobbing. The sight is enough to melt the hardest, most insensitive heart, and Abigail’s heart is far from insenstive. It is just that Abby is so bitterly disappointed with her own life ___ with Joe, but mostly with herself. The circumstances of her birth had begun to weigh her down. At first, it was a lark that Abby learned that her real father was not Barton Collins, but Wilks Thomas. Her mother, Suzanna Collins, took revenge on Bart for embarrassing her with all his ‘yard’ children, including Joe and Ellen. When Abby came to Boston with Joe, she was the happiest woman alive. But, everything had changed. Now she was a nobody and an outcast, banned from ever returning home. Joe chased women, gambled and spent their modest income on every imaginable vice.
“Oh, Ellen,” Abby said, hugging her sister, “don’t cry, honey chile, don’t cry. Of course, I’ll go with you to see Dr. Whateverhisnameis.”
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“You will?” Ellen looks up happily. “Oh, thank you, thank you ever so much. I knew I could depend on you. I love you so much!”
“Now, now, honey chile,” Abby comforts her. “Don’t I always look after you, don’t I always take care of you? Dry those tears and let’s start planning our trip.”
Joe Collins has no objections to Abby leaving; as a matter of fact, it is the best news he has heard in weeks. Dwight Ingraham, on the other hand, absolutely refuses to allow Ellen to leave Boston without him. For weeks, Ellen begs and pleads with Dwight, but to no avail. Dwight makes private inquiries about Dr. Paschal Beverly Randolph and is not pleased by what he learns. Dwight is no prude. The fact that he married a Negro and brought her to Boston, estranging himself from family and friends, testifies to his liberality. Dwight Ingraham is disturbed by Randolph’s reputation as a spiritualist and a libertine. Neither is he convinced of the genuiness of his wife’s medical emergency. Her strange malady did not even manifest itself until after Ellen had met this Negro svengali.
“Dwight,” Ellen begs, “I know that Dr. Randolph can help me.”
“Why can’t you see one of the doctors here in Boston?” her husband asks.
“If you loved me, you’d let me go.” Ellen is desperate.
“A couple of weeks ago, you were afraid to leave the house,” Dwight observes. “You
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saw slave catchers everywhere. Now you want to go traipsing about the country, unescorted, because some Voodoo witch doctor has cast a spell over you.”
“Maybe that’s why I’ve got to see him,” Ellen replies, “because he knows magic and is the only one who can help me.” It was the kind of logic that baffled smarter men than Dwight Ingraham. He could see that refusing her request only caused their relationship to deteriorate. So Dwight gave in. He paid the expenses and made the arrangements for both Ellen and Abby to travel to Stockbridge.
“Guess what!” Ellen cries bursting into Dwight’s study. She had just returned from telling Ruby about the trip.
“What?” Her husband smiles. Their relationship had gotten a lot better since he had given into her strange request.
“Freddie is going to take Wes and his friend, Frank Yerby, along the entire Underground Railroad route into Canada.” Ellen gives Dwight a big hug. “They’ll escort Abby and me to New York. And Wes will meet us in Stockbridge on his return trip and escort us back to Boston.”
“Sounds great,” Dwight says, uncertain whether to be happy or sad, but trying to sound supportive, at least.
It was a brisk New England day when a strange party composed of a white woman, a colored woman passing for white, a fugitive slave, a former fugitive slave, an African and an alien all arrive at Boston’s railroad terminal to board the B&W passenger train. The B&W is bound for Worcester with connections to Albany, Syracuse and across the Canadian border to St. Catharines. The conductor, a middle-aged railroad man, beams at Abby and Ellen, “Good day, ladies! Traveling to Worcester with us today?”
“We’re going to New York,” Abby replies.
“Well, then, you’re planning to catch the Western in Worcester,” the conductor informs them. “It takes you right into Albany, New York.” Then taking out two tickets, he says, “Your fare will be $1.67 for each of you ladies.”
“I hope you will help us to our next train,” Abby says, exuding a southern charm that tickles the conductor. Abby is always coquettish when she is with Ellen. How else can Abby keep the men from overlooking her and staring at Ellen?
“You can depend on me, madam,” the conductor promises. “I’ll see you safely on board. Now, do any of these colored boys here belong to you? We don’t allow no coloreds to ride in the coach with the white folks. But I can make a special fair discount if any of these boys belong to you.”
