I was once a slave, but now I am a teacher. This is my story. The year is 1830, and I am twelve years old. I live on a plantation in South Carolina. I have no kin with me at this plantation. I was separated from my mother at age seven. She was sold to another master. Of the rest of my family I know nothing, except that there were others. At this time of my life I am changing and growing up. I hear whispers of slaves escaping and reaching the North to be free. Before my mother was taken from me, she made me promise that I would try in any way I could to make it up North. At the time I was very young and really did not know what she was talking about, but now I do. Over the years, I became a companion to the master’s daughter, Anna. When we played together, I learned how to read and write. She would be the teacher and I was the student. Reading and writing is forbidden to slaves and punishable by death. Therefore, it was our secret. Anna and I became very close, almost like sisters, and it was she who came upon the idea that I needed to escape and go up North. At that moment, shocked and scared by what she said, I knew she was right, because our game could no longer remain a secret. The seed of an idea was planted, and so Anna and I spoke in terrified whispers to plot how I was going to escape.
For many nights, Anna and I talked about how I was going to leave. Tears would come to our eyes as we realized we would be separating, but Anna would always remind me that when she becomes an adult she would be able to travel and visit with me. That thought comforted the both of us. One night as I was drifting off to sleep I heard soft voices and whispers. Curious, I got up to see what was going on and saw shadows of slaves sneaking away toward the woods. I followed quietly, and when I reached the woods, I could see people sitting on the ground in a circle. In the middle of the circle was a black man holding a book, reading. I heard him say, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” His voice was gentle, but strong and sure. I began to feel comforted and excited because I began to think this might be the answer to my dilemma. I began to walk through the circle of people until I stood in front of him. The man looked at me and said, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me.” The man closed the book and waited, watching me.
I reached out my hand and touched the book; with tears streaming down my face, I said, “It is time for me to go North.”
The man placed his hand over mine and said, “So you shall.” Later that night the preacher and I talked and plotted about how I was going to escape. Finally, he told me I must go back and get my belongings and be ready to go the next night.
Anna and I spent our last day together. We talked about my freedom and how brave I was. Anna gave me a locket with a flower engraved on the surface as a parting gift. I promised her I would send her a message when I was safe.
As time passed, it became dark, and I drifted into the woods where I would meet the preacher. I walked until I spotted him. The evening air was still and damp. We began to run until we came to a river. The water was quiet with an occasional whoosh of sounds and sucking noises. At that moment, he told me that I was going to come to a field of crops, and there would be a white farmer waiting there. He gave me a little nudge and I stepped into the freezing water. I was on my way to freedom. When I crossed the river I ran faster and faster, fear catching in my throat, branches tearing at my face, legs and hands, until I came to a cornfield. I saw a white farmer and ran up to him. Placing his finger to his lips, he directed me to the bottom of the wagon.
As I began the journey into the night, I fell into a fitful sleep. It seemed that all of a sudden the wagon stopped, causing me to awaken with a start. I had not slept deeply but rather I dozed fitfully, my mind still aware of the wagon moving over jutted ground, fear crowding my thoughts of what I was doing. The farmer directed me onto another wagon where I was covered with sacks. I never saw the face of my new friend. All I could think of was how cold and thirsty I was. How I had to hold my bladder and how unclean I felt. When the wagon came to a halt the driver pulled the sacks off me and lifted me out of the dust-filled wagon.
Time blurred, days became nights and nights became days. My mind was numb and my body exhausted beyond understanding. I was passed from wagon to wagon constantly on the move, eating and drinking whatever food was given to me and sleeping in the wagons. The only break I got was when I needed to relieve myself. It seemed I would never reach the North, but for the fact that total strangers, nameless friends who sheltered, fed and provided what comfort they could for me, were more than willing to help me. There were times when I despaired; the only thought I kept in my mind was my promise to my mother.
When I reached another farm something felt different. As I stood in front of the house, my body sagging with tiredness and hunger, I turned around and there stood a woman in a black dress with a gray apron. She led me inside the house and gently spoke, “My friend, this is almost the end of your journey, but you must choose if you want to go to New York or Massachusetts.”
I knew about these states because of the games Anna and I had played. Forcing the tiredness from my mind I said, “I would like to go to Massachusetts; there I will be a free woman.” That night I received a soothing hot bath and dinner consisting of a drink of cider, greens, and potatoes with roasted chicken. The food was delicious. After my supper I was led into a barn where I would sleep deep in a pile of sweet-smelling hay.
When morning arrived, the woman placed a bowl of porridge with a piece of bread and a cup of cider on the floor beside me. She urged me to eat quickly. Once again, I was placed into the bottom of a wagon. I was given a bundle with food to eat later during the journey. I felt alone, for I had not seen another black face since I left my master. The wagon came to a stop after what seemed an endless ride. As I climbed out, the driver told me we were in Massachusetts. I was free! I had made it to the North. I looked around anxiously, soaking in the surrounding area with my eyes. I breathed deeply, fell to my knees, and the first thought that came to my mind was my mother. I made it. I kept my promise. I made it up North to freedom.
My dear reader, as I look back over the years and write this story, I am at my desk in a schoolhouse. I found a home in Boston living with a preacher and his wife on Washington Street where most blacks lived. I agreed to work for them by cleaning the house and helping with dinner. In return, I was allowed to go to school. Those years were difficult. I did not have much time to play, but I did make friends at church, where many of us came together to worship, go to school and have community gatherings. Winters were harsh, summers were hot. I did not have much in the way of clothes and other personal belongings, but I never went hungry. I was not unhappy growing up, although there were times when I thought longingly of my friend Anna. I sent her a secret message with people who were traveling South. I enjoyed school very much. It gave me the joy and courage to become a teacher. I worked extra hard to try to reach my goal, but always kept up my work at home.
I am now twenty years old, a teacher at a school for black children in a town near Boston called Somerville. So much has happened to me since I first arrived here those many years ago, so many changes. I think of my mother often, and if she has died, I hope she is looking down at me from the heavens knowing I have fulfilled her dream of me being free. You see, dear reader, even though Anna’s father gave me the name as was the custom for most slave owners, Luda Mae, my mother gave me my own name. At night I would lie in my mother’s arms while she sang softly to me, and told me stories. She would whisper my secret name. I have never forgotten the words she spoke softly, often, and here in my new land that is the name I use.
I pause, tapping my pen against my teeth, my mind in a faraway place. I hear a soft knocking at my door. Putting the pen down on my desk and smoothing my dress, I walk toward the door. There is a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, a feeling of anticipation. Fingering the locket around my neck, I open the door. I can tell you, dear reader, how I felt. My heart finally made it home. “Hello, Freedom, I’m finally here.” With tears blurring my vision I embrace my friend Anna.