Escaping to Destinations South: Keynote address at the 2012 Undergound Railroad Conference

by William Loren Katz on June 30, 2012

William L. Katz gave the following keynote address at the Escaping to Destinations South Underground Railroad Conference in St. Augustine, Florida on June 21, 2012. The conference was hosted by the National Park Service.

I am here to honor the first freedom fighters of the North and South American continents and the islands of the Caribbean – by honoring their descendants who represent this American tradition that is both older and more meaningful than the First Thanksgiving.

I want to thank Diane Miller, Dr. Lowe and the NPS staff for their careful preparation of this conference. And thank some others.

  • Phil Pompey Fixico who represents the indomitable Maroon spirit, has aided me immeasurably since we met.
  • Chief Osceola Townsend of the Mattinecock Nation who guided me since 1986 and inducted me into his National Alliance of Native Americans.
  • Dr. Kevin Mulroy, whose scholarship has lighted the way for a quarter of a century.
  • Lonnie Moonfire Harrington with whom I have shared many a platform and important exchanges for decades.
  • William Dub Warrior who knew Kenneth Wiggins Porter and willingly shares his treasure chest of knowledge.
  • Professor Hariberto Dixon who volunteers important articles and spends endless hours fielding my questions.
  • Professor Kenneth Wiggins Porter who pioneering research starting in the 1920 set the bar and whose generous and warm friendship since the 1960s inspired me.
  • And Mrs. Annette Porter who made me curator of Porter’s papers which I speedily donated to the Schomburg Library.

Finally, Dr. Laurie Lehman of Long Island University who put up with my devotion to this subject since 1983 when as a graduate student she edited the first Black Indians, and then agreed to marry me though this meant listening to even more. And George “Circling Eagle” Tooks, African-Apache, a dear friend, brother, keeper of the flame, and the best man at our wedding.

A small band of historians that began with Black Seminole Rosa Fay and Kenneth Wiggins Porter led the way. They dared to tell a story that flew in the faces of powerful people. They pried open the door for later scholars to speak truth to power.

Let me describe what these early scholars faced. Hearing of a slave revolt in 1774 James Madison, patriot, father of the Constitution, a President and a Virginia slaveholder, wrote: “It is prudent that all such attempts shall be concealed as well as suppressed.” Scholars had to pry open locked doors.

They also had to expose lies told by the most powerful. At Lake Okeechobee in 1837 the multicultural Seminole nation inflicted one of the greatest Native American defeats for the US Army. But Colonel Zachary Taylor claimed victory, was made a General and went on to win the Presidency as an “Indian fighter.” His narrative had carried the day. When President Taylor died in office in 1850, a young former Congressman memorialized him at Chicago City Hall: “He was never beaten . . . . [I]n 1837 he fought and conquered in the memorable Battle of Lake Okeechobee, one of the most desperate struggles known to the annals of Indian warfare.” The speaker was no less than Abraham Lincoln.

In his Almanac of American History the famous Harvard scholar Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian to President John Kennedy, simply still proclaimed Taylor victorious in 1837. “Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida.”

The story of the southern underground railroad network was, a Madison said, “concealed.” White abolitionists did not tell it for they had been driven from the southern states by the slave power. An entrenched slave system permitted no disturbances of its rule no challenge to its system, no truth.

I found out personally how the lie continued in 1950 when I gained my degree in history from Syracuse University thanks to the GI Bill. I had to suffer through a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction period that wept for the poor slaveholders. When I wrote an admiring book report on WEB Du Bois’ brilliant Black Reconstruction my professor wrote a four letter word on top: “Nuts.” One of his final exam choices was: “Justify the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.”

I completed my master’s at NYU in 1951 because I could not afford a graduate degree at Columbia University. But I was able to trundle up to Columbia to sit in on a course on slavery. His class had about eighty students with one male student of color. It was taught by a tall, handsome, red-haired young white southerner. His was the slaveholders’ story, told with charm and caustic humor: “We didn’t whup anybody.” Toward the end of this particular class the back door opened and two of his students entered carry a huge flatbed Birthday cake for their professor. It had candles and grey icing because it was in the form of a Confederate flag.

North and South this was the way that the story of slavery and the resistance to it by our earliest freedom fighting heroes was conveyed at top colleges, in movies and textbooks.

The southern underground railroad was unique compared to others that flowed northward. It cannot be described in the same terms. First, it had no white people to help and then write of its daring, and no people of color who could take the time. It did not even have those uncomfortable northern stations that provided shelter and food. It lacked a John Brown who headed south to lead people further south, or a Harriet Tubman or William Wells Brown. It had no Levi Coffin ready to open his home in Indiana and no William Still in Philadelphia to welcome escapees, no Frederick Douglass in Rochester to take in the weary, no Joseph Brant and his Mohawks in Canada to embrace runaways. This vast underground operated from Texas and Oklahoma westward and into Florida, fled into Mexico and paddled by canoe to the islands of the Caribbean.