Eyeing the Negro in his frock coat, white shirt and silk cravat, the conductor has his own private joke. The conductor recognizes Freddie from a previous trip. Douglass had made such a fuss by refusing to ride in the baggage car with the other blacks that he was allowed him to ride in the coach with the whites, just to keep the B&W on schedule. Ellen put on a brave front, but passing for white had always been difficult. Normally Dwight would take care of things. This was her first time away from his protection and she was experiencing a sickening fear that started in the pit of her stomach and then crawled upwards into her breast, making her heart pump just a little faster and her breathing a little more difficult. She squeezed Abby’s hand.
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“This one here is with us,”Abby says, indicating Shields Green, the fugitive slave that Freddie and Wes are escorting to Canada. “Now Shields, you take care of our trunks, you heah. ” Abby loves emphasizing her southern drawl.
“Yes’m,” Green replies, keeping his head low and his eyes glued to the platform.
“Well,” the conductor says, “he can ride for half fare, but he’s gotta go up front.” The conductor motions Shields Green forward to the baggage car. After seating Abby and Ellen in the Overton passenger carriage, the conductor returns to the platform and seats the remaining passengers. Three of them are shady-looking characters whose evil glares and sardonic grins identify them as slave catchers. Like bloodhounds, the slave catchers had caught the scent of fear, not from any of the four black men, but from Ellen.
“That ’n ’s an octoroon as sure as I’m born,” whispers the one whose grimy fingers most matches the blackness of his jagged teeth. “Some rich feller’s yard chile.”
“And I’ll be damned to glory,” another one murmurs in reply, “if that nigger with them ain’t a runaway, hisself.” The others nod in agreement.
“Yes siree,” the third one says,“we done got us some runaways for sure. And even if they ain’t, that little white abolitionist lady ain’t gonna do nothing about us cashin’ in.”
“After riding this train car for the past month with nuthin’ to show for it ’cept a sore behind,” the leader says, “this here trip is going to pay off, right fine. Yes indeed, that one there is gonna fetch us a handsome price.”
“Oh, Abby, do you see them?” Ellen whispers hoarsely. She tries to keep from peeking at the three slave catchers who have been leering at her since the B&W departed Boston. The train has been meandering over the New England countryside for two hours. Its taken that long before Ellen dared express her fears to Abby. Why didn’t I listen to Dwight? Ellen had been asking herself over and over. She tries to ignore the slave catchers. But to no avail. Every so often, one would catch her peeking at them. Then the three southerners would start cackling together. Ellen’s nervousness amuses them. “Yessiree, we done caught a good ‘n,” the leader tells his boys. Ellen decides to put on a brave face. At least I can try not to make the situation worse, Ellen resolves. Wes will take care of us; I just need to be patient.
“Don ’t pay any attention to them.”Abby snaps at Ellen. “They’re just poor white trash.” But both of them know better and both realize their situation is grave.
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ow madam,” the grinning B&W conductor says, addressing Abby, “later this afternoon, the Western arrives on that track over there, and it leaves from there tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM sharp. So you tell your boy, here, to get your bags down on the platform in plenty of time.”
During the nearly four hours that it took the B&W to travel thirty-five miles from Boston to Worcester, Ellen and Abby bumped, rattled and twisted so badly that both of them are heartily thankful for the stop over. They can still feel the imprint of the B&W’s wooden seats, even standing there on the platform. Ellen can also feel the eyes of the slave catchers, watching and mocking her. Abby feels them, too. She believed the trip would be an adventure. Now the trip has turned dangerous, at least for Ellen. No matter, Abby tells herself, even if Ellen is arrested, I’ll get her released straight away and Shields Green, too. After all, a white woman’s word stands for something, even up north.
The slave catchers lurk about the B&W platform watching, waiting, trying to appear inconspicuous. Abby chats with the conductor.
“Is the railroad always that bumpy,” Abby complains.
“That little ride was nothing,” the conductor laughs, “tomorrow you’re traveling over a
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hundred miles and it’s gonna take more than eight hours.”
