29 March 2009

Jane Clark

A paper read before the Cayuga County Historical Society by Julia C. Ferris, 22 February 1897

The underground railway was like other railways in one particular only-- by its aid passengers were transported. The termini of the railroad were the South and the North. Its route was from Bondage through Suffering to Freedom or capture. Its lines were laid regardless of heavy grades or obstructing waterways. Trips over it were made in but one direction. It had no timetables, no regular stations. Its trainsmen might be colorblind to any hue but sable. Its known agents suffered death. No fares were collected. Stopovers were allowed as the passengers' safety seemed to require. Its completion was not celebrated by silver spike-driving or other ceremonial. No one knows aught of its beginnings save that it had its inception in sympathetic human hearts. Its functions ceased as a result of a few pen strokes January 1, 1863.

Jane Clark is a colored woman about seventy-five years of age who resides in this city. She was born a slave. Her speech, though not always "twisted threads of gold and steel," generally leaves no one in doubt of her meaning. One knows exactly the idea intended when she says, "I can't read anythin' but de Bible, but Ise can read ev'ry word in dat from Genesee to Revolution." Even the words in the Scripture which would appall anyone but a seminary professor have no terror for her.

Her word patrollers is defined by her to be "a lot of men on horses who go roamin' roun' to fine runaways. I suppose dey is called rollers because dey roams aroun' de country. I don't know why pat."

Judging from her own statement, she is an expert genealogist, for she declares with much earnestness, "I knows all my old back parentses names." Her original name was Charlotte Harris. She reached this city and her freedom in 1859 by way of the underground railroad. She then took the name of Jane Lemon, the surname being one adopted by her brother who came by the same route two years earlier. In 1863, she married Henry Clark, an official of the A.M.E. Zion Church who, according to his wiofe's words, "is goin' to heaben han' over fist."

Her mother died when she was an infant. Her maternal grandmother, practically a free woman, readily obtained permission to "bring the child up." When six or seven years of age, she was taken in payment of a debt by William Compton and was the first of many slaves he owned. At the age of eight, she was hired out to the owner of a small plantation. Her daily food here consisted of a puint of cornmeal which was seasoned with salt, mixed with water and baked in the ashes. Her principal duty was, in company with two other children, to bring water a long distance from a spring for culinary purposes for all on the plantation. These three children would start out about four in the morning, make two trips before breakfast, four before dinner, and one before supper. The hair was worn off their heads by the water paild which the children carried on them.

It was one of these early morning excursions that she saw the "stars fall." This scene is vivid in her memory. The children were on their way to the spring. They were not old enough to be alarmed at the unusual sight but ran along trying to catch the stars as they fell. After two years of this service she was taken home by her master. Here she was well-treated and had plenty to eat.

When her master died, the slaves were hired out until his son, Barnes, should be of age. Most of those to whom she was hired ill treated her. When Barnes Compton attained his majority, he returned home and recalled his slaves. Three years from this time, Charlotte's trouble began, the cause of which she attributes to jealousy on the part of her cousin Mary, some years older than herself, whom she had superseded in culinary affairs and the interference of an aunt of her master's who had come to live with him.

She tells of the first whipping she received. She had performed her early morning task of feeding the cows and returned to the house to make the fire and prepare the breakfast for the family. The fire did not burn readily, and the hour for breakfast had passed when her master appeared in the kitchen. He began to whip her when breakfast was late and took that opportunity to settle many old scores, accusing her of saying and doing things which she stoutly denied. This whipping she classes as a severe one and says, "I didn't feel it. Seems like as if I was trustin' in God. Wishes I could trust him so now." She received in all five floggings, three from her master and two from the overseer.

She became accustomed to scenes of severity differing only in detail from those we read about. She determined to escape or die in the attempt. She felt that her hope of escape lay in her bropther William, who lived more than thirty miles away. A white man, one of the "white trash," wrote to her brother addressing it not to William but to another "poor white" who lived about two miles from William's master. A long time had elapsed. No answer from William had been received and Charlotte wondered if one would ever come.

On Whitsunday, which was observed as a holiday, early in the morning, one of the black children came into the house and told Charlotte that somebody wanted to see her at the quarters. Embracing the first opportunity to go there, she was told that Brother Garner wanted to see her in the pines. When she reached the woods she was to hum a particular tune that Brother Garner nmight know she was coming. She had heard of Brother Garner, and knew that he came from Brother William. What should she do? Her duties at the house required her immediate attention. Her anxiety to hear from her brother urged her to go to the pines at once. For a few minutes the conflict lasted which she discretely settled by returning to her house duties. To these she gave her undivided attention. She prepared for dinner, arranged to leave the house for a short time and hastened to the pines. She hummed the designated tune and Brother Garner issued from his place of concealment. Their interview was brief, but long enough to enable them to arrange that Charlotte should start on her journey as soon after dark as she could, joining Brother Garner on the way. She knew nothing about the plans for her future. It was enough for her to know that William had sent for her. She returned to the house and performed her usual duties, selecting at intervals such things as she could take with her and putting them in two pillow cases. Brother Garner's presence is accounted for by the fact that slaves in this part of the country during any holiday season were permitted to visit neighboring plantations without special permission. No attention was paid to the absence of a slave at such a time, as it was presumed that when the time of festivity had expired he would return. She had told no one of her intended flight but her husband and the black woman by whom Brother Garner had sent word to her. Her husband's home was some miles from Charlotte's. he had taken advantage of the holiday privilege to visit his wife, but returned to his plantation early that he might not be suspected of having had anything to do with her escape. While the family were at tea she dropped her bundles out of the window, which was only a short distance from the ground, and soon after began her journey carrying both bundles on her head. After going about two miles she was joined by Brother Garner, who took one of her bundles. They met her husband a few miles farther on and he walked with them an hour. Brother Garner and Charlotte walked all night and met William just before daylight. The sun was just rising when they reached an old log cabin, the property of the white man through whom Charlotte's letter had reached William. She describes this cabin as being "neither water tight nor wind tight." It had bene the intention to secrete Charlotte on board a boat which made regular trips northward; but another captain had taken the place of the trusted one and the plan was not deemed safe. She had for her companion an old woman who had been there two years. They were careful not to be seen about during the day. They were supplied with food by the poor white family.

