Shortly after David
Hawkins left for the war in October of 1861, a runaway slave named Clem and his
pregnant wife Noel happened upon the farm at sunset one evening. They were
hiding in the bushes by the bayou and saw Ruth walking down a trail that led up
to the back of the farm.
“Hey, lil’sista,” Clem called out to her. “How’s about a lil’somp’n to eat?”
“Who you is?” she asked, peering at them quizzically as they lay huddled together wrapped in a single dirty blanket.
“We’s hungry,” said Noel. “Dat’s who we is.”
“You go’n have a baby,” said Ruth, noticing Noel’s swollen belly.
“Ya think?” mocked Noel.
“Please, lil’sista,” said Clem. “We been walk’n all day, an’we ain’t et nut’n.”
Ruth turned and looked toward the farm, then jerked her head back to Clem and Noel. “I be back,” she said before quickly sprinting up the trail.
Ruth soon brought back a small basket full of apples, peaches, bread and cheese. She then watched in amazement as Clem and Noel gorged themselves, mumbling indiscernibly, moaning and groaning the pleasures of the famished suddenly satisfied. Both were only seventeen and told Ruth they were from Palestine, Texas, about 140 miles southwest of Shreveport. They had gotten married just seven months earlier when they first found out Noel was pregnant. But just last week, the owner of a large plantation where they lived and worked sold Noel to pay off a debt from a card game. Fortunately Clem and Noel learned of their master’s shrewd dealings from another slave just moments before they were to be separated. With no provisions whatsoever, they quickly slipped into the woods. Bloodhounds were soon set upon them, but the runaways zigzagged across a creek, confusing the dogs and their scent was lost. They wandered northeast for several days, living off wild blackberries, with no idea where they were going until Providence brought them to the Hawkins Farm.
Later that day, Ruth snuck more food and blankets out to Clem and Noel. But Sarah followed her daughter, wondering what she was up to and discovered the runaway couple. After some discussion between Sarah, Jacob and Isaac, they decided it was safe to bring the matter to Miss Emily.
“Where are they?” she asked in surprise.
“A lil’ways behind da barn, Miss Emily,” said Sarah as she stood with Jacob and Isaac.
“Well, bring’m in the barn for heaven’s sake,” said Emily moving to get her coat. “Poor things. Can’t let’m get found out. That’d be terrible.”
In the barn, Emily was even more surprised when she saw Noel’s condition.
“Oh, Lord,” she said, putting her arm around the pregnant girl. “You’re about to bust, aren’t ya? Sarah, go’n get more blankets.”
“If’n ya can, kind ma’am,” said Clem, “please jus’ let us rest a day or two, den we be on our way.”
“Nonsense,” Emily said. “She can’t travel. Besides you’ll just get caught and I know ya don’t want that.”
Two days later Noel went into labor. Emily wanted to move her into the house, but the baby wouldn’t wait. After a bunch of screaming and fussing, Noel gave birth to a healthy baby boy they named Aaron. Emily was actually planning on forging papers of ownership for Clem, Noel and baby Aaron, with a clever story of how she obtained them from a relative in Little Rock. But less than a week after the baby was born, Jacob came in from town one day with frightening news. A group of runaway-slave-hunters was in Shreveport looking for a male and a pregnant female that may have recently given birth. Clem, Noel and little Aaron would have to go if they wanted to stay together.
“What we go’n do, Miss Emily?” asked Sarah.
“Don’t worry. I’ll think’a something.”
Emily knew of a kind elderly couple that lived in the mountains of central Arkansas. After some careful planning, she headed out before sunrise in a wagon with Sarah, Jacob, the two runaways and their baby. Isaac stayed behind with the children. A note from Emily was left for anyone who might drop by, saying she had gone to Texarkana to buy a horse and should be back in a day or two. They traveled all that day and through the night until they came to Rich Mountain where a Mr. and Mrs. Charles Etheridge had a small farm. The Etheridges were old friends of Emily’s parents, and she had visited the farm several times as a little girl. They had a handful of slaves and were known to treat them quite well.
