Monday, December 5, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- The Escape
 
In the privacy of the family, it was always said that Anna [Frederick’s wife] sold a featherbed to finance the journey, and having suggested that Frederick impersonate a sailor, altered his clothing to make it look like a seaman’s. …
 
… these three weeks must have been a time of compelling tension because the risks that lay ahead were great.  … the escape took courage in rich measure-and logistical problems were indeed skillfully addressed.  Since all free blacks, when traveling, had to carry proof that they were not slaves, he obtained the papers of a free seaman.  These may have been purchased, but they may, as he suggested, have been a gift, and if so, a most generous one.  A great many free black people, in a world in which they risked enslavement or reenslavement, ventured a great deal to assist runaways.  Frederick had also obtained the names of white Quakers and fellow blacks who could be trusted to help him on his way once he reached the free states.
 
One major route went northward through New Jersey, up the Hudson River to the Mohawk Valley, then westward to Rochester and across Lake Ontario to Canada.  Another, the one Frederick chose, led across Long Island Sound to New England.  Another source states that Frederick had gotten the free black seaman a job in the Baltimore shipyards.  The sailor, tired of sailing, loaned Frederick his papers with the understanding that they would be mailed back to him after Frederick reached a Northern city.
 
On Monday, September 3, 1838, in a red shirt, with a kerchief nonchalantly knotted around his neck, a sailor’s flat-topped broad-brimmed hat on his head, and the seaman’s papers in his pocket, Frederick Bailey got into a hack driven by his friend Isaac Rolls, a black man.  In order to bypass the ticket window-where the papers, which described a man far different in appearance, would be carefully check-they waited outside the railroad station until just before the train to Wilmington was to pull out.  Then the cab raced up to the train and stopped alongside the colored car.  … His bag in hand, the seaman jumped aboard just as the train started.
 
… They were nearly to Havre de Grace when the conductor came into the car to take tickets.  “The heart of no fox or deer, with hungry hounds … in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously or noisily than did mine”; and the runaway could only rely on the “jostle of the train, and the natural haste of the conductor,” in a train crowded with passengers.  But here was another reason why the disguise had been chosen; he was banking on the “kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore, and other seaports at the time, towards ‘those who go down to the sea in ships.’” …
 
As terrified as “a murderer fleeing from justice,” Frederick Bailey watched the conductor’s gruff encounters with the other black passengers, only to find that he brightened when he turned to the sailor: “I suppose you have your free papers?”  The runaway replied boldly, “No, sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me,” and pulled out the seaman’s papers.  The American eagle at the top of them caught the conductor’s eye, rather than the description below, of another man; taking “my fare” (probably cash, or else someone had bought the ticket for him), he commented to Frederick that he was “all right,” and “went on about his business.”
 
But the fugitive was not home free yet.  At Havre de Grace, he boarded a ferry to cross the Susquehanna River, and on the boat encountered a Baltimore acquaintance, a black deckhand, who insisted on asking about where he was going and why.  Frederick ducked out of that conversation as quickly as he could.  Then, as he again boarded a northbound train, he looked across at the southbound train, waiting a few feet on the next track.  A ship’s captain who frequented the shipyard where Frederick had worked was looking out the window with a blank stare, and did not see Frederick, whom he would have recognized as a slave.  Then there was the “German blacksmith, [while Frederick was transferring to a steamer that would travel up the Delaware River to Philadelphia] whom I knew well,” who gave Frederick the intense look of one reaching for a name-and then looked away: “I really believe he knew me, but had no heart to betray me.”
 
… Arriving in the free city [Philadelphia], he did not tarry, even though he knew that many black members of the underground-railroad community, and a goodly number of white Quakers, were in the city.  Directed by a black porter … Frederick Bailey went straight on to a ferry, the night train, and a final ferry to New York.
 
His first morning as a free man was one of sharp contrast.  Walking from the ferry, he found himself “amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway,” and he thought the “dreams of my childhood and the purposes of my manhood were now fulfilled.  … A new world burst upon my agitated vision.” … He “was a FREEMAN” and was at peace.
 
Suddenly, he saw a familiar face; it was Jake-Allender’s Jake-from Baltimore, on his way to work with his whitewasher’s pail.  But when Frederic greeted his fellow Baltimorean, he found that this free man, calling himself William Dixon now, was a defeated individual.  Barely willing to speak, Jake brushed the bewildered newcomer aside, saying, “It was not in his power to help me” and “I must trust no man with my secret.”  Jake, who had narrowly escaped being sent back to slavery, warned Frederick that slaveowners hired men of “my own color … for a few dollars” to spot runaways.  Frederick, he insisted, must not go into any “colored boarding-house, for all such places were closely watched,” nor onto the wharves in search of work.  Close to terror, Douglass later recalled, “in the midst of thousands of my own brethren … I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one.”
 
His well-knit plans were unraveling.  Frederick was suppose to go to the house of David Ruggles, on the corner of Lispenard and Church streets.  Ruggles was the head of the Vigilance Committee, a group organized to usher fugitives north and to try to protect them while in the city.  But presumably, after his encounter with Allender’s Jake, Frederick trusted no one and was afraid to ask for directions.
 
That night, his second in freedom, he crawled behind some barrels stacked outside a wharf to sleep (McFeely 70-73).
 
At daybreak the next morning he started again.  He had reached the Tombs and paused to look around when a sailor came out of a shack, crossed Center Street and approached Fred.  The fellow seemed friendly.  Fred decided to ask for help.
 