“Then we had better try to get some rest,” Ellen interjects. Actually Ellen wants to get back on the B&W and return to Boston. But her body aches so from the ride, that the thought of getting back on that railroad car makes Ellen cringe. That is not the only reason she doesn’t return home. What little pride Ellen has, will not allow her to abandon the trip, even if this entire idea is stupid and she has been a silly fool for proposing it. How can I look so white and behave like such a half-witted darkie? she asks herself.
So rather than following her instincts, Ellen decides to see her ill-fated journey through to the end, just as if she were a character in a Frank Yerby novel. Turning to Abby, Ellen says, “Possibly this gentleman can direct us to someplace we can rest for the evening. Lord, I’m tired.”
“I’m with you, honey chile,” Abby agrees. “I’m tired ___ and hungry, too.”
“You two ladies can go down the street there,” the conductor says pointing across the tracks. “Mrs. Sumner has a nice comfortable boarding house. And she has a right decent cook, so I’ve been told. All the young ladies stay there on their way to New York. It’s not far from here. Anyone can direct you. Your boy here can stay in her barn out back.” With that, Abby and Ellen take the short walk up the street to Mrs. Sumner’s Boardinghouse with Shields Green following with their bags.
Watching the two retreating figures, one of the slave catchers says, “Let’s get ’em.”
“Now, boy,” the leader says, “don’t you go gettin’ ahead of yourself, you heah?”
“What you mean, Claude?”
“We got the law on our side. All we’ve got to do is get to New York. Won’t have no trouble getting warrants for those two darkies, there. Besides, if we grab them now, how we gonna get them back down South?”
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Jake, the one who made the suggestion, had a sheepish look on his face. “I guess I don ’t know, Claude,” he admits.
“That’s right, boy,” Claude says. “Now you let me do the thinkin’. Once we get to Albany and we get our warrants, we can take a steamer pretty near all the way down to Charleston with nobody sayin’ nothing to us.”
“That’s a good idea,” the other slave catcher, Jake’s brother, says.
“Of course there is one problem,” Claude muses.
“What’s that?” Jake asks.
“Can’t have no white woman nay sayin’ us before the judge,” Claude observes.
“Then I guess we just going to have to get rid of that little white abolitionist,” Jake’s brother suggests.
“Yep,” says Jake. “By the sound of her voice she a southerner who’s turned agin her own folks for a nigra. I say whatever happens to her, she deserves it.”
All three are in agreement. Claude fingers his Bowie knife with a loving caress. He’s had it since the Mexican War. It’s defended him and given him lots of pleasure. An evil smile plays at the corner of his mouth, bristling his tobacco-stained whiskers.
Freddie spotted the three slave catchers even before they saw Ellen. He told Wes and Frank Yerby about them. Spotting his enemies came second nature to Frederick Douglass. He knew slave catchers by their rat-like odor; their smell was a cross between a skunk and an outhouse. He knew them by their dirty fingernails and rotten teeth. He knew them by the tobacco running down their scraggily faces. Freddie, Wes and Frank followed Ellen and Abby at a distance, making certain the women reach the boardinghouse safely.
“Do you think they’ll do anything at that boardinghouse?” Wes asks Freddie.
“I don ’t think so, but let’s not take any chances,” Freddie counsels .“We should watch both the boardinghouse and those slave catchers.”
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“Shields can tell the ladies that we’re watching over them.”
“Do we tell them about the slave catchers?” Wes asks.
“If we tell them,” Freddie says,“they might give us away. Our only real advantage is surprise.”
“That’s no advantage,” Yerby says. “They have the law. If they bring her before a judge and accuse her of being a fugitive, Ellen will not be able to testify on her own behalf.”
“Abby can testify,” Freddie says. “We just need to protect them.”
“It’s all well and good to talk about protecting them,” Wes frowns, “but did you see their weapons? They’ve got six-shot revolvers, rifles, Bowie knives and whips. Not one of us has a weapon of any kind. Being unarmed makes protecting damsels in distress somewhat difficult.”
“Even if we had weapons,” Yerby pipes in, “We couldn’t beat these killers.” Yerby has not gotten over his travels in Mississippi nor his memories of Pedro and Bessie hanging from a tree, victims of an ill-planned and ill-fated revolt. “I think in the long run,” Yerby continues, “we need a good plan. A good plan would be better than trying to shoot it out with these ‘good ole boys’.”
