Slavery Is a Love Song


On Christmas Eve 1855, Barnaby Grigsby and his Mary Elizabeth, Emily Foster and her intended Frank Wazner, along with two other slaves, took their masters best team of horses and his carriage, packed it knives and guns, and fled slavery. Grigsby and Elizabeth were married. Wazner and Foster were engaged. 

The party suffered from hunger and exposure during the journey and were, by William Still's lights, in ill humor when they found themselves set upon by a group of patrollers:

The spokesman amongst the fugitives, affecting no ordinary amount of dignity, told their assailants plainly, that "no gentleman would interfere with persons riding along civilly"--not allowing it to be supposed that they were slaves, of course. These "gentlemen," however, were not willing to accept this account of the travelers, as their very decided steps indicated. Having the law on their side, they were for compelling the fugitives to surrender without further parley. 

At this juncture, the fugitives verily believing that the time had arrived for the practical use of their pistols and dirks, pulled them out of their concealment--the young women as well as the young men--and declared they would not be "taken!" One of the white men raised his gun, pointing the muzzle directly towards one of the young women, with the threat that he would "shoot," etc. 

"Shoot! shoot!! shoot!!!" she exclaimed, with a double barrelled pistol in one hand and a long dirk knife in the other, utterly unterrified and fully ready for a death struggle. The male leader of the fugitives by this time had "pulled back the hammers" of his "pistols," and was about to fire! Their adversaries seeing the weapons, and the unflinching determination on the part of the runaways to stand their ground, "spill blood, kill, or die," rather than be "taken," very prudently "sidled over to the other side of the road," leaving at least four of the victors to travel on their way. 

 At this moment the four in the carriage lost sight of the two on horseback. Soon after the separation they heard firing, but what the result was, they knew not. They were fearful, however, that their companions had been captured....

The two were indeed captured. I encourage you to read through Still's files as he girds his own account of the escape with newspaper articles. But I also want to focus on the result of the young lady leaping from the wagon "with a double barrelled pistol in one hand and long dirk in the other" daring the patroller to shoot her down:

In Syracuse, Frank (the leader), who was engaged to Emily, concluded that the knot might as well be tied on the U.G.R.R., although penniless, as to delay the matter a single day longer. Doubtless, the bravery, struggles, and trials of Emily throughout the journey, had, in his estimation, added not a little to her charms. Thus after consulting with her on the matter, her approval was soon obtained, she being too prudent and wise to refuse the hand of one who had proved himself so true a friend to Freedom, as well as so devoted to her. The twain were accordingly made one at the U.G.R.R. Station, in Syracuse, by Superintendent--Rev. J.W. Loguen. After this joyful event, they proceeded to Toronto, and were there gladly received by the Ladies' Society for aiding colored refugees.

Sharp-eyed readers will note the presence of J.W. Loguen--our old friend Jarm Logue. I want to emphasize that it is not uncommon to see black women in this sort of aggressive, violent and self-assertive role. The first thing is that slavery was, itself, violent, gender regardless. There are numerous reports of slave-mistresses inflicting terrible brutality on their charges (especially children.) So there's no real reason to expect black women, whatever the 19th century mores might be, to be much different in their willingness to go for the guns, then men.

And there's also this--undermined "traditional" gender roles. It's very hard to claim to "the man of the house" when you are not. This creates room for broader agency among black women. So its nothing to hear about Harriet Tubman threatening to shoot black men who are scared to finish the journey to freedom. It make sense to hear William Parker's wife, in the midst of the Christiana rebellion, grabbing a corn-cutter and threatening to "cut off the head of the first one who should attempt to give up." There's no real "ladyhood" under slavery. And I bet that even after slavery, the ladyhood that emerges is something different. I don't think it's a mistake that Harriet Tubman is the first woman--of any color--credited with leading an American military raid

I need to be clear here--slavery no more "ended" black male chauvinism, than the integration of the military ended racism in the Army. But as with the military, the presence of death tends to turn bigotries into expensive luxuries. And even after the immediate danger fades something remains--so much that Frank Wazner would find himself attracted to a woman who willingly acted within the sphere of male power.

*The above drawing, depicting the Maryland encounter, accompanied the publication of William Still's mammoth compendium of primary sources, The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narrative, Letters etc.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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