But it had its own daring leaders with names such as Menendez, Garcia, Cowaya, Coacoochee, and Anacoana or with names unknown except to loved ones, and those they rescued. And it operated across vast land areas, across lakes and oceans.

These daring men and women developed diplomatic skills they enabled them to play one white colonial power against another, to stay clear of internal disputes in host countries, and to discover new allies. Rosa Fay remembers the Seminoles who escaped to Mexico: “”John Horse would never even let the little children fight with the Mexican children, because he said, ‘When we came, fleeing slavery, Mexico was a land of freedom and the Mexicans spread out their arms to us.’ ”

We have rare glimpses of its battles and mysterious ways, and how it united Indigenous peoples, Hispanic Americans and Africans into our first “rainbow coalition” and our first freedom fighters.

Some say it began with Anacoana, a beloved Taino poet and performer, who brought gifts to Columbus and his crew when they landed Haiti. She learned fast, fought hard and was soon captured and executed by the invaders. Or was it Hatuey who died exactly 500 years ago this last February 2nd who first rose against European colonizers on his island, then led 600 Taino and African followers by canoe to Cuba, making the struggle both trans-national and pan-American in scope. It was the courage of Anacoana and Hatuey that guided Bishop Bartolommeo De Las Casas into a life-long defense of Indigenous people, and our first white anti-racist figure.

In Florida an African Seminole alliance was without precedent in the United States. Africans who fled slavery in the British colonies were among the first explorers of Florida. When the Seminole Nation arrived around 1776 the Africans taught them methods of rice cultivation they had learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone, and then reconstructed a multicultural nation as an agricultural and military alliance. Africans rose to leadership and the two peoples united against slavery and foreign domination. Writing of African Seminole encampments along the Apalachicola River in 1816, US Army Colonel Clinch reported:

The American negroes had principally settled along the river and a number of them had left their fields and gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach. Their corn fields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing.

Clinch found Black and Seminole farmers who raised crops, cattle, horses, traded with neighbors, and brought up their children. This Florida beacon of hope stirred a US war lasting two generations. The Black Seminole alliance was the largest and longest slave rebellion in US history, the strongest southern network of the underground railroad, and the first united resistance to strike massive fear in the hearts of US slaveholders. It found allies among the Spanish people, including officials, established international connections in the Caribbean and Mexico, and was never defeated.

This alliance fought the US to a standstill in three “Seminole Wars” running circles around the best trained army in the Americas, and causing a US expenditure of $30,000,000 in a war the US never won, a loss of 1500 soldiers, and one humiliating defeat after another. One cannot understand the history of Florida without understanding this massive bastion of the underground railroad.

At times the southern underground railroad conductors pursued vast plans. In 1846 Coacoochee set off from the Indian Territory to recruit people of color from the Five Nations, and from Texas and Arkansas plantations in a “union of half a dozen linguistic groups and two races.” At other times it was a race for life. At harvest time in 1849 Coacoochee and Coya mobilized 800 of their people for an escape from the Indian Territory to Mexico. As they reached the Rio Grand in the summer of 1850 armed posses galloped into sight and began firing. African Seminole Becky Simmons, one of the first to cross the river that fateful night, told how relieved she was to get “away from de American race people.”

Sometimes the railroad to freedom just refused to move. In November 1861, the Union fleet captured the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, and US General Rufus Saxton reported to Congress what happened when slaveholders tried to drive their slaves further south: “They tried to take their negroes with them, but they would not go. They shot down their negroes in many instances because they would not go with them. They tied them behind wagons and tried to drag them off; but the negroes would not go. The great majority of negroes [80%] remained behind and came into our lines.” Among those liberated were ancestors of Dr. Sara Dunlop Jackson, the first African American researcher to work for decades at the National Archives, a dear friend and one of my mentors.

Sometimes the UGRR was a wild scramble to safety.

In March 1862, General Burnside reported from New Bern, North Carolina “They find their way to us through the woods and swamps from every side” and are “wild with excitement.”

Sometimes it was flight turned into battle. In early 1862 Confederate General Floyd complained Black militia units in Florida so harassed Confederate troops he demanded “as a measure of absolute necessity” Governor Milton declare martial law in six counties. In May that year in Pensacola, Confederate Commander Thomas Jones reported “the greatest trouble” was that fleeing slaves gave valuable information to Union forces.

Sometimes rescue was by water. In Georgia a woman put her 22 children and grand children on a raft climbed on and floated to freedom. On the evening of May 13 1862. Robert Smalls, the slave pilot of a Confederate gun boat “The Planter” staged a mass escape. When his white officers left the ship for the night, Smalls and his African American crew hurried their families aboard and sailed into Charleston harbor. They blinked the correct signal to the Confederate batteries at 4 AM and then handed the ship to the Union Navy. “I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe,” Smalls said. He was the first human in history to steal a battleship, and through the war served the Union as its captain.

