Monday, May 16, 2011


            In my job as a bulldozer operator I have worked outside at night in the wintertime when the temperature was -18 degrees Fahrenheit and the chill factor was a lot lower than that. Under such conditions the ground is like concrete, the moisture in my breath freezes my moustache, and my toes freeze inside my boots, no matter how many pairs of socks I'm wearing. On nights like these I can see the ghosts of black men, women and children bent over against the wind, traveling north to freedom. Part of me goes out each night to escort these freedom passengers to the next station, for in my dreams I'm a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
            It's natural perhaps to imagine this famous freedom line as a series of underground tunnels, a sort of clandestine frontier subway. But the name refers more to a covert operation, with political, religious and moral objectives, than it does to the actual routes fugitive slaves followed, which were above ground in any case. The ultimate destination might be Canada; some local (usually black) community in rural Ohio where the runaways would attempt to cover their tracks and begin to put down roots; or the independent black African nation of Liberia, established on the west coast of Africa in 1822 by the American Colonization Society as a new homeland for freed slaves -- and fugitives as well, if they had forged freedom papers.
            Those involved with the Underground Railroad, whether black or white, were resourceful and creative people. Wherever they lived in the United States they risked their own freedom and often their lives for a cause they believed in: to end slavery forever. For this reason I think the slavery era in American history included some of both the worst and the best human endeavors the world has ever witnessed.
            During the Underground Railroad era of United States history, roughly 1800-1865, the Mason-Dixon Line was the political and ideological boundary between the northern free states and the southern “slavocracy” states.  This historically divisive line at first had nothing at all to do with the issue of slavery, a legal practice in all 13 of the original English colonies when the demarcation was established in 1667 -- to settle a border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania.  The line derived its name from the two British astronomers, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who carried out the survey.
            Although the boundary line gradually came to mark the political separation between North and South, the term “Mason-Dixon Line” wasn’t actually used to describe the borderline between free and slave states until 1820, during debates in the U.S. Congress over the Missouri Compromise.  From that time forward, the Mason-Dixon Line included not only the boundary between Pennsylvania and the slave states of Maryland and Virginia but also extended westward along the entire length of the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi, separating Virginia and the slave state of Kentucky from free states Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  It had become in effect the "front line" in the long war between slaveholders of the South and courageous operators of the Underground Railroad in the North.
            As early as 1776, the settlers of western Virginia had petitioned the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia for a separate government.  It became increasingly clear during the early 1800s that while eastern Virginia shared the social and economic interests of the South, the western part of the state -- because of both geography and ethnic heritage -- had more in common with the North.  Nevertheless, even though compared to other regions of the South, the slave population in western Virginia counties was always sparse, slavery remained part of the culture in what would eventually become West Virginia.
            Slaves in mountainous western Virginia were mostly concentrated along large streams and rivers where soil conditions favored plantation agriculture, although slaves were also used in mining and other industrial pursuits.  A repugnance for slavery acquired by early settlers in southeastern Ohio was responsible for their encouragement and actual assistance of fugitive slaves.  By 1810 settlers in Ohio with anti-slavery views had established a cooperative relay/ referral system which extended from the Ohio River northward across the state all the way to Lake Erie, a few hours by steamship from Canada.  From fervent but fitful and improvised beginnings, the organization of the Underground Railroad had become fairly well established by 1820, but state-wide popular support was not achieved until after 1840.  By then throughout Ohio the Underground Railroad had become a vast system of safe houses called “stations“ and escape routes often referred to as “lines,” with northern abolitionists known as “conductors” helping “passengers” departing unannounced from slave plantations in the South reach their final destinations, and freedom, in Canada.

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