Friday, August 27, 2004
Back to our regularly-scheduled program analyzing the midwestern lifestyle...
The local history reading blitz continues. Escape Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Railroad in Illinois by Carol Pirtle gave some fascinating insight into Illinois life before the Civil War. Illinois is the land of Lincoln, and I always assumed because Illinois is a "Northern" state, it opposed slavery. While the state was officially a "free" state, it did turn a blind eye to slaveowners who moved here before Illinois gained statehood. Pirtle explains that when Illinois was trying to become a state, it was losing settlers to Missouri where slavery was allowed. Enforcement of the no-slavery laws was lax to encourage slave-owners to choose Illinois instead of Missouri. In Illinois, slaves were considered "indentured servants," and a 21-year timelimit was set on length of service, so perhaps the state's founders viewed this as a "kinder, gentler" form of slavery.
So the story told in Escape Betwixt Two Suns is not a flattering one for Illinois. The book is about a slave named Susan Richardson who escaped from an abusive owner who lived in southern Illinois. She fled with her children to the home of a neighbor who was a well-known abolitionist. The neighbor helped Susan Richardson and her children travel as far as Galesburg--that hotbed of abolitionist--but she was subsequently captured and thrown in jail.
Once in jail, the story gets pretty complex. Andrew Border, her owner, sues for the return of Susan and her children. while Galesburg was the home of a number of abolitionists, not everyone in the community felt the same about slavery. In particular, the county sheriff and the judge were sympathetic to Border's claims for property rights. While Susan Richardson was eventually freed because Border kept her in servitude beyond the legal length of time, her children were not so lucky. The judge ruled that her children were to return with Border to fulfill their indentured servitude, and Susan never saw them again.
The interesting thing about reading local history books is that I've realized that the my assumptions about the past can be totally wrong. Illinois wasn't such a shining example before the Civil War. Even in a part of the state where anti-slavery sentiments ran high, the Knox County judge weighed property rights as more important than personal freedom. Today abolitionists are viewed as heros, but at the time they were considered lawbreakers. The family of the abolitionist who helped Susan Richardson escape was ashamed of his actions for years to come.
The question is, now that I have a different view of Illinois, how should that change the way I view my role in this community? In honesty, I'm don't thing I would have been as brave as Susan Richardson and the abolitionists who helped her along the way. Today there are plenty of important issues I could stand up for, but I tend to avoid conflict. If I needed to act in the name of justice, could I do it? It's something I need to think about...