Sometimes the southern underground railroad was an organized flight of thousands parading as a peace march. When Creek leaders signed with the Confederacy in early 1861 Opothle Yahola, a wealthy Creek landowner with many slaves, was convinced most people in the Indian Territory wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy or war.

Yahola found he was far from alone. By Fall thousands of men, women and children from Creek, Seminole and other Nations, including many African Americans, had gathered in secret places in the Indian Territory. In time half of the Seminole Nation, many Cherokee, and Creek, and also Chickasaw, Choctaw, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Delaware and Comanche found their way to Yahola’s Oklahoma ranch. They rejected alignment with a Federal government they found untrustworthy, and a Confederacy fighting to preserve slavery. Hoping President Lincoln would provide military protection to his peaceful followers, Yahola wrote Lincoln saying, “now the wolf has come. Men who are strangers tread our soil. Our children are frightened & mothers cannot sleep for fear.” Lincoln promised help. But Federal forces were busy in the east and this proved an empty gesture.

Yahola’s thousands circled around to recruit other “neutral” Africans and Indians. They were repeatedly attacked by Confederate cavalry and infantry, but during one battle 300 Confederate Cherokee soldiers deserted, some to go home and others to join Yahola’s march. The day after Christmas Yahola’s exodus was defeated. Bloodied and beaten, men, women and children fled into the winter cold. They abandoned wagons, bedding, and clothing and lost about 900 cattle, 250 ponies, and 190 sheep as they struggled through a blizzard. Unable to be buried the dead lay on the frozen ground and were devoured by wolves. Said one Seminole: “At that battle we lost everything we possessed, everything to take care of our women and children with, and all that we had. . . . We left them in cold blood by the wayside.”

Some 7,600 survivors finally reached Kansas. In April 1862 as the first buds of spring poked through the soil, they were receiving US Army supplies and many young men — especially those of African descent — talked not of peace but fighting to free enslaved relatives. What began as a peace march from the Indian Territory made seasoned soldiers of the Civil War’s first African American and Black Indian troops to face the Confederacy. A total of 20,000 Native Americans and Africans fled the Indian Territory to avoid serving the Confederacy.

This underground railroad soon became liberators. The men of the First Indian Home Guard and First and Second Kansas Colored Regiments fought in Missouri, Arkansas and the Indian Territory. They killed slaveholders and freed enslaved family members and perfect strangers – before the Emancipation Proclamation. They became part of the more than 200,000 soldiers of color President Lincoln said, “with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and a steady eye, and well-poised bayonet . . . helped mankind.”

From Virginia to Florida to Texas the southern UGRR made liberation history during the Civil War. Black journalist Morris Chester of the Philadelphia Press wrote: “The underground railroad, from Richmond, seems to be thoroughly repaired and is not only in running condition, but is doing an increasing business . . . . We have had an arrival from Richmond every day, [sometimes] two or three times in the 24 hours.”

People who were part of an underground railroad network was there to help General Sherman and his 60,000 troops live off the land as they sliced the southern states in half in 1864. One of the liberated by Sherman was the ancestor of a Black Indian woman named Michelle whose children now play on the White House lawn every day.

In early March 1865, Sherman’s reached the southern border of North Carolina but a torrential rain storm stopped his march. Suddenly a dark, grizzled, shabby guerilla force he called “Lumbees” appeared. Actually they were a mixture of the original English colonists of Roanoke in 1685 that had married with people of the Lumbee Nation and others of African descent. They called themselves “the Lowry Band” after their mixed race leader, Henry Berry Lowry and they guided General Sherman through the muddy roads and swollen creeks of Robeson County. Sherman called it “the damndest marching I ever saw.”

Sherman had stumbled on a tri-racial band that had been fighting the Confederate Home Guards in a miniature civil war. Sherman continued on but the Lowry Band remained to fight the Ku Klux Klan after the war. A century later the descendants of the Lowry Band were still producing and acting in an outdoor play “Strike at the Wind” – with musical numbers written by Willie French Lowry – that over its many performances saw a thousand actors depicting their intrepid ancestors who fought the Confederacy and then Klan terrorists.

The southern UGRR was more than the damndest marching anyone ever saw. Because its enemies saw it not as a simple strike for liberty, a search for family and peace but a defiant, military movement, its casualty rates were high compared to lines heading northward. It operated entirely in enemy territory where any white person would be rewarded for reporting or fighting it, and slaveholder armies were arrayed against it. It could expect no sympathy, refuge, or help.

Both fearful and fearless, it was sometimes well organized and armed, and other times a chaotic, unarmed dash to freedom that looked like a slave revolt on the move. It had to hide its people at all times, live off the land, and advance as swiftly as its slowest feet could move. When one measures its courage, conviction and incredible success against these obstacles, we find a new set of intrepid American heroes.

This underground railroad was “the damndest marching” anyone ever saw, a lethal mix of slave rebellion, mass exodus to freedom, and pure American guts. And its efforts probably saved more men, women and children than all the networks heading North.

If that isn’t something all Americans should celebrate, what is?

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