“You’re right, of course,” Wes agrees, “but I still think we need weapons. In this country a man’s not a man unless he can protect himself and his women. There is also the fear factor.”
“The fear factor?” Yerby repeats.
“These boys don’t fear nothing but the whip, the knife and the gun,” Wes says. “They’re not afraid of smart ass niggers. They are afraid of smart ass niggers with guns. They’re especially afraid of smart ass niggers with guns who will fight.”
“Of course, if it ever comes to using weapons,” Freddie says, “we’d be lost. Them boys have probably killed more men before they were old enough to shave then all of us put together.” Freddie Douglass was not aware that Wesley Parks had presented the heads of many enemies to the king of Dahomey and, if ever Wes got his hands on a weapon, he would make good use of it.
“All this is well and good,” Yerby says, “but shouldn’t somebody get down to Shields and let him know what’s going on?”
“I’ll watch over them for sure,” Shields promises Freddie after being told about the slave catchers. The moonlit night passes with the four black men taking turns watching the slave catchers as well as Mrs. Sumner’s boardinghouse.
The next morning, Abby and Ellen arrive on time at the Western Railroad platform. Shields Green carries their luggage. The two sisters are rested. They are happy that they took the conductor’s advice and stayed at Mrs. Sumner’s boardinghouse. The food was excellent and the beds comfortable. By 8:15 AM, Abby and Ellen are chugging through the Massachusetts landscape towards Albany. In the baggage car, Freddie begins laying out a plan. “When the train gets to Albany, we need to get them away from the station as quickly as possible,” he tells the others. “Albany’s Underground Railroad will assist us. Shields, you’ll continue to act as Ellen and Abby’s servant. Follow me, closely, understand.”
“Tell the ladies that they must keep up. They must not tarry.”
“I’ll tell them, suh,” Shields assures Freddie.
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“So this is what it’s like being a conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Yerby says in a half joking manner.“I can’t imagine going through this everyday.”
Freddie gives the Negro author a look of distain. “Maybe you need to imagine what its like being black everyday,” Freddie says sourly. “From now until we reach Canada, which is the only really safe place for any colored person these days, I must insist that you do exactly as I say without making any comments.”
“Absolutely,” Yerby replies.
“Yes suh,” Green agrees.
“Yes, I will follow your directions,” Wes says. “But our chances of surviving any confrontation with those slave catchers, without weapons and without legal protections are very limited.”
Freddie ignores Wes’ comment. “Rensselaer is a town that lies directly across the Hudson River from Albany,” he continues. “That’s where the free coloreds mostly live. The only coloreds allowed in Albany proper are servants or slaves living with white families. The first place those slave catchers gonna look for Ellen when they get their warrants is in Rensselaer.”
“Why will they think Ellen and Abby would go over there?” Wes asks.
“Because that’s where Stephen Meyers runs his Underground Railroad station,” Freddie replies. “Slave catchers always search Rensselaer for fugitive slaves. So here’s the plan. At Albany, I’ll get off first. Shields, you take Ms. Abby’s and Ms. Ellen’s bags and make certain that they follow me, no matter what. You understand?”
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“Yes Suh,” Green replies.
Then Freddie turns to Wes and Frank. “I want you two fellas to take the ferry across the river to Rensselaer. Past the docks, you should find Pete’s Porterhouse. Anyone can tell you where it is. You should be safe enough there until I come for you. Okay?”
Wes and Frank nod their agreement.
“When I’m certain the ladies are safe, I’ll meet you at Pete’s. Then we’ll go to Stephen Meyers’ place. He’ll get us out of there with no problem.”
“Do they serve food at Pete’s Porterhouse?” Wes asks. “Its been a day since we’ve eaten.”
“Oh, yes,” Freddie chuckles. “You ’ll be able to eat all you want over at Pete’s.”
Frederick Douglass has safely conducted many fugitive slaves from Albany over the Underground Railroad. He is certain that he can protect Ellen and Abby, without the use of weapons.
