Saturday, May 14, 2011

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

Bill Harness went on to tell me a long story about slaves and slavery in West Virginia, the northern-most part of Virginia until 1863. As Bill saw it, slavery had darn near ruined his family. Because they had slaves to do their work, he said, a whole generation of the Harness family had become complacent.

We talked for some time before I noticed that the sun had moved a considerable distance toward the west. Bill realized it too. "Yer best be headin' back if yer wanna make home afore dark."

"See ya later," I told him, climbing back on Dan. It was a little cooler now, and old Dan stretched into a long ground-covering shuffle. We arrived in Marietta a lot faster than we’d reached Bull Creek. It wasn't quite dark when I finally took Dan to the stable, watered and fed him, then walked the two blocks home. My mother, who was home from work, assumed I’d spent the day at the Fairgrounds as usual.

After that first conversation with Bill Harness, I unconsciously began to file away every little bit of information I could find about slavery in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Over the years I went to see Bill quite a few times. The last time, before joining the Army in the fall of '58, he showed me a tumbled-down old cabin sitting between the highway and the Ohio River. Bill said it had been built clear back in 1790 by an early settler who purchased the land from George Washington.

He told me many stories about events around Bull Creek before it became part of West Virginia. I always kept them in mind; they broadened my interest in the enslavement of African-American people and the Underground Railroad that set so many of them free.

When I returned to Marietta in 1967 after nine years’ military service, I found employment as a heavy equipment operator in surface coal mines and on projects building highways and electric power plants. For thirty years I worked on many construction projects extending along the Ohio River from Wheeling downriver to Huntington, West Virginia. In every place I worked along the Ohio, someone would tell me a story about slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Around 1980, I became acquainted with Louise Zimmer and Jerry Devol, local experts on Washington County history. I discussed my research with them on a regular basis as I continued to study the Underground Railroad as a serious hobby. So many people have contributed information to my research over the years that I can’t possibly remember all of them, but a list of those who have helped most significantly appears on the Acknowledgments Page.

In 1985, my co-author Dick Croy returned to Marietta to take over his family’s business, and our paths crossed a year or so later when he called me for information concerning a book he was writing. When I told him of the many stories about the Underground Railroad that I’d been collecting and writing down, he was quite interested and asked to see some of them. That began a collaboration which, over more than a decade, has led to the book you’re about to read as well as a number of other projects. The River Jordan began as a short story entitled "The Escape of Jane" and just kept growing.

I have now spent many years researching my family’s heritage, which I feel is an extraordinary story within the framework of African-American history. An unbounded curiosity was first aroused by names and voices from another century, in front of a huge stone fireplace in an old cabin on a former Underground Railroad route in southeastern Ohio. A solidly built cabin erected near Stafford in 1866 by my great-great-grandfather, former slave Rockingham John Curtis.

Henry Robert Burke

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