Excerpt: Introduction to Bound for Canaan:
The Underground Railroad and the War
for the Soul of America
THE YEAR is 1844 or 1845. The night air is acrid, as it always is in Madison, Indiana, with the smell of the slaughterhouses and tanneries that line the north shore of the Ohio River. It is almost ten o’clock, and in this era before electricity and street lamps, the darkness is profound.
The barber has done what he was told. He is alone on the street corner. He waits with the nearly killing anxiety of a man who is about to commit a crime. He is a slave, and he is about to steal himself.
The barber had been working in Madison, and sending his earnings back to his master in Kentucky, a common enough arrangement in the border states. He could walk away from the corner, he knew. He could go home, abandon hope of escape, get along somehow as a slave, and stay safe, in a way. But he could not forget George DeBaptiste’s words to him: “Aren’t you ashamed—you, a man able to make money, and take care of yourself, with a good trade, young, strong, and a man all over, if you were only a mind to be—to be calling another man your master, like a dog, paying over to him your wages?”
At ten o’clock, steps approach, and a black man slips from the shadows. He tells the barber to walk to the roadbed where the new railway is to be laid north from Madison. When he gets to it, he is to walk north until he reaches the post that marks the second mile, and then whistle twice.
The barber follows the instructions. He is leaving an entire life behind, and walking into the unknown. He is attuned to every rustle, click, and murmur of life in the night, straining for the sounds of feet in pursuit. It is a hard place for blacks, this southern edge of Indiana. White vigilantes sometimes attack blacks in their homes, in Madison. Slave catchers prowl the back country, hunting runaways. The barber knows, as every fugitive knows, that at any moment his break for freedom may turn into a disaster.
At the two-mile marker the barber screws up his courage and whistles. Another black man slips from the woods, with a gun at the ready. Walk another two miles, he tells the barber, and falls into step behind him. At the next appointed spot, a second armed man appears, and orders him to walk two more miles, with the two gunmen now following behind him. The drill is repeated four times, until the barber is surrounded by eight armed men.
Sixteen miles beyond Madison, instead of another gunman, there is a wagon waiting. Into it the barber climbs, and for the first time during that long night, perhaps, he begins to breathe normally again. Ahead of him lie the welcoming farms of white Presbyterian and Quaker farmers, of free blacks who do not fear the writs and guns of slave hunters, and his own freedom.
George DeBaptiste, the man who prompted the barber’s elaborate escape, who executed it, who ensured that even if the fugitive’s party was discovered it was carrying enough firepower to defend itself, was also, as it happened, a barber. He was also the secret head of the local Underground Railroad. In some respects, DeBaptiste was a very ordinary man, about thirty years old at the time, well known to everyone in Madison, as a respectable member of the town’s small free black middle class. Unknown to them, almost every day of his life, he tested the limits to which a black man would be allowed to go in the deeply racist America of the 1840s.
It was dangerous enough for radical white abolitionists to risk helping fugitive strangers, breaking federal law every time they did it. For a black man, who could never count on the law to be on his side, it was brave beyond imagining. For the underground, both opportunity and death were as close as the Kentucky shore. Madison stood on the invisible line that ran down the middle of the Ohio River dividing the slave states from the free as absolutely as if they had been cut apart by a cleaver. During his eight years in Madison, DeBaptiste estimated that he personally assisted one hundred and eight fugitives to freedom, and several times that number indirectly. Failure at any point could easily have cost him his life.
The name of the barber who escaped that night more than a century and a half ago has long been forgotten. His story still exists only because it survived in the memory of George DeBaptiste, who recounted it to a reporter for a Detroit newspaper in 1870, a few years before he died. But the events of that night were epochal, in their way. Another chip had silently been knocked out of the edifice of slavery, and another victory gained for the clandestine army that was changing America. (Continued next page)