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Eight Days That Changed Our Lives

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By Briana Boykin

My personal journey on the Footsteps To Freedom “Xi” Underground Railroad Study Tour


When Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds and Mrs. Cheryl Brown told me I was going on The Black Voice Foundation's Footsteps to Freedom "XI" Underground Railroad Study tour they said it would be life changing. But I didn't quite understand what that meant until I returned home a different and more whole person.

On July 27, 2008, I landed in Columbus, Ohio to begin a journey back to the time just before this country became the United States of America. Along with nineteen other participants who were mostly educators from San Bernardino and Victorville, I, the youngest member of the group, was given the title "Freedom Seeker" by the official Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad conductor, Mrs. Cheryl Brown. Immediately, I was wearing the shoes of my ancestors who courageously escaped slavery in search of the freedom that America's Constitution had promised all men. 

At this meeting, our first assignment was to introduce ourselves and our reason for participating in the program. Among the diverse group of enthusiastic and friendly participants was Kenny Morris, who right away struck me as compassionate and genuine. In his introduction of himself he informed us that his reason for participating on the trip was because of his desire to reconnect with the history of those great persons who came before us and to also gain better insight into slavery as President and Founder of the Fredrick Douglass Family Foundation, an organization that avidly fights against modern day slavery and human trafficking. "I'm just really excited and thankful to be here," he told the other participants. What he didn't tell us was that he is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington - two extremely important people in American history. I was impressed by his modesty; actually I was impressed by everyone. Everyone in the group was fabulous; I just knew my experience would be the same.

After our introductions we received an itinerary of the trip and I learned that I would be retracing the ground of Americans that I had only read about in books or heard about through a few dedicated professors. I would now be living this knowledge outside of the textbook and the classroom. I was excited about the journey I faced, but most of all I felt honored and humbled that I would soon be in the very same places of those brave people who came before me. All my life I had wondered what it must have been like to be them - to live through what can be considered some of the worst times in our human existence - to be enslaved - to have a human heart and yet be reduced by society as the property of another man. And now I was given the opportunity to stand on the sacred ground of these people and visit the homes and sanctuaries where they sought refuge from slave hunters on their journey to freedom. Yes, I was honored; however, despite my excitement and anticipation, bizarre feelings of detachment and estrangement from my place in this world began to accrue in my heart the first night as I sat in my hotel wondering exactly what this experience would bring me. What happened was beyond what I could fathom.

On our first day of the tour, after visiting the National Afro American Museum African-American quilt display, and the nearby Wilberforce University, the tour group ventured to the home of black abolitionists, John Parker and the Front St. community before climbing the hill up to the home of abolitionist John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, territory that was considered before the Civil War free territory, or land where slavery had been abolished. Rankin's home overlooked the slave the territory of Mason County, Kentucky. As we climbed the hill, we became refugees of slavery running from slave catchers who, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, had been given the legal right to capture us and return us back to the masters. At that moment our lives began to change. I remember each "Freedom Seeker" imagining, experiencing the fear, the pain, and the determination that the escaped Africans must have felt running up that hill - I remember us trying to feel the power of the spirituals that kept the real freedom seekers alive and gave them faith and hope as they ran through the thick brush in the dead of winter cold, starving, and often barefoot - the choice between life or death their only real option. I also tried to imagine myself as a Rankin, a white abolitionist who risked his life to help enslaved persons make it across the border of Kentucky and into Ohio not because of a social obligation but because he believed that it was his godly duty to work against the institution of slavery.

I struggled to picture this whole scene; it was difficult. I felt so disconnected from the history. It was the first time I had ever heard the story of the Underground Railroad told in so much detail. But even as my feelings of detachment magnified, when I got to the top of that hill and entered the damp, stuffy cellar where they hid the Africans who had made it into the free territory, I knew my understanding of the world would never be the same.

That day Jerry Gore, a direct descendent of Addison White one of the most famous refugees on the Underground Railroad and a former director of student affairs at Morehead College in Kentucky whose joy and passion radiated through his kind gestures and great big smile, opened his family museum to us and shared the sacred stories about how escaped victims of slavery were imprisoned in that exact same building. He also told us other family stories in American history that had been kept secret for years. These stories were woven into our hearts. When it was time to head to our next stop, we were already becoming different people; we all left Ripley with a real picture of slavery, unsugarcoated and raw. "Please respect these stories and remember what the ancestors lived and died for," Jerry admonished us as we headed to our next stops with gratitude for the freedom bought by the blood of our courageous forefathers and foremothers.