“They were gonna sell’r, Charles,” said Emily to the burly old man, whose face wore a constant thoughtful smile. “She just had the baby and slave hunters were in Shreveport look’n for’em. I just couldn’t leave’m to fend for themselves.”
“Of course not!” bellowed Etheridge, smiling. His chubby, ruddy-red cheeks were accented by a pair of round spectacles and a large straw hat. A large man of boundless energy, Charles Etheridge always spoke with great enthusiasm, his arms stretched out like he was ready for a hug. “And praise God, ya brought’m here! How’s about something to eat and we’ll get ya settled in!”
The Etheridge’s had actually freed their slaves before the war, an illegal act in most parts of the South. However, all five of them chose to stay with the kind couple. When Clem and Noel met these happy, content workers, they knew they had found a safe home to start their family. There was plenty of work to do and the place was so isolated it was doubtful that any slave hunters would ever find them. This was the beginning of the Hawkins Farm’s connection to the Underground Railroad.
Little girls do not know how to keep secrets and young Ruth, who had just turned thirteen after helping out the runaways, was no exception. That same year, Emily Hawkins and her slaves had been invited to the Christmas celebration across the river at the Belcher Plantation in Bossier Parish. It was a huge annual occasion with a reenactment of the Nativity Scene and a fireworks display that could be seen all the way to the Texas line. After watching the three wise men bring gifts to the baby Jesus, Ruth was playing with her friend, Pearl, the granddaughter of the Belcher’s head housemaid, a feisty old slave named Clair. Though almost two years younger than Ruth, Pearl was a bit precocious and fancied herself an actual blue-blood because aristocrats owned her. She always seemed to be provoking Ruth into an I-know-something-you-don’t-know game. But on this night Ruth knew something Pearl did not.
“We had a lil’baby born in our barn,” Ruth told Pearl.
“Rat fo’ Punk’n Day.”
“Where dat baby is?” asked Pearl, looking around. “I wants to see it.”
“Iss gone. Ma’n Pa’n Miss Emily tooks it away someplace safe so’s da hunters won’t gets it.”
“I dunno,” said Ruth, shrugging her shoulders. “But ‘deys left early’n da moan’n, an’didn’t get back till late-late night afta da nex.”
And that was pretty much all it took. Sometime between Christmas Day and New Year’s, Pearl spilled the beans to her grandmother as inadvertently as Ruth had to her. Clair and Sarah had known each other for nearly three decades. They seemed to have a grown up version of Ruth and Pearl’s relationship, a big mansion house slave looking down her nose at the small farm slave. For over two months Clair kept what she knew to herself, then one day she got word that a young slave named Tim was going to run. Slaves running from big plantations like the Belcher’s was not an uncommon occurrence, especially if they had somewhere and someone special to run to. But more often than not, they were brought back battered and beaten, sometimes even maimed by the brutal slave hunters.
“Where ya think ya go’n, boy?” Clair asked the young man. “Ya jus’ gonna run off an’ get drug back like an ol’ dawg.”
“I got’s me a brotha’ up in Springfield, Illinois,” said Tim.
“How ya know dat?”
“He tol’ me dats where’es go’n when he run off be’fo da war.”
“Who yo brotha’ is?”
“My brotha’ be Sooky Joe, run off from da Marshall farm in Ruston, ’bout near a year ago.”
“I ’member Sooky Joe,” said Clair. “He really yo brotha’?”
“You even know how ta gets ta Springfield, Illinois, boy?”
“I knows it’s up dat way.” Tim pointed north.
“Boy, ya don’t go nowhere’s till I tell ya. Ya hear?” Clair said, pointing her finger in the young man’s face.