The sailor turned out to be a good risk.  A few moments later, having listened sympathetically to Fred’s story, he opened his door and offered the fugitive the hospitality of his squalid rooms.  Fred Bailey took off his shoes and slept in a bed that night for the first time in three days.  Early the following morning he went with the sailor to an address on the corner of Lispenard and Church.
 
At twenty-eight David Ruggles’ health was already ruined, his eye-sight failing.  He had been in the hands of physicians for a year, and by then he had been, in his own words, “bled, leached, cupped, plastered, blistered, salivated, doxed with arsenic, mux vomica, iodine, strychnine and other poisonous drugs.”
 
None who knew him would deny, however, that his suffering was in a large measure the result of his antislavery activities.  … his duties included around-the-clock aid to fugitives and free Negroes passing through the city, advice and legal help to slaves and kidnapped persons on ships whose captains were suspected of defying the anti-slavery laws of New York, the rescuing from jail of free people detained on trumped-up charges with a view to having them claimed as fugitives, fighting a running battle with officials and prominent New Yorkers thought to be assisting the slaveholders of the South, working for the extradition of free black people unjustly held in slave states, and trying to recover property and legacies illegally withheld for blacks.  … The even more discouraging job of raising funds to keep the work going also rested in part on the shoulders of the secretary. 
 
Though he fed and clothed and otherwise assisted more than six hundred runaways in the years he lived at Lispenard and Church, Ruggles greeted Fred Bailey as warmly as if the tall stranger were the first to find haven in his house.  At the same time the wavering, dimly peering Ruggles made a deep impression on the fugitive. …
 
Anna Murray was not blessed with good looks.  Nor had she found time or felt an incentive to teach herself to read and write.  She was a plain dark woman, inclined toward stoutness and accustomed to wearing a bandanna handkerchief about her head.  But she possessed a glamour that no slave or ex-slave could fail to recognize.  She was free. …
 
When she arrived at David Ruggles’ place in New York in responnse to Fred’s letter (which had to be read to her), her bundles were enormous, for she had brought along some household furnishings, but her money had run out, as had Fred’s.  They had nothing with which to pay a preacher or to continue their journey together if that were decided. 
 
… The preacher whom Ruggles found to marry them was a Presbyterian named J. W. C. Pennington, himself a fugitive who had been a blacksmith in slavery.  The Reverend Pennington was neither surprised nor disappointed to discover that the couple had no money, and, to Fred, “he seemed well-pleased with our thanks.”  After the ceremony … Ruggles slipped a five-dollar bill into the bridegroom’s hand.
 
The point of this gift was, as Ruggles explained, his conviction that New York was not the place for the couple.  Fred’s trade was calking, and all agreed that he couldn’t afford to seek work on the New York waterfront.  … New Bedford, on the other hand, was more promising.  There was a different attitude toward fugitives there.  In New Bedford many ships were fitted out for whaling voyages, and Ruggles was sure that Fred would be able to find work and make a good living.  Equally important, there was a colored family there that Ruggles knew, a Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson.  He could provide a letter to them, and the Johnsons would help Fred and Anna find work and get settled (Bontempts 10-11, 14-16).
 
Two days after the marriage Fred and his bride boarded the paddle-wheel steamer John W. Richmond, a vessel operating between New York City and Newport, Rhode Island.  … The next morning they reached Newport and went ashore with their motley luggage.
 
A stagecoach came down to the wharf as the steamer docked.  Painted on its sides in large yellow letters were the words New Bedford.  Fred looked at it wistfully, fingering the change that remained from his five dollars.  As he hesitated, looking first at Anna and then at the waiting stagecoach and finally at the coins in his hand, he heard a man’s voice with a strange inflection.  “Thee get in.”
 
… two Quaker gentlemen, one of whom had spoken the words … climbed into the coach [after Frederick and Anna] and introduced themselves.  They were Friends William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson, the latter the proprietor of a candle works in New Bedford.  [Both had been asked by David Ruggles to accompany Frederick and his wife to the Johnsons in New Bedford].
 
Not til the stage reached Stone Bridge and the other passengers went into an inn for breakfast did the question of fare arise.  Fred explained the situation to the driver, paid what he could toward the passage and promised to make up the difference when they reached New Bedford.  To his surprise, the driver raised no objection.  At New Bedford, however, he calmly set the couple’s luggage aside, explaining that he would hold it till they returned with the balance of the fare.
 
The baggage was soon redeemed, as it happened, because the Nathan Johnsons were kindly old people who responded immediately … by advancing to Fred and Anna the two dollars they needed.  … Their generosity did not end till they had made the strangers their guests, provided them with food and lodging and finally bestowed upon the fugitive the new name “Douglass” (Bontempts 16-17).
 
The name that Frederick had chosen in New York [Johnson] caused amused consternation at breakfast.  It was a little too familiar, in a town with a full page of Johnsons in its directory; indeed, the new couple had by chance taken the name of the people who were now their sponsors.  Nathan proposed another; … the host suggested to Frederick that a more heroic name could be drawn from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake [which Johnson had been reading].  Frederick … liked its sound.  With astonishing casualness, he gave himself the name, spelled as prominent black families in Baltimore and Philadelphia spelled it, that became one of the nineteenth century’s most famous.  Frederick Douglass now, he would never again be Frederick Bailey (McFeely 78).
 
 
Work cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.