Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE RIVER JORDAN: A True Story of the Underground Railroad - Introduction, Part I

To me the subject of the Underground Railroad is very personal. It is the greatest story of freedom in American history and I feel it in my soul. The history of the Underground Railroad also involved my family's rise from slavery and their fight to free other African-Americans in the Civil War.

As a child, I developed a great interest in where my family had originated and how they’d come to southeastern Ohio. I didn't learn about the Underground Railroad in a classroom. I learned about the Freedom Trail from my relatives and many others who, like me, cherished the tradition that our ancestors had contributed to the freedom of African-American people in our country. I have spent nearly all my life developing a perspective about the Underground Railroad along the Ohio River, while researching my family's origins in Virginia.

Ancestors of the Burke family were brought from Africa to the Corotoman Plantation in Lancaster County, Virginia, by John Carter as early as 1640, about the time the plantation was founded. Some Burke ancestors may even have been on the first ship to Virginia in 1619. In any case, my family’s ancestors were among the earliest Africans brought into the English Colonies of North America.

Robert King Carter (1663-1736), the son of Col. John Carter, became America’s first millionaire. He owned over a thousand slaves and held almost 300,000 acres of plantation land in the northern neck of Virginia. His land holdings included the famous Carter Grove Plantation, now a part of the United States Park Service at Williamsburg, Virginia. Descendants of the original Carters included American presidents Benjamin and William Henry Harrison and Robert E. Lee, father of the Confederacy.

Robert King Carter’s son Robert Carter Jr. (1704-1732) died very young, leaving a four-year-old son of his own. Robert Carter, III, (1728-1804) inherited a large number of slaves and an estate that included some 78,000 acres. He eventually established a plantation on Nomini Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, near the present-day city of Montross. Around 1791 he freed nearly 500 of his slaves, the largest emancipation by an individual slaveholder in the history of the United States.

Among those freed was my ancestor Winny Burke, whose son Joseph brought his family to Washington County in 1854. When the Civil War broke out, Joseph’s son Nimrod was hired as a civilian teamster and scout by Lieutenant Colonel Melvin C. Clark, a prominent Marietta, Ohio, attorney who had employed Nimrod before the war. In March, 1864, after President Lincoln opened the way for the Union Army to enlist free blacks and emancipated slaves, Nimrod became a sergeant with the 23rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The 23rd participated in the fall of Petersburg in April, 1865, and pursued Lee’s forces to Appomattox, where on April 9 Lee surrendered to end the Civil War. Thus had slavery come full circle in the history of my family. Carter descendant Robert E. Lee lay down his arms to victorious Union forces which included my great-great-grandfather Nimrod Burke, whose ancestors had helped make the Carter family the richest and most powerful in America.

To understand what motivated African-Americans to run from slavery, one needs only to ask a few basic questions: Who were the slaves? How had they become slaves? What perpetuated slavery? What would my life be like if I were a slave myself?

These are the questions that prompted my own fascination with the Underground Railroad, which goes back to my earliest memories. My grandparents John (1889-1967) and Anna (Curtis) Burke (1888-1973) raised me in their home in Marietta, Ohio, in Washington County. My early lessons about the Underground Railroad came from my grandmother’s family and the village of Stafford in Monroe County, where she was born and raised. Stafford was an abolitionist center with a very busy station on the Underground Railroad.

(to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

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