Many of the stories we hear at The Black/Land Project are about migration. Not the forced migration of slavery, but epics about mass movement across land, or family anecdotes about leaving one homeplace to build another. It is striking how often black people self-define voluntary movement as a significant relationship to land.
Joan Southgate was one of the first people Black/Land interviewed, and her story is about the echoes of black migration. She shared with us her twenty-first century story about walking the nineteenth century path of the Underground Railroad. Through this walk, Joan found a new meaning in her ancestors’ experience of moving across the land. She returned home with a new purpose, one that redefined the place where her journey started.
In her seventy-third year, Joan felt called to walk down a fugitive history: the northern stretch of the Underground Railroad. She walked two hundred fifty miles, wayfaring from the Ohio River to her home in Cleveland, Ohio. She completed her journey by traveling another two hundred fifty miles, across Pennsylvania and upstate New York to St. Catherine’s Ontario, the Canadian terminus of Harriet Tubman’s route on the Underground Railroad. Joan began this journey in an unlikely way – she started out just walking for exercise.
So, I was there doing my usual walk– which was a stroll– and my brain was complaining: Sigh. I have to get out here every day, I have to lose this weight. Blah blah blah”. And then something said, “Your ancestors walked hundreds of miles, walking for freedom.” And here I am complaining about this! Immediately, it came to me “How can I praise them?” And the answer I heard clearly was “Walk.”
Her daily walk for exercise became a training regimen to prepare for this longer journey. After walking the streets of her neighborhood in the company of her black cat (named Nelson Mandela) Joan began to walk across Ohio, retracing the routes of the Underground Railroad. She began her journey in Ripley, Ohio, where people escaping slavery crossed the Ohio River. She chose this spot because so few African-Americans know this history of Ohio and its welcome to people seeking freedom.
“Ohio has more underground railroad sites than almost all the other free states put together—that meant I could go anywhere,” said Joan. “I went to Springboro, Ohio because that was a town were a whole group of Quakers had specifically settled to build a stop on the Underground Railroad.”
Alone on foot, hitching a ride with a caravan of campers, or being joined by media and crowds of fellow travelers for part of the road, the walk changed Southgate’s ideas about Ohio as a place.
“Everywhere I stayed was with a stranger. So that’s the piece that made it alittle bit like the kind of welcoming and caring and protection that the freedom seekers were welcomed with. AndI never before understood that these people were not slaves. What they were was brave freedom seekers. And they were met all over – in white towns and in black towns and …being hidden in haywagons on country roads… by people offering hospitality. That’s how I’d describe what land means to me now: a place where people can seek freedom. And a place where free people can offer hospitality. I had never thought about Ohio and New York that way before.”
“I wonder if my ancestors may have come down from Canada to New York for that.”
Today, Joan Southgate’s story continues at Restore Cleveland Hope, a community organization dedicated to restoring the Cozad-Bates house, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Southgate wants the house to commemorate more than Cleveland’s courageous anti-slavery past: she also wants to restore the memory of offering hope and receiving welcome as essential parts of movements for justice.
“Cleveland’s name on the Underground Railroad was ‘Hope’, you know” says Joan. She wants the Cozad-Bates house to shelter the memory of Ohio as a place where freedom seekers brave enough to extend their hope and trust received hospitality and protection in return.
As I hugged Joan goodbye, I wondered if “Hope” remains one important black relationship to land.