(NOTE: Friend William Bartram, traveling by canoe alone, somewhere in Florida, circa 1773. Considering the dangers he faced here, I ponder on the fact that this was still what he most wanted to do, what he felt was his leading. (A relatively long read, 4400 words. I have divided some of his long sentences & longer paragraphs, for modern readers. The spelling is original.)
Human & Animal Hunting
From Bartram’s Travels, by William Bartram, 1791:
I AM sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet whichimplies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary action without any premeditated design or contrivance, this we term instinct which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.
Friend William Bartram traveled, mainly alone, through much of the American southeast, between 1773 and 1777, looking for collecting, and drawing plants, wildlife, and the occasional Indian. His book based on these journeys was published in 1791. Here is another excerpt:
IT may be proper to observe, that I had now passed the utmost frontier of the white settlements on that border.
It was drawing on towards the close of day, the skies serene and calm, the air temperately cool, and gentle zephyrs breathing through the fragrant pines; the prospect around enchantingly varied and beautiful; endless green savannas, checquered with coppices of fragrant shrubs, filled the air with the richest perfume.
The gaily attired plants which enamelled the green had begun to imbibe the pearly dew of evening; nature seemed silent, and nothing appeared to ruffle the happy moments of evening contemplation: when, on a sudden, an Indian appeared crossing the path, at a considerable distance before me.Continue reading Dog Days Meditation: Bartram Faces a Murderer→
Bartram & The Seminole King From Bartram’s Travels, published 1791 Alachua Indians
AFTER crossing over this point or branch of the marshes, we entered a noble forest, the land level, and the soil fertile, being a loose, dark brown, coarse sandy loam, on a clay or marley foundation; the forests were Orange groves, overtoped by grand Magnolias, Palms, Live Oaks . . . with various kinds of shrubs and herbacious plants . . . .
We were chearfully received in this hospitable shade, by various tribes of birds,
Before this final camp story, a bit of background. Until 2015, Friends Music Camp gathered at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville in eastern Ohio.
Barnesville is the Mecca, the (old) Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage where all roads lead for the scattered survivors of the Conservative or Wilburite strain of quietist Quakerism. These are the Friends who “conserved,” or clung longest to the “peculiarities” of dress and speech, and worked hardest at maintaining traditional “plainness”. (NOT “Simplicity”; that’s a modern, much watered-down imitation.)
Olney’s spirit is embodied in both its main school building, which has a sturdy, handmade character, and a pervasive Quietist atmosphere at its end of Sandy Ridge; and then in the huge, echoing space of the Stillwater Meeting house, which reigns at the other end of a fetching sidewalk of red brick laid in herringbone pattern.
In its heyday, Stillwater could hold a couple thousand, and was often filled during “Yearly Meeting week” for its parent Ohio (Conservative) Yearly meeting, and where visiting ministers could (yes!) preach for an hour..
Fea’s piece is not just timely, it’s also important. He homes in on the fact that the “Christians” in Trump’s base are operating on a specific religious reading of American history, one that’s not new, but which has always been false.
In fact, it’s not really an exaggeration to say that our struggle today for a democratic American future is also a fierce struggle to confront & root out a false so-called “Christian” pack of lies about our past. Unfortunately, at the moment the false history charlatans are way ahead, and it makes a real difference. And it could soon make much more. Continue reading Time To Do Some History Homework→
Lexie dropped the pint bottle of Ensure into her cloth bag, slung the bag over her shoulder, and held the bouquet of dyed pink daisies over it for camouflage. With her other hand, she put the phone back to her ear.
“All right,” she said to Allyson, “I’ve got it. They’ll never notice it under the flowers.”
At the top step, the big automatic doors swung open, not too fast, not too slow, and she walked through the entryway. Turning right into the big hallway, she didn’t glance at the small sign that read, “Hospice Care”; she knew the way.
“This place always gives me the creeps, ” she told her sister. Allyson was sitting safe at home in Cincinnati, more than a thousand miles away.
“Why?” Asked Allyson. “Because it’s full of dying people?”
“Maybe partly,” Lexie said, “but I think it’s more the way they kinda package the whole thing here, like everybody’s getting ready for a birthday party. I mean–
A woman’s voice interrupted. “Can you help me?” It sounded weak, but piercing. “Can you help me?” Again.
On May 25, Sa’ed Atshan was chosen by the Swarthmore College Class of 2018 to speak at their “Last Collection,” an opening ceremony of their Commencement exercises.
Here are some excerpts from his talk. (A full length audio version, 26 minutes, is here. A transcript of the talk is here. ) I’m posting them as a sample of Atshan as a speaker, and as a man sharing his identity and evolution with younger peers. I believe much of this would have been in the talk he was planning for Friends Central last year.
But this was an experience denied to the students at Friends Central School. To prevent him from speaking there, two teachers at Friends Central were fired, and a high administrative official left. This shameful incident is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. (More on that lawsuit and its background here.)
Atshan’s Swarthmore talk was intriguing to me for several reasons, but one was a question I’m still seeking the answer to:
What is it about this talk, and about this person, that was worth destroying the jobs of three loyal faculty at Friends Central School to stop him from giving it on their campus?
Many readers will know that the Friends Central administration has refused comment on this matter. So we’re on our own to sort it out. This talk is not a final answer; but is worth reading and pondering as the seeking continues.
Not all U. S. Friends Meetings are withering away; I live close to two of them (liberal unprogrammed) which seem to be thriving.
But many meetings are shrinking. Several formerly large yearly meetings, particularly in the Midwest & South, are now but shadows of their earlier selves. One of the largest among them, North Carolina, went entirely out of business in 2017, after 320 years.
In many other meetings, pastoral and non-, generational gaps are opening, with now elderly Baby Boomers more or less in charge, while their children’s and grandchildren’s generations seem to be missing or sparse in attendance.
At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.
I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.
And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.
But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.
The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)
Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.
Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.
He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.
Still’s book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:
Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.
So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.
The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.
It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina — as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted. Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.
For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.
This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.
In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?
Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.
So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.
Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence. Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.
In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation.
Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349
PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: email@example.com