Dad was taking me on a tour of Savannah, his hometown, stopping in front of a grand French-style home. Grand Historic Home – Tours Daily read the sign. A group of tourists milled about.
“Our family lived here for generations,” Dad said.
“Lived here? They were rich?” I asked.
“No, honey. They worked here. They were slaves, then, after the war, they were servants.”
I remembered the stories I’d learned in school. People in chains, treated as less than human, subjected to all manner of inhumane treatment. I stare at the tourists snapping photos and laughing, confusion twisting my face.
During the mid-19th Century, Canada was the end of the line for runaway slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that between 1850 (when the American congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law) and 1865 (the end of the US Civil War), more than 100,000 African-American slaves escaped to Canada, with most settling in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
For many slaves, Canada represented a dream of freedom where slave catchers and lynch mobs couldn’t hurt them. Slaves on the Underground Railroad endured months, and even years, of living like fugitives while bounty hunters and racist government policies were always trying to impede their flight to freedom.
Most slaves started out their journey on the Underground Railroad (which wasn’t an actual railroad but more of a resistance and escape route that was heavily organized by concerned American citizens) by running away from their plantation in the middle of the…
As children, they’d really been nothing more than playmates, passing long summer days playing hide and seek. But as Savannah had grown older, she’d grown crueler, taking her cues from her unyielding mother. Ella had suffered in silence because of the one thing Savannah had promised her – she would never be separated from her family.
Savannah would be moving to Ten Magnolias after her wedding, a plantation in Charleston that Ella had heard horrible stories about. Savannah told her mother days ago, “Of course, Ella will come with me! She is a handful but I don’t know what I’d do without her.” Ella didn’t know how far away Charleston was, but knew she would never see her family again. That’s why she was tiptoeing down the stairs in the dark. She ran to the line of trees where her family was waiting. They hid under the weeping willow and waited for the signal.