Through her words and her songs, Sheila Arnold gathers her audience into the stories she shares, asking, “What would you do?”
In observance of Black History Month, Arnold told stories March 8 in an educational, funny and interesting way with a free performance at the Culpeper County Public library after visiting three Culpeper elementary schools during the day—Pearl Sample, Yowell Meadow and Sycamore Park.
This year, her stories were about crossing water. When Arnold was asked to tell a story about the Chesapeake Bay, she began her research and found that there were many bodies of water that needed to be crossed for slaves to gain their freedom.
When the Ohio River froze over, slaves tried to cross the ice to freedom while being chased by slave catchers.
Sometimes, the river was not completely frozen. Elisa, a slave, cradled her baby daughter as she used a plank to navigate from one ice floe to another. She fell into the freezing water three times and lost the plank, but was able to climb out and continue on to the other side. She was frozen and frightened, but she protected her daughter.
At the other side, Eliza was met by a slave catcher. No one knows why the man did not return her to the plantation. Instead, he showed her the way to freedom. She wearily climbed the stairs to the home of someone who would help her.
What would you do to find freedom for yourself and your family?
Another female slave tried to escape with her two sons and two daughters, but was caught. To punish her, her two sons were sold to another farm. On her plantation, she worked in the kitchen of the main house. When she saw another opportunity to escape, she had only her two daughters. She could take them, but that meant leaving without her sons. She and her daughters made it to freedom.
Could you leave two of your children behind to reach freedom for yourself and your daughters?
William Still was one of 17 children. As an adult, he worked as a secretary recording information from slaves who reached freedom. He wrote down their names, their religion, and the location of their former owners. He learned that people of all religions owned slaves.
After some of the information was gathered, he was told to burn his papers. Instead, he decided to keep the records, but where could he hide them?
“What would you do?” Arnold asked the audience. Where could you hide these records where no one would think to look? It had to be in a place that you visit often so that no one would be suspicious.
Suggestions from the audience for hiding places included under the floorboards, in the attic, in a church, or maybe under the outhouse. Arnold explained how each of these suggestions wouldn’t work.
William Still hid the records in a cemetery. As he visited the grave of one of his friends, he would cry, kneel down, uncover a special chest he had buried there, and insert the papers. By 1872, he had information on about 500 people. He put this information into a book that helped many freed slaves connect with their families. The book is still in print and available today, including online.
On July 4, 1856, 14 slaves paid a ship captain to help them escape. Many times, slaves paid for their freedom but they were cheated out of their money, and no help was given. But this captain risked his life and his livelihood to help slaves to freedom via the Chesapeake Bay.
He had a boat which was broken down and then rebuilt with a special space well hidden by the new construction. He hid 10 adults and 3 children in that area. Another adult woman was so large that she felt she could not fit into the space. She was hidden behind some corn.
The captain and his human cargo left the Norfolk docks and went through the Chesapeake Bay canals. Inspectors boarded the ship, but found nothing. The inspection in Maryland was much stricter, so the captain insisted the large woman had to go into the hold with the other slaves. She was squeezed, pushed and shoved into the little space, scraping some skin off her body, but she was saved. The boat traveled via the Atlantic Ocean to Philadelphia.
What would you do to reach freedom?
Throughout history, we have stories of large groups of people walking, traveling by overloaded boats in dangerous water, or putting their children on trains to travel thousands of miles to another country, in order to flee starvation, brutality and genocide.
The last story was about Anthony Slow, a 6-foot 3-inch male slave, who escaped and hid under porches and in a hollowed out tree for 10 months. He was finally taken on a ship where he was hidden over the boiler. The trip was only supposed to take four to five hours. But fog set in, and they were tossed around by a rainstorm for eight days. The only thing he was given to drink was water. After all the cargo was taken off the ship in Philadelphia, the slave was taken off the ship. He had made it to freedom, but he died an hour later.
Sheila Arnold has such a strong voice while telling stories from history. Our community is very thankful to the Culpeper County Public Library and the Friends of the Library for the opportunity to hear Sheila Arnold speak every year, with no charge to the public.