The story of the Albemarle region and the Underground Railroad is one that has been told, but perhaps needs to be kept at the front of our minds.
As Hurrah! Players comes from Virginia to stage “Freedom Train,” the story of Harriet Tubman, Friday, it’s difficult to not discuss this region’s role in the network that would take numerous slaves to freedom.
Wanda McLean has long been recognized as the region’s leading expert on the history of the Underground Railroad. She is responsible for the research that has led to designations here, such as the Pasquotank River’s role in the history.
“As far as it goes, the National Park Service recognizes the Pasquotank River has been designated as part of the Underground Railroad,” explains McLean.
She says it was the first river to be designated a route on the road to freedom.
The river’s designation became official back in 2005.
McLean had unearthed a series of advertisements calling for assistance in the search of runaway slaves. Those advertisements revealed that this once thriving port town played a role in the freedom of slaves.
In a story back in 2005, McLean explained that runaway slaves would make their way to Elizabeth City seeking passage on ships headed to free lands such as islands in the West Indies. The islands had been the sites of slave revolts resulting in free colonies there.
McLean explained that slave owners stating that they “know that my slave is going to Elizabeth City” took out the newspaper ads
The slave owners would offer rewards for slaves seeking passage on ships. It was widely understood during the 19th century that black seamen would smuggle slaves to freedom on ships.
Another regional waterway to play a significant role in the Underground Railroad is the Dismal Swamp Canal. McLean’s research also helped to unearth the history of a murky past that would play a part as a refuge to slaves.
Runaway slaves established communities inside the swamp and they would use it as a passage to freedom for others.
Again, McLean relied on advertisements that were looking for runaway slaves, as well as court documents and oral histories.
While the region’s waterways are celebrated as passages to freedom, a notable individual is also held up in the history books. Harriet Jacobs was a slave who escaped to freedom in 1842.
Jacobs was a slave in Edenton when she escaped what she wrote was the “degradation of slavery and sexual oppression.” She would go on to become an abolitionist and a writer who inspired many.
The Underground Railroad was a network that began during the colonial period, but perhaps did not come into its own until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Essentially it required that any runaway slave would have to be returned to his or her owner. It was around this time that the Underground Railroad would become more organized. It was also during this time period that Harriet Tubman would grow to become an enemy of slave owners and a heroine of slaves.
Her nickname was “Moses.” She would be credited with the freedom of hundreds, although McLean says Tubman can only be connected directly to the freedom of 60 to 70 slaves. The remainder, she explains, are accounted for by the people that Tubman trained who would free more people.
Tubman was a slave in Maryland her operations concentrated largely on that region. McLean says there is no documentation tying Tubman’s activities to northeast North Carolina’s efforts, however there is another connection to the region.
Tubman’s second husband, Nelson Davis, was an escaped slave from Elizabeth City.
In an email, McLean explains that Davis’s names as a slave was Nelson Charles — Nelson Davis adopted his birth father’s last name. Fred Charles of Elizabeth City owned him — Charles is the namesake of Charles Creek Bridge.
Davis fled bondage and made his way north to Oneida, N.Y. where he became a member of Company G, Eighth United States Colored Troop. He would fight in the Civil War and eventually be discharged on Nov. 10, 1865 in Brownsville, Texas.
After the war Davis returned to upstate New York where he rented a room in a boarding house operated by Harriet Tubman. Although Tubman was considerably older than Davis, he fell in love with her and they were married.