AUNT LUCY AND JAMES LAWTON
This story concerns an elderly slave woman's escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad in Washington County, Ohio. The story was preserved in the diary of James Lawton Jr., the son of the abolitionist James Lawton, Sr., who was the participant and story-teller for the mini-drama. The Lawtons lived at Barlow during the Underground Railroad Era. Their story is as follows:
The story I am about to relate, though strictly true, is unique in its main features, and shows that however much a humane master might desire to make his slaves comfortable in old age, the system would not always allow him to do so.
Aunt Lucy was a black woman about 60 years old, who belonged to an old gentleman in Virginia who was a Free Mason. He had become reduced in property so that to satisfy a demand on him, the sheriff of the county had levied on the woman to secure the debt.
According to my recollection of the circumstance, the sheriff, fearing to leave her near the Ohio River, took her some 12 miles back into Virginia for safe keeping. But during a stormy night in the latter part of winter she escaped and sought her way back to her master's house on foot through rain and mud, and in consequence had a severe attack of pneumonia. And according to the family report, she recovered very slowly. In fact, before she was by then reported convalescent, she was found on this side of the river, with cabalistic script which she was to hand to a Brother Mason who lived some ten miles back in the country. Her master knew who could be trusted on the border opposite to him, and one of those soon undertook to inform the Brother Mason of the trust conferred on him. But finding that said Brother was employed at labor a long distance from home, the agent concluded to get assistance in another quarter; so he sought out a brother abolitionist who agreed to take charge of Aunt Lucy for a time. If she had desired to go to Canada there would have been but little difficulty in the case. But she did not desire to go North at all. She had a son, a free man living in Cincinnati who would care for her if she could be conveyed there; but it was a difficult and even dangerous task for an abolitionist to interfere in any way with the interests of slavery.
It was in the afternoon of a day in the month of March that I consented to remove Aunt Lucy from her retreat on this (Ohio) side of the river, not far from opposite her master's residence to a more safe situation some ten miles back, and to do this work with safety, I had to take the hours of night and travel on unfrequented road -- a mere track most of the distance, as in case of any subsequent investigation, the going in that direction with a spare horse and a woman's saddle might implicate me.
We had the woman mounted and left the river about nine o'clock in the evening, and arrived at our destination some hours later after a tedious and somewhat dangerous ride.
After that there were some ten more days in which the woman was secluded from sight of any but the family. In the meantime, she, as well as the rest of us became rather impatient of the situation, its uncertain termination and consequences. By going to another part of our county, I found the Masonic Brother who was entrusted with the charge and cabalistic explanation. But he was not equal to the task -- the fear of the slave power, even in such a fraternity, seemed to paralyze him completely.
I now felt that I alone must take the responsibility, and in my dilemma sought to get some advice from the woman's master. So I wrote a line to him and sent it by a trusty boy, and in reply received a very courteous, non-committal letter, the purport of which was that if Aunt Lucy was not with her friends, could I find means of getting her there? Aunt Lucy was with friends, but neither she nor they were satisfied to have things remain in such uncertainty.
Being summoned to court at Marietta as a witness, I had to leave home, and at Harmar was called aside by a prominent Mason who assured me that if I could bring the woman to Harmar, she could be conveyed to Cincinnati. So I began to have a better opinion of Masonic pluck. The Order fulfilled its promise and at the courthouse I was introduced to a theological student from Cincinnati who had been employed by the son to bring his mother to that city. One of the true friends of the oppressed had written to the son in her behalf.
I could not leave court, but we arranged matters for her transportation to Hills Landing below Little Hocking. And so with the boy as a conductor, and the agent and a black man riding behind them, in seeming non-attendance, they found a boat to the care of whose captain the black man delivered his “woman,” referring that officer to the agent as the gentleman who had consented to take charge of her. And so Aunt Lucy found Freedom, her son and a quiet home.
Some years later that boy who conducted Aunt Lucy to Hills Landing became an itinerant preacher in the Cincinnati Conference, and at one time had a congregation made up mostly of black persons, among which, as pastor, he sometimes visited. At the house of an intelligent and prosperous member of his church he sometimes saw an aged black woman who belonged to a different branch of the Methodist Church, and who as he thought, was rather inclined to be shy or unsociable. So he sought to draw her out by some question regarding her former life -- whether she had ever been in bondage? She then gave him the history of her escape, her brief sojourn in Washington County, and the manner of reaching a boat through the guidance of a boy conductor. Of course, the preacher told her who that boy was.