When the Western Railroad reaches Albany, it’s early evening. The setting sun casts long shadows over New York’s bustling capital. Passengers disembark the train and scuttle off, hoping to reach their destination before nightfall drapes the city in gloom. Shields Green unloads the ladies’ bags and directs them to follow after Frederick Douglass’ rapidly moving figure. Looking neither to the right nor the left, Freddie crosses the tracks and, merging with the evening crowd, marches directly into Albany’s downtown area. The three slave catchers gather below the railroad platform. They have a clear view of the two women and their boy. “Don’t crowd them,” Claude instructs Jake. “You and your brother just follow them so we know where we can get a hold of them when we need to. I’m gonna go fetch the warrants and some help from the local police. When you find out where they’re at, meet me down across the river where them free niggers live. Right across the river there! You hear me, boy?”
“Yes, Claude,” Jake replies.
“All right, you two get on now ___ and don’t lose them, you heah?”
Claude watches Jake and his brother tagging after Abby, Ellen and Shields Green until they disappear with others crossing over the tracks and up the street. Guess I’m jest gonna have to disturb the old fugitive slave commissioner this evening, Claude tells himself. But I’m sure he won’t mind a bit, seeing as how I’m bringing him a tidy little sum just for signing a couple of blank warrents.
A block past the train station, Freddie allows Shields and the women to catch up to him. Then Freddie whispers, “Follow me close! I’m leading you to a livery stable.” The women nod their agreement.
Any attentive passerby walking the Albany streets on this particular evening might have noticed a strange parade mingled with Albany’s evening crowd. First comes a distinguished Negro, smartly dressed in a cutaway coat, white shirt and cravat, behaving as a person of importance as he strolls up Albany’s main street. On a couple of occasions, the Negro gives a silent greeting to white passersby, each of whom returns his greeting with a coded countersign. Then the Negro pauses to shake hands with a white haired, well-dressed gentleman. They exchange a few words and, after shooting the briefest of glances at Abby and Ellen, the gentleman hurries away. Two white women follow after the Negro fairly skipping several paces to keep up. The women’s manservant carrying their bags, trudges behind. Two seedily dressed, heavily armed white men creep behind the women at a discreet distance, keeping to the shadows. The men stalk their prey with the instincts of hunters. Following the bizarre group, if only with their eyes, from the windows of buildings overlooking the street are abolitionists, concerned with keeping Albany free of fugitive slaves and free of fugitive slave catchers.
A V I C T I M ’S G U I L T 3 0 3
Freddie ends his brisk walk by suddenly darting into a livery stable. Abby, Ellen and Shields Green follow right behind him. As soon as they enter, the stable doors slam shut and are bolted from the inside so that moments later, when Jake and his brother attempt to enter the stable, they can’t. Jake bangs on the door. No one answers. He bangs again and again. Still no one answers. He continues his banging until he bloodies his fist.
“You’d better get back across the river and meet Claude,” Jake instructs his brother. “Tell him where I’m at.” Then Jake takes up a spot and waits. From his spot Jake can see the livery stable’s comings and goings ___ or so he believes.
Inside, Freddie hugs the two women. “You’re safe, now,” he assures them. “I was worried. But you both behaved wonderfully. And now, let’s get you out of here.”
“Where are we?” Abby asks.
“This stable belongs to abolitionists who will assist you to safety,” Freddie replies. “This gentleman,” indicating a black coachman, “will take you now.”
The coachman leads the women through a tunnel that connects the livery stable to another one directly across an open paddock area between the two buildings. Both of the stables, as well as the exercise yard in between, belong to the Mott sisters. The Mott sisters operate the largest Underground Railroad station in Albany. Upon reaching the second stable, Abby and Ellen find a handsomely appointed carriage, with a red emblem on either side, hitched to a team of beautiful chestnut brown horses. The black coachman, Sam, assists the women inside the carriage and stores their luggage. When Shields attempts to accompany the women, neither the coachman nor Freddie allow it.
“Sam, here, has gotten hundreds of fugitives out of Albany,” Freddie tells Shields. “He knows what he’s doing.”
The coachman takes off toward the outskirts of the city. A mile or so from downtown Albany, he turns into a long entrance. An arched gateway permits the path through the high walls that surround the grounds guarding the great, spacious English-styled manor home belonging to the Mott sisters. As leading members of Albany’s abolitionist society, the Mott sisters, assist hundreds of fugitive slaves from Albany up to Syracuse and into Canada. That evening the Mott sisters feed Abby and Ellen while chatting about the activities of abolitionist groups around Albany and throuhgout New England. Then servants escort Abby and Ellen to their bedrooms where they sleep, safely and securely.
