A shout-out to the wonderful Vancouver band, the Wooden Horsemen, and Rose City Roots Music Society for inspiring this column. The band led off their November 5th concert with the hauntingly elegiac “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. Out came my pen and in the half-light of the Bailey Theatre I scribbled some notes.
Of course, the gourd in this song is the Big Dipper and it pointed the way north to freedom for African-Americans escaping bondage prior to the Civil War. Engaging with the history of slavery in the United States is central to Black History Month and can’t be ignored.
African slaves first set foot in the future United States in 1619 Virginia. By the time of America’s Independence War and the famous 1776 Declaration of Independence some 400,000 people were held as property. Thomas Jefferson, future president and the declaration’s principal author, was himself a slave owner as he dipped his pen in acid and wrote “all men are created equal”. At the time of independence in 1783 slaves in the new states of the North had been freed by the vicissitudes of war. In the South, however, the longer growing season, different soils, and topography favoured and fostered labour-intensive crops and encouraged the expansion of what the historian Kenneth Stampp would call “The Peculiar Institution”. As one ex-slave would recall, “We worked from can see, to c’aint see.”
The nascent republic was beset by regional and economic disparities and lacked a functioning central government. America’s Founders, however, found a way. In the sultry summer of 1787 fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia to construct America’s now sacred Constitution. The 55 were all white men of considerable means and nearly half owned slaves. Samuel Johnson, the great British man of letters, mockingly asked the Founders why the greatest cries for freedom came from “the drivers of slaves?” The South, undaunted, went on record: Slavery would continue where it existed or there would be no Constitutional accord. After a lengthy and fraught ratification process all of the young states adopted the new blueprint by 1789. The Peculiar Institution, therefore, was left for future generations to wrestle with.
The newly minted Electoral College then selected war hero George Washington, another slave owner, as the first president of the now United States. During his first administration Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act that enjoined people in the free-soil states to return runaway slaves to their Southern masters. The act would be only feebly enforced.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 from France, doubled the size of the new nation and by the 1830s Manifest Destiny was the zeitgeist and the westward march of “civilization” and a uniquely American brand of Empire was relentless. The Pacific Northwest was acquired peacefully by treaty with Britain (that spared what would become British Columbia) yet a war of aggression was fomented and prosecuted against a chaotic and weak Mexico only recently freed from Spain. By 1848, the United States held even more new land, stretching from Texas to California. The Mexican War was scarcely over when gold was discovered northeast of San Francisco and “the world rushed in”.
California’s population grew so dramatically that the territory was eligible for statehood in 1850 and it was clear that it would be free-soil. But the South’s support would be needed in the statehood process and the future Confederacy received the quid-pro-quo it wanted: a new Fugitive Slave Act, with teeth. The only true safety now for escaping slaves would be Canada.
Black and White abolitionists created an “Underground Railroad”, with stations, safe-houses, and conductors. Gateways such as Buffalo, Detroit, and Lake Placid up in the Adirondack Mountains just below the Quebec line, funneled former slaves to freedom. The most famous of the “conductors” was ex-slave Harriet Tubman. In the 1850s Tubman relocated to St-Catherines, Ontario just west of Buffalo to facilitate re-settlement. She also made numerous trips Stateside, at considerable risk. When the Civil War began in 1861 Tubman offered her services to Abraham Lincoln and served the President’s armies first as a nurse and then a spy. This heroic individual even participated in a daring Union naval raid that removed over 700 slaves from coastal South Carolina in 1863.
On April 20th, 2016, the United States Treasury Department announced, after petitions and a groundswell of support, that Harriet Tubman would grace the new $20-bill replacing Andrew Jackson. The seventh president, Jackson, hero of New Orleans and hickory tough, broadened and democratized America’s electoral process. But he was also a slave owner, “Indian” fighter, and carried out a massive program of Indian removal from their rightful lands. History’s hidden hand turns, at times, with sublime irony.
Rani Palo, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on February 21, 2017.