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Many of us have read the recounted stories of a railroad whose tracks ran the length of the East coast before Amtrak and made local stops from the banks of Africa's shores to the shores of the Carolinas and to Georgia's hills then across the border into Canada. The tracks were built on faith and conviction. The fuel was d.i.e.s.e.l.--desire, ingenuity, endurance, self-worth, energy, and longing. The cars were made of people seeking freedom that they inherently felt and were pulled by such engines as Harriet Tubman with numerous African, indigenous American, Quaker, and Unitarian conductors and engineers keeping things on track. The caboose was a treasure chest of the memories of family and friends left behind and the hope of being reunited with them one day.
This train of which I speak was the Underground Railroad. Underground in the sense that it was so secretive no one knew its route or its next stop even if they were right next to it. No one was to see the passengers other than other passengers or conductors.
The passengers on this trains were not able to recline their seats, pull a blanket up around their necks, turn on their walkmans, and watch the sites go by as they drifted off to sleep. Their riding companions were snakes, mosquitoes, and other insects, all of which were in tune to the hoot of the owl and the chipperwillows cry. The passengers ran as the bloodhounds closed in on their ankles and feet. They ran and hid or were hidden in fireplaces, false bottoms of carriages and wagons, cubby holes and tunnels throughout basements and attics and in walls. Oft time they only found temporary peace in caves. They jumped into waters to throw off the hounds as the bullets rang out around them and the stronger ones kept the weaker down.
I jumped not into the water, but back in time when I boarded this train from New York City. From my first mile out, my life changed and will never again be the same...
The Creator held my hand and walked with me along the lonely highways. At the point that I felt I could journey no more. He/She supported my spirit and pushed me on. I worked and sweated facing the trials and tribulations. I heard the ancestors say, "Go on child." Anytime my back and knees began to bend their voices echoed over and over again. I asked the Lord to speak to my heart and I asked myself, "Why did this journey start?" I felt the answer come back to me that "this is the way it must be." My eyes begin to get fatigued and my body is weary...
"walk together children..."
I feel a spirit near me. I lift handfuls of water from a basin to my eyes and look into water as it ripples...
"wade in the water..."
I hear the voice of an elder say agitation is the way.
"God's gonna trouble the water."
I drift into a dream where reality is my journey's end and the Creator cradles me only to wake me again. Again I go forth on our story's ladder I climb until the bell of truth rings out--judgment time!
Yes, the ancestors called and I went. I went to places I never dreamed I would see. I rode a train that now runs on a track of memories. The conductors are the souls of those that are long since gone. Yet, the Underground Railroad still travels on.
Traveling the escape routes of my ancestors was the most moving experience I have ever had. There is a wonderment in having someone tell you the story of an African that decided that freedom meant more than anything...
"Before I be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave..."
...settled into a spot to hide for a night away from slave catchers on your trail. You look into a space that only seems to fit a small child and to touch the stone and feel the touch of someone you cannot see in return--a touch that runs through and fills you with an energy to last the rest of your days.
You listen to more of the story and move on to another person's doorway where a spirit greets you and takes you in then escorts you to a basement. As you stand in the remains of a tunnel you feel an embrace and then hear an echo of an ill and tired baby ringing out. The wails wane as the mother soothes her with the first bath she's had in a week and something solid to eat.
You run in the darkness from one house to another where the doors are quickly opened for you. The person's face you know not. Yet, he welcomes you in without a second guess of what to do. As you look and wonder where the hiding place here will be, you realize that you are now a keeper of history. Oral stories are passed to you for preservation, so they will exist for future generations.
As you rest your body at the end of the night the faces--Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Henry "Box" Brown, Ellen Kraft, William Still, Nat Turner, John Brown, Sojourner, the sister renamed Annie, the brother now called Jonas, and the babies being put to death by their mothers to keep them from being owned--pass before your eyes. You can feel their pains as they tell you that you must write in their omissions and thus, correct history's lies.
You travel on as days come and go and the boundaries of time cease to be. Then you see another land and begin to feel victory. You pass the border of Canada and see a land covered with farms. Yet, you cannot rest until you are greeted by an unknown cousins' open arms. He says, "Shake the dirt from your feet and have a seat."
My journey has ended, but my work is not done for my people's minds are still those of the enslaved which causes me to pour forth tears on a grave. A grave of a person whose physical touch I never knew, but somehow I've felt and was moved through and through.
I think of my family and the friends I've left behind and how slavery severed so many ties. Although the road traveled has been hard, I go back in order to keep my charge. Drifting back from comfort and safety and into another journey--taking back a story of a railroad that traveled land, spirit, and sea.
I now look to the North Star teaching its worth to the babies even when I can hardly stand. My voice lifts and my spirit sings with the ancestors...
"...Walk together children. Don't you get weary, great camp meeting in the Promised Land..."
"The promised land, i.e. peace, exist within each of us when we center our lives on the truth. Our spirits cannot rest until then."
© 1993 by Marquetta L. Goodwine
Copying and reprinting from this site not permitted without permission from Ms. Goodwine
If you are interested in more information concerning traveling on the Underground Railroad Journey or to receive information on the Underground Railroad Study, please call the Marquetta L. Goodwine at the Afrikan Kultural Arts Networkx(AKANx) at (212) 439-1026 or write her at QueenMut@aol.com or Extended Kinship Appeal, Inc. Post Office Box 40-0199 Brooklyn NY 11240-0199.