By Kim Garrett
A Journey of Conviction, Courage, and Commitment
History had always been a subject for which I lacked a desire to engage. This was primarily due to the insignificant portrayal of African contributions to American history contained in textbooks. The revelation of our existence in history was fleeting, reduced to a mere few pages. I recall the mention of slavery, but not detailed in its true horror not the courage of the those that sought to abolish it. During these class discussions I would usually hang my head in disappointment for, as a student, I could not propose to supplement information outside of that contained in the text. I was resigned to accept that which was printed, not as truth, but as the limited history to be disseminated by the instructor.
I learned of the Footsteps to Freedom Study Tour of the Underground Railroad. I was eager to participate. This would be my opportunity to gain that knowledge that I had yearned for all those years prior. It would also afford me the occasion to share with students and the community the truth of our history so that they could balance the content what they had been taught with knowledge and pride of the unsung heroes.
Once I learned that I had been selected to attend the tour, I was elated beyond words. After weeks of eager anticipation, the date of departure finally arrived. I sat quietly in the airport, journaling at 4am. My notes, which were carefully drafted, reflected my expectations of the knowledge I hoped to gain and the experience I hoped to share with fellow attendees:
“Here we are, a group representative of varying ages, nationalities, and experiences. We share a common goal, to discover first hand, the journeys of those brave souls that fought to survive, struggled to endure, sacrificed their very lives for a chance at freedom. We will stand in the place where they finally exhaled. Separated from family, afraid yet free. What will their future hold? Who can they trust? Where will they go from here? Where do they begin?” …dated July 5, 2015.
I had so many questions and I hoped I would find the answers.
Each day of the eight day journey I feverishly journaled. I was famished and was now being nourished by the factual orations and discussions of our educated docents and resident historian. They passionately informed us of the lives and struggles of so many individuals whose names had not graced the pages of history books. They breathed life directly into each individual they described, as the figures seemingly walked among us on the trek. Nothing else seemed to exist beyond the walls of the bus. As the details unfolded such as the courage of John Parker, the conviction of the Rankin family, the commitment of the residents of Oberlin, OH, I was overwhelmed.
I had previously acknowledged that this trip would cast me into a well of emotion. I felt agony when I stood in the slave pen in Cincinnati. Presently, the opening of the pen stood gaping, without doors. Shackles rested in a wooden box in a corner and rings which had secured the enslaved dangled from beams overhead. I stood at at a small window frame in the wall with a thick wrought iron barrier, and I wept. As I traced my hand across the peeling wood, I was, at that moment, enslaved without reason, save the color of my skin.
I climbed the daunting hill to the Rankin house. This was a arduous task, though it was accomplished at a leisurely pace, with ample sunlight, and a cool bottle of water at my disposal.
I imagined the enslaved navigating the same path, in the dark, without use of the convenient staircase, moving hastily while hearing the approaching dogs in the distance. Once I crested the ridge, I released a sigh. As I peered down the hill and across the Ohio River into Kentucky at former slave territory, I cried for those that remained enslaved and celebrated the bravery of those that risked their lives to reach freedom.
I was inspired by the commitment of the of the Oberlin residents to change the course of history, and to help free and educate the previously enslaved. I was encouraged by the establishment of the Buxton Settlement, where formerly enslaved people proved that they could flourish when provided the same resources and opportunities of non-enslaved citizens.
There were so many moments where emotion consumed me, no moment overshadowing another. From the gathering of hands while singing hymns in the shadow of the Charles Young’s cabin, standing on the greenbelt where the NAACP was established in Niagara, gazing in adoration upon the bust of Harriet Tubman, and kneeling in adulation at the grave of Frederick Douglass, I was speechless.
At the conclusion of my journey, I realized that I had taken the most amazing and enlightening trip of my life. I walked through history, absorbing every fact, feeling the pulse of the time period, the pain of those that made the difficult trek in hope of finding a life without limits and freedom they had been promised. My reverence for their sacrifices were strengthened seeing their efforts enabled so many to bring the dream of freedom to fruition. I was left with an overwhelming sense of pride knowing that people of different nationalities pooled their efforts to assist others in their escape from bondage. These are the truths that must be told.
I express my gratitude to all of the docents that showered us with their wealth of knowledge: Dr. Jerry Gore who shepherded us through Kentucky and Ripley Ohio, detailing the significance of each destination with sincerity that pierced my soul; Kenneth Morris who reminded me that I have the power to inspire and effect change in my community; Dr. Daniel Walker who masterfully contextualized the soul stirring facts so that they were both personal and relevant, causing introspection and consideration of our impact in the community; Leslie Harper-Wells who compared and contrasted the emancipation history of Canadians of African ancestry; Dr. David Anderson who eloquently highlighted details of Frederick Douglass’ life in Rochester NY; Ken Grossi who illustrated the strength of Oberlin residents to thwart the progression of slavery; Paulette Brown-Hinds for her patience and support; Hardy Brown II for his vision to expand the tour to influence and inspire the entire community; Niki Chambers for her resoluteness and organization.
I will never forget the impact of this experience nor take for granted the sacrifices made so that I may benefit from the freedom and opportunities of this life. These are the truths that must be shared, for the conviction, courage and commitment were the framework of the freedoms we currently enjoy.