Charlotte made frequent visits to her brother's home. He had a wife, Sophie, and five children, and seems to have occupied a responsible position on his master's plantation, though not an overseer. It was during one of these visits, in the winter, that she was nearly apprehended as a fugitive. On this visit, when everything seemed propitious, she issued from her hiding-place in the loft and joined Sophie and her five children in the room below. Suddenly, without warning, the door was thrown open and the patrol entered. They were not strangers to Sophie nor she to them. They were surprised to see so many children. Sophie claimed them all as hers, pointing our Charlotte, now more than thirty years old, as the oldest. They discredited this statement and went up to the great house to investigate. Charlotte did not wait for them to return but fled to the old cabin barefooted. For some unexplained reason, the patrol did not return. The cabin was her home until March 1857. Then these friendly whites gave her, her brother and another colored man forged passes granting them permission to go to Washington to see Buchanan inaugurated. These three started about ten o'clock Saturday, walked constantly except when they stopped to kneel in prayer and reached Washington about eleven o'clock Sunday morning. The journey had been a very hard one for Charlotte. Her feet were sore, her legs were stiff and gave out utterly at the door of the friendly black into whose house she had to be carried. Here she remained no longer than was necessary. The family was very poor and was also suspected of harboring fugitives. She hired out as a servant passing as a free woman. When circumstances seemed to indicatethe probability of her being apprehended as a runaway, she would find another place, change her name, and stay as long as that seemed the best course to pursue. William and his companion remained in Washington until night. William reached Auburn in due time. The companion died on the way.

Charlotte's stay in Washington was a prolonged one, nop favorable opportunity offering for her to leave the city until May 1859. She had saved money enough to pay her fare. It was not easy in those days for a known free colored person to travel in safety, else Charlotte might have left Washington long before she did. May 1859 found her in the service of a family who spent the summer months in the North. To these ladies she expressed a desire to go to Auburn to see her brother but did not like to undertake the journey alone and asked to be allowed to go with them. They made an attempt to purchase a through ticket from Washington for Charlotte, but through tickets for colored persons from that point could not be purchased. A ticket was procured for Baltimore. When they reached this city, the ladies requested an acquaintance, a resident of Baltimore who happened to be on the train, to purchase a ticket for their servant. This service he was very glad to render, but soon came back without the ticket and said, "The agent wants to see the girl." "Come Caroline," said one of the ladies -- this was the nher assumed name -- "You will have to go with this gentleman to get your ticket." Charlotee was well aware of the risk she now ran. She was weak, yet strong. Weak in view of the worst, strong with that strength given when one knows that to exhibit weakness is to fail. She rose at once and followed her guide to the agent who said to him, "What is her name?" The gentleman was as ignorant of that as the agent and Charlotte, appreciating the situation, said promptly, "Caroline Butler, sir." "Is she free?" Again, as lack of knowledge, again another prompt reply from Charlotte. "Certainly, sir." "Are you a resident here?" "Yes," said the gentleman, "that gentleman sitting there knows me," and that hentleman looked up from his paper and said, "Certainly I do. That is Mr. --- . " The interview was satisfactory to the agent, the ticket was purchased and Charlotte returned to her seat in the car with a heart much lighter than when she left. She expresses herself thus: "When I got that ticket in thie yer han', seems like as if stones was lifted off my head and shoulders. I had prayed ev'ry step of de way from Washington to Baltimo' an' I thanked God ev'ry step of the way from Baltimo' to New York. 'Twas a miracle an' I a-answerin' for myself, I tell you I allus foun' frens." Her journey from New York, where she left the ladies, was without incident.

Once since the war she visited her old home. She met her former master on the street in Port Tobacco. He did not recognize her at first. She rode out to the plantation with him and spent some days. "Mars Barnes," said she to him one day, "why didn't you advertise me?" "Why, Charlotte," he said, "I knew 'twould be of no use to look for you."

A few years ago, a lady of wealth and social position was called to mourn the loss of a loved one by death. By chance, she met Jane Clark and some conversation ensued concerning her recent affliction. In relating the incident, the lady said, "I have had conversations with many of my friends and with my pastor, but not one of these has given me the consolation and the comfort afforded by the words of that poor, uneducated old black woman."

Jane Clark has waited at this station where she came in '59 more than half her lifetime. Soon a messenger from her elder brother will arrive to guide her on that journey whose route lies through Great Freedom and whose desired terminus is Eternal Happiness.

Editor's Note

Barnes Compton (1830-1898), the slaveowner from whom Jane Clark escaped, was the second-largest slaveholder in Charles County, Maryland; at one time, he owned one hundred five slaves. Elected to the Maryland House of Delegates (1860-61), he feared arrest by federal authorities and fled to Virginia, where he remained until the war's end. After his return to his plantation after the war, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Old Capitol in Washington for aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln. (He was released without charge after four days.) Subsequently, Compton was elected to the Maryland State Senate (1867-72), served as the Maryland State Treasurer (1874-85), and represented Maryland in the United States House of Representatives (1885-90 and 1891-94).