This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” documents the escape of Jeremiah and Julia Smith, a married couple who had separate owners in Richmond, Virginia.
Jeremiah was seriously asthmatic which was an additional hurdle to gaining freedom.
The narrative starts with a description of slavery in Richmond, Virginia. There is plenty of acerbic sarcasm and wit in this account!
“The Underground Railroad” was published in 1872. The book gives the testimonies of hundreds of slaves who escaped to freedom using the network of agents and safe houses.
The author, William Still, was a black abolitionist and businessman who was a key member of the Philadelphia stop in the freedom network.
Excerpt – About Richmond, Virginia in 1854
Richmond was a city noted for its activity and enterprise in slave trade.
Several slave pens and prisons were constantly kept up to accommodate the trade. And slave auctions were as common in Richmond as dress goods auctions in Philadelphia.
Notwithstanding this fact, strange as it may seem, the Underground Rail Road brought away large numbers of passengers from Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk, and not a few of them lived comparatively within a hair’s breadth of the auction block.
Many of those from these localities were amongst the most intelligent and respectable slaves in the South, and except at times when disheartened by some grave disaster which had befallen the road, as, for instance, when some friendly captain or conductor was discovered in aiding fugitives, many of the thinking bondmen were daily manoeuvring and watching for opportunities to escape or aid their friends so to do.
This state of things of course made the naturally hot blood of Virginians fairly boil. They had preached long and loudly about the contented and happy condition of the slaves,—that the chief end of the black man was to worship and serve the white man, with joy and delight, with more willingness and obedience indeed than he would be expected to serve his Maker.
So the slave-holders were utterly at a loss to account for the unnatural desire on the part of the slaves to escape to the North where they affirmed they would be far less happy in freedom than in the hands of those so “kind and indulgent towards them.”
Despite all this, daily the disposition increased, with the more intelligent slaves, to distrust the statements of their masters especially when they spoke against the North.
For instance if the master was heard to curse Boston the slave was then satisfied that Boston was just the place he would like to go to.
Or if the master told the slave that the blacks in Canada were freezing and starving to death by hundreds, his hope of trying to reach Canada was made tenfold stronger. He was willing to risk all the starving and freezing that the country could afford; his eagerness to find a conductor then would become almost painful.
Excerpt – Jeremiah’s Background
The situations of Jeremiah and Julia Smith, however, were not considered very hard, indeed they had fared rather better than most slaves in Virginia.
Nevertheless it will be seen that they desired to better their condition, to keep off of the auction-block at least.
Jeremiah could claim to have no mixture in his blood, as his color was of such a pure black; but with the way of the world, in respect to shrewdness and intelligence, he had evidently been actively conversant. He was about twenty-six years of age, and in stature only medium, with poor health.
The name of James Kinnard, whom he was obliged to call master and serve, was disgusting to him. Kinnard, he said, was a “close and severe man.”
At the same time he was not considered by the community “a hard man.” From the age of fifteen years Jeremiah had been hired out, for which his owner had received from $50 to $130 per annum.
In consequence of his master’s custom of thus letting out Jeremiah, the master had avoided doctors’ bills, &c.
For the last two years prior to his escape, however, Jeremiah’s health had been very treacherous, in consequence of which the master had been compelled to receive only $50 a year, sick or well.
About one month before Jeremiah left, he was to have been taken on his master’s farm, with the hope that he could be made more profitable there than he was in being hired out.
His owner had thought once of selling him, perhaps fearing that Jeremiah might unluckily die on his hands. So he put him in prison and advertised; but as he had the asthma pretty badly at that time, he was not saleable, the traders even declined to buy him.
While these troubles were presenting themselves to Jeremiah, Julia, his wife, was still more seriously involved, which added to Jeremiah’s perplexities, of course.
Excerpt – Julia’s Background
Julia was of a dark brown color, of medium size, and thirty years of age.
Fourteen years she had been the slave of A. Judson Crane, and under him she had performed the duties of nurse, chamber-maid, etc., “faithfully and satisfactorily,” as the certificate furnished her by this owner witnessed.
She actually possessing a certificate, which he, Crane, gave her to enable her to find a new master, as she was then about to be sold. Her master had experienced a failure in business. This was the reason why she was to be sold.
Mrs. Crane, her mistress, had always promised Julia that she should be free at her death. But, unexpectedly, as Mrs. Crane was on her journey home from Cape May, where she had been for her health the summer before Julia escaped, she died suddenly in Philadelphia.
Julia, however, had been sold twice before her mistress’ death; once to the trader, Reed, and afterwards to John Freeland, and again was on the eve of being sold.
Freeland, her last owner, thought she was unhappy because she was denied the privilege of going home of nights to her husband, instead of being on hand at the beck and call of her master and mistress day and night.
So the very day Julia and her husband escaped, arrangements had been made to put her up at auction a third time.
Excerpt – Escape By Steamboat
But both Julia and her husband had seen enough of Slavery to leave no room to hope that they could ever find peace or rest so long as they remained.
So there and then, they resolved to strike for Canada, via the Underground Rail Road.
By a little good management, berths were procured for them on one of the Richmond steamers (berths not known to the officers of the boat), and they were safely landed in the hands of the Vigilance Committee, and a most agreeable interview was had.
The Committee extended to them the usual hospitalities, in the way of board, accommodations, and free tickets Canadaward, and wished them a safe and speedy passage. The passengers departed, exceedingly light-hearted, Feb. 1, 1854.
The Underground Railroad by William Still was published in 1872.
The book is in the public domain. It can be found in the Library of Congress.