Not long after the last freeze of 1862 came through Northwest Louisiana, Clair sent word to the Hawkins farm that she needed to see Sarah. Jacob, who would go into town almost daily, was given the message by one of the Belchers’ slave boys who made last-minute supply runs across the bridge.
“Wond’a what dat ol’ bat wanna see me fo’?” said Sarah with a puzzled look on her face.
“Dunno, baby,” said Jacob. “Lil’ Boosy didn’t say. Jus’ tol me ol’ Clair said it was im’potant. So I tells’m you gonna be in town Fry’dee when Miss Emily’s a get’n fitted fo’ dat dress at da shop on Lake Street.”
They met at midmorning on the corner of Lake and Market, just down from the store where Emily Hawkins was buying her dress. Clair had asked permission to go for a short stroll around the block. Sarah never had to ask to take a walk; she would simply step outside for some fresh air. Clair wore a nervous, pretentious smile as she approached Sarah, who stood calmly nibbling on a handful of peanuts.
“Mo’nin to you, Miss Clair,” said Sarah, only glancing at Clair. “Wha’chew wanna see me ’bout?”
“Now Sarah, dairs no need to be rude.”
“Wha’chew want, ol’girl?” Sarah said, impatiently turning to look Clair in the eye. “Ya hadn’t said five words to me in as many years. Da only thing I can fig’r ya might be want’n, is ta fix my baby, Ruth, up wit one’a dem cotton pickas’ ya gots cross da river. Well, she’s too young fo’ dat, an’ ya’s ought’a know dat.”
“Dat what ya be think’n, Sarah?” said Clair with a wide grin. “Dat’m play’n matchmaker fo’ ya young’un.”
“Well, whad’is it, den?”
“I heard tell dat da ol’ stork paid a visit to da Hawkins barn late las’ year,” Clair said, as Sarah’s eyes grew wide with fear. “I also knows dat dem hunters be ’round here ’bout dat same time, look’n fo’ a couple’a runaways. An’ one’um had’m a bun in da oven.”
“Who tol’ you dat?” Sarah said, glaring at the old housemaid.
“It don’t matter none who …”
“Yes it do!” snapped Sarah. “You wanna gets my family strung up an’ good Miss Emily trown in jail?”
“Miss Emily?” balked Clair. “Why, I never said nut’n ‘bout …”
“I’m gonna ax ya one mo’ time what ya want, Clair. An’ if’n ya don’t gimme a right good answer, I’m walk’n away. An’ den, if’n ya say anything else ‘bouts it, I’m gonna knock ya right down in da gutta here, fo’ da whole street to see.”
Clair stood erect and stared sober faced at Sarah. A female slave hadn’t spoken to her in that tone of voice since she was a young girl, and she was very rarely talked down at by even the meanest of male slaves. Even most whites spoke to her only in pleasant tones. She finally turned away from Sarah, looking off reflectively down Lake Street toward the river.
“Long time ago,” she said softly, “you was jus’ a little girl. I weren’t much older dan Ruth is now. I had me a beau named Jesse. Strong’n handsome as all day long.” Clair turned back to Sarah with tears in her eyes. “I loved’m so much, it hurt whenever I couldn’t reach right out an’ touch’m. One day he says he gonna run off to a place called Canada. Said’eed send fo’ me later. I trieds to stop’m, but I didn’t tries hard ’nuff. Truth is, I wanted to go wit’m, but I’s jus’ too scare’t.” She paused for a moment and looked away again. “Dey caught’m da nex’ day. Didn’t even make it to Arkansas. Cut off part’a ’is foot so he couldn’t run no mo’. Part’a me died when dey brung’m back, all beat up, bleed’n, laid over a horse like a dead goat. Couldn’t gimme no love’n fo’ nearly a year. One day he was move’n too slow an’ da boss man hit’m upside da head wit’a big ol’rock. Few days later da good Lord took’m in ’is sleep.”
Sarah reached out and gently touched Clair’s arm. “What is it ya want Clair?” she asked quietly. “Jus’ ax me.”