Over the next six days we would make our way from Cincinnati, where we sat inside of a restored slave holding pen at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center; to Wellington and Oberlin, where we learned at the Oberlin College Archives of the famous Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue; to Detroit, where we toured the Wright African-American and Henry Ford Museums as well as the First Congregational Church of Detroit; to Ontario, Canada, where we visited the Afro-Canadian establishments of John Freeman Walls, the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, and Uncle Tom's Cabin and learned of their significance in the Underground Railroad; then to Niagara Falls, Canada to visit the Dett Chapel, Saint Catherine's B.M.E. Church, Harriett Tubman's Church, and the gravesite of Anthony Burns; and finally to upstate New York where we experienced the life of  two very important figures in American History.

Our journey to freedom ended Sunday, August 2 in Rochester, New York, the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women's suffragette Susan B. Anthony. It was perhaps one of the most emotional parts of the trip. We were exhausted. We had been so many places in just seven days and were trying to take in the myriad of new information we had learned in just that short period of time. Still, we knew we had to finish the assignment. Although there was not one place we had visited on the trip that Frederick Douglass had not influenced, we were now standing on his territory with his great-great-great grandson. As our tour guides for this part of the program brought to life the history of Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and Sojourner Truth through a special presentation, I watched Kenny take it all in. It was powerful. As he reconnected with that part of his history, a heavy spirit fell upon all of us. We walked the streets of Rochester trying one last time before the tour was over to know this history as it was a time ago.  The gray sky reflected our emotions. It was cold and we were ready to rest. Still, we knew we had to finish the assignment.

We went to the park where a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass sat discussing human rights issues over tea, and the sculpture came to life. At that moment Kenny, who was dressed in a suit to reverence the life of his ancestor, shared a silent moment with his great-great-great grandfather.

I would later discover that that day in the park empowered Kenny beyond ordinary inspiration. His expression was almost surreal. He conveyed to me the following:

"As our tour guide [Dr. David Anderson] stood by the monument telling us about the accomplishments of the great Frederick Douglass and how he, a once enslaved man, fought for justice in this country, the statue began to come alive and I was able to speak to my grandfather." 

As we left the park for our next destination, a few rain drops fell from the sky. I knew his life, my life, and all of our lives would never be the same. Kenny later revealed to me that this was the most emotional part of the journey for him. "It was life changing, stoic; I experienced the strongest feelings there. That moment has me at loss for words," he would later inform me.

Our last stop was the memorial site where Douglass was buried. Kenny faced the burial site with dignity.

Kenny and I reflected on our experiences a couple days later; our emotions had still not settled. I remember him expressing to me a prayer he said to his great-great-great grandfather and a letter he left on his gravestone before we departed from our last stop of the tour.

"I told him I was proud of him not just for everything he had done for our country but for all that he had done for me as a grandfather." Kenny shared with me, the spirit of that moment still lingering in the atmosphere. In the poignant letter, he expressed the most powerful words to the great Frederick Douglass.

"Granted, if I had one wish," he wrote to his grandfather, "I would ask you to show me how to become a leader among leaders."

Remembering his great grandmother's personal accounts of Douglass's kind heart and big white hair, Kenny realized that he was only one person away from history; he knew that it was his turn to extend the legacy of his grandfather.

When we boarded the bus to return home, I noticed Kenny was a little taller. In fact, we all were. Like Kenny, we all began the program recognizing in some way the shoes that we must fill before we leave this world, but by the end of the experience we had received the confidence and the stories needed to fill them.

I am a member of a generation that has lost its way. We have forgotten who we are because we are no longer being told in truth who we have always been. We don't know our stories and are consequently detached from the pain and the hope of our ancestors. On the trip I dealt with a range of emotions, but the most troubling times were when I struggled to relate to the pain my ancestors endured so that I could be free. I recall being frustrated on the trip, asking myself "where had these stories been during my adolescent years? Where were they when I was forming my identity? Where were they when my classmates and peers were killing each other because they had forgotten that they were connected to a people of dignity, honor, and virtue?"  These times were most difficult for me because during the journey I realized that it was the pain of those who fought for freedom that connected me to the variety of freedoms afforded to me in this country today. By retracing the footsteps of those who challenged our society to make this country a more perfect union, I have become reunited with my human duty to participate in the struggle for human rights and am honored to not only continue in following these footsteps, but to do my part in making my own as well.

At the end of the tour, my roommate Katie Greene, a retired Air Force Major, registered nurse practitioner, and lawyer from Riverside, said to me "I have traveled to over fifty-five different countries and yet this is probably the most significant trip I have ever been on." I knew then that I, a twenty-two years old recent college graduate and rather inexperienced traveler, was beyond blessed.

When our plane home touched California soil, all of us were a little changed. And it is certainly no lie that once you embark on the Black Voice Footsteps to Freedom journey of the Underground Railroad, you have no choice but to return a quite different, more whole person.

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