The next morning, the Mott sisters hug Abby and Ellen as though they were their own dear relatives and send them on their way. Freddie relays a message to the Mott sisters through Sam. Freddie didn’t think it was wise for Ellen or Abby to continue to Stockbridge. “Those slave catchers are certain to get warrants,” he wrote. “Have Sam take them to Syracuse, I will meet them there with Reverend May and we will return them to Boston.” Reverend Samuel May was the head of the Syracuse’ Abolitionist Society. So as the sun’s morning rays began streaking across an azure sky, Abby and Ellen find themselves in a comfortable, well-appointed coach, speeding toward Syracuse along a secret road known to but a few ___ or so it was thought. The further away from Albany they travel, the safer the two women feel, happy that their brief adventure with the slave catchers would soon be over.
After they see Ellen and Abby safely off to the Mott sister’s mansion, Freddie and Shields retrace their steps back across the railroad tracks and down to the Albany Basin, where they take a ferry across the Hudson River to Rensselaer. Only the better-educated, better-dressed and better-connected Negroes such as a Frederick Douglass or a P.B. Randolph are allowed within Albany’s city limits. But even they must be out of Albany by curfew. The Albany highlands, with its rolling hills and scenic vistas, are restricted to whites only. Upon reaching the other side of te river, Freddie leads the way to Pete’s Porterhouse where Wes Parks and Frank Yerby await them.
A century earlier, Rensselaer’s shanties and cabins served as slave quarters. Now the same shanties and cabins house free Negroes and Irish immigrants. Tensions between the two racial groups are an ongoing problem. Both compete for the same low paying day jobs. For generations these jobs, belonged to Negroes; now few if any of them are fortunate enough to get work. Everyday free blacks pay to cross the Hudson in search of a day job. Even if they find no work, they must pay to ferry back to Rensselaer. Irish immigrants, on the other hand, find day jobs, with ease. Many Irish find permanent employment and can afford to move across the river and live in Albany, permanently. No Negro day laborer ever gets a permanent position in Albany unless as a house servant with wages limited to room and board. But the final insult is when the city of Albany hires Irish immigrants as policemen and all the Irish cops cooperate with the slave catchers.
Jake and his brother find Claude at one of Rensselaer’s waterfront bars. “I’ve got the warrants,” Claude announces. “What about the women?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Jake drawls. “They sorta disappeared in a livery stable.”
“Well, that’s all right,” Claude replies. The glimmer in his eye tells Jake that Claude has put one over on somebody.“The Albany police ….”
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“Yeah, where are the police?” Jake’s brother blurts out. “I thought that they were gonna be in on the pickup.”
“No, no,” Claude says, “the Albany police want to stay away from this one. Besides which, they’re badge’s no good over here and we don’t need ‘em.”
“Don’t need ‘em!” Jake’s brother repeats. “Why don’t we need ‘em?”
“Because they told me how the abolitionists get them slaves outta Albany,” Claude replies, proudly.“There’s a road that leads outta town over to Syracuse that all them abolitionists take. If we’re there about dawn, we should catch them in a carriage driven by a nigger coachman. We can snatch our two niggers and high tail it for Charleston with no problem.”
“The two niggers?” Jake asks.
“The high yaller gal and the nigger coachman,” Claude smiles.
Jake will tell anybody. Claude had been the smartest paddy roller in Mississippi. Now he’s just about the best damn slave catcher around.
“The police sergeant that gave me the information said we shouldn’t have any problem getting them on a downstream steamer,” Claude gloats. “There’s a river landing just north of Albany that we can use.”
“And we gonna take care of white abolitisionist?” Jake’s brother asks. “Can’t have that white woman get them released as soon as they’re arrested.”
“Never you mind ‘bout that,”Claude replies.“With these warrants, the law’s on our side and I’m only taking two of them back down to Charleston. That’ll give us plenty of time to deal with that southern abolitionist lady.”
“What about those other niggers who’ve been watching us?” Jake asks.
“They don’t got no idea what we up to. They probably think we just a bunch of dumb crackers. But we gonna fool them boys, all right. Besides which I ain’t shot a black coon in quite a spell.”