“Dair’s a boy gonna run,” she said, looking at Sarah. “He jus’ kinda reminds me’a Jesse, I guess. Says he wants ta go ta Springfield, Illinois. Wherever dat is. I jus’ wants to see dat’ee gets a good start.” She took Sarah’s hand. “Please Sarah, can ya maybe points’m in da right way to go?”
At first Sarah didn’t know what to say. She thought about it a minute, then told Clara that pointing the boy in the right direction was about all she could do. A day and time was arranged for the boy to be at a spot just north of the Hawkins farm. After that there would be no turning back, except in chains.
As the two black ladies parted, Clair turned back to Sarah. “I know’d it seems I always looked down on ya, Sarah. But truth is, I always wanted to be you. When it all comes out’n da wash, yo’ massa be rich’a din mines.”
On the way back to the farm Sarah sat quietly while Emily drove the buggy. As she wondered how to approach her master about another imposition, she noticed two dresses had been purchased. The one she had seen Miss Emily try on was canary yellow. The other was baby blue. She was just about to inquire about the dresses when Emily broke the silence.
“Sure are quiet, Sarah,” she said in her usual sweet voice. “What’s a matter?”
“Sump’n I need ta ax ya, Miss Emily.”
“Well, you don’t have to ask me if you can ask me something,” Emily said, turning to smile at Sarah. “Just ask me.”
For a minute Sarah couldn’t speak. The dear lady had literally exhausted herself helping Clem and Noel. Now Sarah was so hesitant to ask her to help another runaway. It was dangerous to everyone involved. She looked again at the dresses hung neatly behind her.
“What ya buy two dresses fo’, Miss Emily?”
“Oh,” said Emily, looking back at the garments. “Did I buy two? Well, I guess you can have that blue one. Jacob might like it, huh?”
“But Miss Emily, you gives me a dress fo’ Christmas. An’ ya gimme one fo’ summer time, too. An’ I still gots dem ones we made from dat material you gimme few years back. Don’t need no mo’ dresses. I got’s fo’ now, dis make five.”
“There’s no law says you can’t have five dresses, Sarah. Besides, the dresses we made were pretty’n all, but don’t you think Miss McBride does’m a little better?”
Sarah turned her head to look at Emily, then brought her hand up to her mouth and began to giggle. Soon they were both laughing very hard.
“Jacob did say da skirt was a bit too long, an’ee couldn’t see ‘nuff my legs.”
“And remember,” said Emily, still laughing, “the sleeves on the green one didn’t match.”
“Yeah,” Sarah said. “Da left sleeve wa’ kind’a droopy.”
They laughed together a little while longer, then Emily turned back to Sarah.
“Now, you gonna tell me what’s really bothering you, Sarah.”
Again she was quiet, looking off across Grimmet Field at the new flowers springing up along the levee.
“Miss Emily,” she finally asked. “do ya thinks ya could draw me a map’a hows to gets to dat place we tooks da runaways to las’ year?”
Emily pulled over and stopped the buggy, looking intently at Sarah.
“Sarah,” she said. “You need to talk to me and tell me what’s going on.”
She told Emily everything that Clair told her. How she found out about the runaways through Ruth and Pearl’s innocent indiscretion. The plan to somehow help the boy flee his life on the cruel plantation. And the hope of a new life with his brother somewhere free up North. Emily Hawkins did not complain or show any fear. She even asked Sarah if she told Clair to pack the boy enough food for two of three days, also asking if he was strong enough to make the trip on foot. By the time they got back to the barn, Emily had taken on the project like a crusade of sorts.
“You need to have a long talk with that daughter of yours,” she said, handing Sarah the blue dress. “Make sure she understands not to let the cat out of the bag again.”
“Oh, I can’t take da dress Miss Emily,” said Sarah, “on account’a cause’n ya so much trouble.”
