Let's be honest, Black History Month can be a little uncomfortable regardless of the color of your skin. When you have human compassion and empathy, it is difficult to learn of the struggle for the basic human right of self-determination- a God given right some would say that was denied to generations of people based on a systematic governmental construct of the law that said they were less than just because of the hue of their skin. The intention of the blog this month is to inspire and remind readers with harrowing tales of determination and survival while shedding light on the parts of history long forgotten.
This week, we are continuing to spotlight stories from the resistance from Black Americans who were enslaved in America. Welcome to part 3 of our Shadows from Our Past: Triumphs in Black History. Let's talk about Wesley Harris also known as Robert Jackson.
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD RECORD, November 2d, 1853
"Arrived: Robert Jackson (shot man), alias Wesley Harris; age twenty-two years; dark color; medium height, and of slender stature.
"Robert was born in Martinsburg, Va., and was owned by Philip Pendleton. From a boy he had always been hired out. At the first of this year he commenced services with Mrs. Carroll, proprietress of the United States Hotel at Harper's Ferry. Of Mrs. Carroll he speaks in very grateful terms, saying that she was kind to him and all the servants, and promised them their freedom at her death. She excused herself for not giving them their freedom on the ground that her husband died insolvent, leaving her the responsibility of settling his debts. But while Mrs. Carroll was very kind to her servants, her manager was equally as cruel. About a month before Wesley left, the overseer, for some trifling cause, attempted to flog him, but was resisted, and he himself flogged."
From this passage, we can see here that Robert was in a predicament. Though his mistress he was hired out to, Mrs. Carroll, was kind, he was under the day-to-day management of a cruel whip happy overseer. Our boy Robert wasn't having it. Not today boss. Not today.
Unfortunately, this isn't a Hollywood movie and Robert was no Django. There was a consequence for this type of behavior in those times. If not death, a slave would certainly be beaten, jailed, and sold. Robert's mistress alerted him of the plans the overseer and his owner had for him and a plan was birthed for Robert to take his freedom.
"There were two others-brothers of Matterson-who were told of our plan to escape, and readily joined with us in the undertaking. So one night at twelve o'clock, we set out for the North. After traveling upwards of two days and over sixty miles, we found ourselves unexpectedly in Terrytown, Md. There we were informed by a friendly colored man of the danger we were in and of the bad character of the place towards colored people, especially those who were escaping to freedom; and he advised us to hide as quickly as we could. We at once went to the woods and hid. Soon after we secreted ourselves a man came near by and commenced splitting wood, or rails, which alarmed us. We then moved to another hiding-place in a thicket near a farmer's barn, where we were soon startled again by a dog approaching and barking at us. The attention of the owner of the dog was drawn to his barking and to where we were. The owner of the dog was a farmer. He asked us where we were going. We replied to Gettysburg-to visit some relatives, etc. He told us we were running off. He then offered friendly advice, talked like a Quaker, and urged us to go with him to his barn for protection. After much persuasion, we consented to go with him. Soon after putting us in his barn, himself and his daughter prepared us a nice breakfast, which cheered our spirits, as we were hungry. For this kindness we paid him one dollar. He next told us to hide on the mow till eve, when he would safely direct us to our road to Gettysburg. All, very much fatigued from traveling, fell asleep, excepting myself; I could not sleep; I felt as if all was not right."
It is so easy to say what we would and would not do. When I read these kinds of stories, I wonder if I would have had what it took to rough it outside. Regardless of what we see in these modern-day retellings, when these slaves made the choice to run, it was not often that they had warm, accommodating living quarters to rest up at along their stops of the Underground Railroad. They slept outside exposed to the elements risking infection, disease, and capture. Though there were a number of Whites who assisted, as we can see in Robert's retelling, runaways had to make snap judgments on a person's character. These judgements were sometimes the difference between making it safely to freedom or being captured.
"....By this time, I had lost so much blood from my wounds, that they concluded my situation was too dangerous to admit of being taken further....There my wounds were dressed, and thirty-two shot were taken from my arm. For three days I was crazy, and they thought I would die."
Yes, I know, we skipped a significant portion of the action. Tell me in the comment section below. Was Robert right? Was the feeling he had that the situation "was not right" correct? Or was it the nerves of his journey? How did he end up wounded and did his companions ditch him?
I wish I could conclude with you here all the waypoints of Robert's tale but, you know, copyrights. To find out for yourself more on Robert and the Matterson brothers' story see William Still's book, "The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts" from which these excerpts came.
I hope you are being educated and inspired by the tales of black resistance. It may not seem that reviewing history, especially its ugly parts, could possibly fit a wellness model. However, it is when we engage and acknowledge the shadows, the hidden things, we can then begin to heal and limit the possibility of a catastrophic repeat of the violations of human rights of ourselves and of others. Wellness is varied and we cannot exclude the intellectual pursuits from our picture of wellness. Please remember though, as you begin this journey, do no worry about getting it perfect; just get it going. Until next time. Happy reading!
Did you know?
This day in Black History: The Tuskegee Airmen were initiated into the armed forces on February 19, 1942.
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