Jake slapped Claude on the back. “That’s why I always say,‘Ole Claude is one of the smartest fellas I know ’.”
The next morning, in time to greet the new day, the three wily slave catchers choose a remote spot not far from the Motts’ estate on the ‘secret’ road leading to Syracuse. There they wait until a coach with a red insignia on the side driven by a dark-skinned Negro appears. The slave catchers pull the coach over. The Negro coachman protests, “I’m sorry, but you gentlemens has the wrong party. I’se Sam, Miss Motts driver, and I’se taking these here ladies to Syracuse.”
A V I C T I M ’S G U I L T 3 0 7
“Well, Sam,” Claude says nonchalantly, “you just turn this here rig around and head for the closest landing going south before I take this whip to your black hide.” Then addressing Abby and Ellen, Claude says,“You nigger wenches stay where you are and there won’t be no trouble.”
“I ain ’t no nigger! I’m white.” Abby screams at the slave catchers.
“Effen you ain’t no nigger,” Jake asks, “how comes you’all been given us such a merry chase all over the lord’s creation?”
“Because you were chasing us,” Abby says.
“Well, we chasing you because you’re runaway niggers, and we got the papers to prove it,” Jake’s brother declares.“And now we gonna take you back home and git our reward.”
“You’ll get no reward other than a beating, you redneck peckerwoods, if you try to sell me in Charleston,” Abby snaps. “I’m white an’ white men don’t ‘low no low down yellow dog trash like ya’ll violating their women.”
“How soon will that next southbound steamer get to the landing, nigger?” Claude asks Sam, ignoring Abbey’s threats.
“It comes along about 10:00 in the morning,” Sam answers.
“And how long is it going to take to git to that landing?”
“It not far from here,” Sam says, “it ’s just around the next bend.”
“Well, that’s it, then,” Claude announces. “We have plenty of time. It’s only about 7:00 AM.”
The slave catchers pull the coach off the road into a secluded gully where they tie Sam to a tree. Each of them takes turns in the coach with Abby and force Ellen to watch. Once, when Jake’s brother made a menacing move towards Ellen, Claude says,“You know we can’t do anything to this negress right now. We need to git her back to her people and git
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our money.” So Jake’s brother was forced to turn to Abby once again. Abby had long since passed out from the brutality of their repeated sexual assaults. Sometime later, Claude asks the two brothers, “Are you boys ‘bout through with her?” Nodding, they prepare to leave the coach to Claude. “You know I can’t cut her in here,” Claude snaps. “Tie her up and take her down over yonder by those rocks.” And there in the dirt and grime, Claude performs the gruesome ritual murder upon the broken and abused body of Abigail Collins. Ellen sits motionless, frozen by sheer horror into a catatonic state. Afterward Claude puts Sam into the coach and orders,“Get us down to that river landing before I lay your black nigger hide wide open with this whip.”
“Yessuh,” Sam replies as he turns the coach back onto the road and down toward the river landing.
Freddie, believing that Abby and Ellen are safely on their way to Syracuse, leads his party to the ferry landing a couple of miles above Albany. He plans to catch the westbound steamer which will get them to Syracuse in time to meet Abby and Ellen. So as fate decides, Freddie, Wes, Frank and Shields Green arrive at the very landing where the slave catchers intend to catch their southbound ferry.
As they approach the landing, Freddie recognizes the Mott sisters’ coach. When Syracuse’s abolitionists fail to provide transportation for fugitives arriving from Albany, Sam will bring them all the way to Douglass’ home in Rochester. So Freddie recognises the distinctive red insignia from a distance.
“What’s that coach doing here?” Freddie wonders aloud. Possibly the women had decided to take the steamer to Syracuse, he thinks. If they did, it was a damned stupid decision. What was Sam thinking? He should know better. While Freddie is getting worked up, he’s also getting more apprehensive. He would never forgive himself if anything happened to those ladies. Wes spots Ellen and Sam, shackled and manacled together. Sam is bent over and downcast. Ellen, showing a crazed, wild look, stands rigidly erect, like a marble statue, gracing the otherwise drab steamer platform.
“They’ve got Ellen chained to a black man,” Wes says, “I don’t see Abby.” Wes Parks casts an accusatory glance at Frederick Douglass. “What’s your plan now?”