“Sarah, please don’t talk to me like that,” she said, thoughtfully. “It hurts me inside. Besides, you’re no trouble. You and your family are a blessing to me.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Emily. I ain’t never wanna hurt ya. I just…”
“It’s gonna be alright, Sarah,” said Emily, placing her hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “You just gotta have faith in the Lord. He’s do’n all the planing anyway. And now I need to go draw that map. Why don’t you go and bake a sweet potato pie for that boy to take with’m.”
“Dat’s a good idea Miss Emily. I’ll makes da crust extree tick so’s it’ll keep longer.”
Sending word through Jacob, Emily postponed the date for a week, allowing them more time to prepare. Ten nights later Emily, Jacob and Sarah walked to a clearing at the northernmost edge of the Hawkins property. Sarah and Jacob had tried to talk Emily out of coming along, but she insisted. She wanted to make sure Tim understood some of the details of the trip he would be taking.
“This is a compass,” said Emily, holding the device up for the young man to see. “Follow the blue line I drew on the map all the way to Eldorado, Arkansas, right here. From there go straight north for about a day. Keep this arrow here on the ‘N’ and you’ll be going north. When you get to the mountains you’ll see a sign on the side of the road that says, Rich Mountain.”
“But, Miss Emily,” said Tim. “I don’t knows how ta read.”
“It’s alright, son. Look, I wrote it down for you.” She showed him a piece of paper with the name written on it. “Study this real good, and when you see these words follow the road the sign points to. It goes to the right.” She grabbed his right hand. “When your look’n at the sign, this way is right. Got it?”
“Yes’m, I got’s it.”
“The road winds round and round up that mountain about five miles. Then, at the end of the road, you’ll come to a small farm. Folks there are real friendly and they’ll help. The man’s name is Charles Etheridge. He’s a real good man. He and his wife will give you food and a place to sleep. You’ll have to work for it, but you can leave whenever you want. From there you’ll be on your own again. And when you do leave, you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone about the place. Unless it’s people that need help, like you. Do you understand everything I’ve said?”
“Yes, Miss Emily. I understands.”
“How old are you, Tim?” she asked.
“I tink I’m ‘bout twin’ee,” said Tim. “But I ain’t sure.”
“Well, make sure and stay away from any people you see on the road, especially white folks. And don’t go through any towns. Go around’m. I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I’ll be pray’n for you, Tim.”
The four of them then held hands in a circle and said a long powerful prayer. Emily opened, then each one of them petitioned the Lord for Tim’s safe passage. David Hawkins’s name was lifted up more than once. “Send angels,” Emily said. When they were done praying, Emily hugged Tim, squeezing the boy tight for a long moment. Tim just stood there, awkward, his arms down at his side, afraid to put them around a pretty white woman.
“Sarah here’s got some food and a coupl’a blankets,” said Emily, holding the boy at arm’s length.
“Dair’s some sweet potato pie, cornbread, chicken, biscuits, blackberry jam, a piece’a ham, fo’ apples an’ tree peaches,” said Sarah, handing Tim a small duffle bag. “Blankets an’ a coat, too.”
After Tim gave Sarah a hug, Jacob pulled out a long knife in a leather scabbard and handed it to the boy.
“Got dis here knife some years back,” he said. “It’s sharp as a whisker, but it best be used as a tool. Don’t use it ta hurt no one, less’n ya gots to. An’ don’t be bopp’n down da middle’a da road like it’s Sunday after church. Stay to da side. Keep ya head low and ya eyes peeled fo’ trouble. Go’on now boy. An’ God be wit’ya.”
The three of them watched as the young black man disappeared into the darkness of the trees. He wouldn’t be discovered missing until sunup. By that time, he would be very close to the Arkansas line. In his heart he was already a free man, unafraid of the fear before him. As he stretched his legs and churned his arms, looking up at the starry night sky, he knew he was no longer a slave, but a man to capture and keep his own destiny. A man to find with his own hands and see with his own eyes the faith, hope and love inherent to the rites of passage.