Welcome back! Step seven of Good Trouble is truly the component that holds all other steps together. So, let’s take a deeper look at another example of sacrificial love and forgiveness.
Many of you may be familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What you may not be familiar with is that our Laura Haviland is the heroine in one of her amazing rescue stories. It is another great message of sacrifice and love found in the remarkable escape of George and Eliza Harris from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the time of Beecher Stowe’s book, 1852 the Fugitive Slave Law was still in effect; and it was important for her to protect Haviland’s identity – so she gave her the name of Mrs. Smythe. An interesting sidenote in this story is it involves a story of two escapes, not just one! George makes a break and finds solace and clothing at the Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati where Laura provided suitable clothing for refugees on the run. But George decided to return to Kentucky to his slave master and developed an elaborate scheme to free his wife Eliza, who was owned by another area slaveholder.
This is how it played out. George first went to Eliza and explained his whole plan. George then returned to his master where George spent months winning him over and regaining his trust. This is how he shared the scheme with Eliza ahead of time.
“I will go back to my master, give him the money, tell him I’s sick of my freedom and beg him to take me back. Then I’ll say, ‘Eliza mus’ be mighty mad,’ he went on, ‘case I come back; and she says, ‘If he’s a mind to make sich a fool of his self, as to be so julus, case I talked leetle while wid Jake, long time ago, as to run off an’ leave. He needn’t think I’ll take ‘im back. I won’t have nothin’ to say to ‘im, never! And I’ll quarrel ‘bout you too, an’ when all ov’ ‘em is done fussin’ bout me comin’ back, I’ll steal to you in a dark night, an’ lay a plan to meet on Lickin’ River; an’ we’ll take a skiff an' muffle oars till we get to the Ohio, an’ I knows jus’ whar to go in any dark night, an’ we’ll be free together. I tell you Liz, I ain’t got whole freedom without you.”
The plan was going smoothly. Before long George’s stories had been told far and wide among both blacks and whites. He had quite a reputation, a pet missionary, so to speak. Eliza’s master finally believed George’s conversion to be true as well, so he sent the hound home that he had kept on hand to drive George away. Months went by and Liza played her dramatic role to perfection. She wanted to burn George’s good clothes that he had left in her cabin before he ran away to the North. Her mistress exclaimed. “Oh, don’t burn them. Can’t you send him word to come and get them?”
“I sends ‘im no word. If he never gets ‘em, I’d heap better giv’ ‘em to de hogs.” Liza emphasized.
Her mistress turned to another servant to send George word to come and take his trunk away.
George, in no hurry, shrugged the message off.
Months later George got permission to visit his aunt six miles in the other direction from Liza’s home, and Liza got permission to visit her friends five miles in the opposite direction of George’s house. This was the plan. Both George and Liza would travel in the direction each had told their masters’ they were going, and then both would head for Licking River. Liza went up the river , while George travelled down the river until they met. George grabbed the first skiff with oars he could find, and they beat it down the Lickin’ River. They made great time travelling during the night. When dawn broke they had to hide their skiff and oars, only for it to be taken by a group of boys. Liza and George held their breath and prayed not to be discovered while the boys were searching for the oars, breathing a sigh of relief when the boys made due with makeshift poles and pushed out of sight. After nightfall they searched two hours before finding a smaller, harder to manage skiff. Still, they reached the Ohio River at sunrise. On the opposite side of river, two men called out, “Where are you going?”
“To market sir,” George replied.
“What have you got?”
“Butter an’ eggs, sir.”
George saw the two pushing a skiff in their direction Seized by fear he was terrified they would be overtaken. George rowed with all his might and would not look back until he crossed the middle of the river. He saw that the men had given up their pursuit.
George had no fear once he made it into the basement of the Cincinnati Zion Baptist Church, his old hiding place. When George saw Laura outside of his room, he said, “Come right on in, Mrs. Haviland, we’re not ‘fraid of you.” As George clasped her hand in both of his, Laura exclaimed, Where hast thee seen me to know my name?”
Don’t you ‘member Jim an’ George? You giv’ us full suits of clothing las’ summer. You giv’ me the linen pants an’ blue checked Gingham coat and straw hat. Don’t you ‘member we went out in a market-wagon to a Quaker settlement?”
“Yes,” Laura replied, “but why is thee here again?”
“It was for this little woman I came back!” George said proceeding to tell us their rescue story down the Licking River. “Liza wuz tremblin’ so hard her over coat shook.” Liza quipped. “I reckon you shook just as hard as I did when you was pull’ for life. I specs you sent fear clear down into them paddles you’s sweatin’ over.”
This called for a round of laughter, as freedom was close at hand.
Laura was then commissioned to assist George, Eliza, and several other escaped slaves traveling with them all the way to Canada. The instructions she gave everyone was to be as discreet as follows: “Don’t tell a soul of going further than Toledo, OH, and say nothing further back than Cincinnati. Do nothing to stand out in the crowd.” However, these instructions were not always heeded. One example of this was when George pointed to the telegraph wire, explaining to Eliza what it was. Jumping frantically as though she had just seen her master. They were very fortunate that there were no strangers in sight as her movement could have betrayed them. George continued to explain to her that these wires were harmless and that operators at each end transmitted messages and information over them. Yet, Liza was not to be consoled until Laura confirmed his explanation. Poor Liza! There was a layover in Toledo. Laura having secured the remaining funds needed, they traveled from Toledo to Detroit and then further on to Canada. Hope began to rise as the boat made it past the middle of the Detroit River.
Once past, Laura said to Eliza, “There it is, the place thee has been hoping to reach – Canada!
“No, Eliza cried out. “It isn’t is it?” with a trace of hope and awe trailing off in her voice.
“It is certainly. It is a place where no slave-owner can claim thee as a slave! “
Eliza shouting the good news chased around to find George. He did not believe her, nor did any of the others in our traveling party!
Running up to me one by one, each asked, “That ain’t Canada is it?”
“Yes, my friends, this is the land of blessed freedom each of thee has worked so hard to reach.” Laura said with a smile.
Silence reigned and tears of joy began to fall as they gazed upon the shore of what would be their home, a “place of refuge.” The final moments passed quickly and as they stepped out onto “free” ground, they began to jump and leap for joy. This was truly all Laura needed to see. It was a rich payment and only reward she needed for her efforts and care.
Question for further reflection: What would we do to help those out of bondage?
Is our first world experience so compartmentalized that we believe stepping out to make a difference belongs only to those who get paid to serve?