Douglass goes deadly pale. He can’t move; he can’t think; his eyes are riveted on Ellen. Freddie has never lost a passenger before.
“What’s the plan, now?” Wes asks again.
“Do you want that I should mosey on down to where they are?” Shields Green suggests, breaking the tension between Douglass and Parks.
“I, for one,” Yerby says quietly,“think we need a plan before we do anything.”
“The plan is to try to get as close as possible to them,” Freddie says trying to decide what to do, “and outmuscle them. Maybe we can throw them in the river before they realize what’s happening.”
“We need weapons,”Wes says matter of factly.
“No time for that now,” Douglass replies. Turning to Shields Green, he says, “All right, you try to get down there without them noticing you. Get as close as you can to the one over by Ellen.” And then to Wes,“You take that one and I’ll take the other. Don’t bother
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with their guns, just pitch them in the river so that we can get the women and get out of there.”
Fortune rewards the bold and so it favored them. The Negroes sneak down to the landing to surprise the slave catchers. Shields approaches Jake who guards Ellen and Sam. Shields Green is over six feet tall, as are both Freddie Douglass and Wes Parks. His servant’s garb and his shuffling gait make Shields appear smaller and less powerful than he actually is.
Before Jake realizes what was happening, Shields catches the skace catcher full on the chin with a powerful blow. Jake is unconscious before he hits the wooden landing. Lifting him bodily into the air, Shields tosses Jake into the Hudson.
“What the heck!” Claude shouts, as he and Jake’s brother both reach for their revolvers. Wes and Freddie attack. Freddie’s pent fury up drives him into Jake’s brother before he can fire a shot. Grabbing him by the throat, Freddie nearly squeezes the life out of the skinny white man. Meanwhile, Wes has not forgotten how to disarm an opponent. He easily overpowers Claude and takes away the slave catcher’s revolver before pitching him into the Hudson River. When Freddie throws Jake’s brother into the river, he falls awkwardly against a river piling, causing his spine to twist which pinches a nerve. The pinched nerve was not serious. With prompt attention and rest, the slave catcher could have recovered the full use of his legs within a couple of days. But Jake’s brother needs his legs immediately. The Hudson River’s strong, swift current pulls the slave catcher underwater and the pinched nerve prevents him from using his legs to kick up to the surface. Jake’s brother remains underwater and drowns. His body floats nearly ten miles downstream before it is discovered.
They take Ellen back to the Mott sisters’ estate. For weeks she hovers between paralysis and madness. Traumatized by shock, grief and guilt over Abby’s rape and murder, it takes months before Ellen can speak coherently. For awhile, she has but minimal control over her body and mind. Even after her physical recovery reaches the point where she can walk unassisted, Ellen continually relapses into states of depression and disorientation.
The doctors advises Dwight that Ellen’s condition could worsen if he attempts to take her back to Boston. Dwight and the children visit Ellen in Albany. At first she refuses to see them. After awhile, she permits them short visits. Their encounters are awkward and difficult. Sometimes Ellen refuses to even recognize them and she pretends not to know who they are. Realizing that his visits only antagonize his wife, Dwight visits Ellen less frequently until he stops coming, altogether. Even with the gentle and loving care of the Mott sisters, Ellen’s recovery takes over a year. After her physical recovery, it takes another six months before she can take responsibility for herself.
Abby’s body was found in the bushes a half-mile off the road leading to Albany’s riverboat landing. They bring Abby back to Boston for burial. Louise’s hatred for anything colored is surpassed only by her intense hatred for Ellen Ingraham. “That
woman caused my mother’s death,” Louise would tell anyone who would listen. “Instead of being home with me, my mother was out helping this blubber-lipped, burr-headed nigger, and she got murdered for it.” More than one listener concludes from Louise’s rants that fugitive slaves actually killed Abigail Collins.
Claude and Jake escape to Charleston where, after recovering from their brush with death, they resume their slave catching profession. Shields Green takes his sorrow over Abby’s death onto the Underground Railroad and travels all the way to it’s final destination in St. Catharines. After her recovery. Ellen returns to Boston, but she quickly forsakes her family and follows the Underground Railroad to St. Catharines in search of, she knows not what.