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Excerpt: 'To Serve The Living'

To Serve the Living

From Hush Harbors to Funeral Parlors

A cold mist hovered in the air and rain started to fall as twenty-eight weary fugitive slaves gathered on the banks of the Ohio River to contemplate the next obstacle on their perilous journey on the Underground Railroad. The husbands, wives, children, and one young mother carrying a newborn all came from the same neighborhood in Kentucky and had worked odd jobs to accumulate a small amount of money to pay someone to guide them to freedom. All of their hopes rested with the skills of their conductor, John Fairfield, a curious and somewhat controversial character. A white Virginian by birth, Fairfield had spent most of his life in the South but hated slavery. His Southern background helped him pose among other whites as a proslavery advocate while he worked surreptitiously to locate slaves who needed help escaping to freedom. Among his cohorts in the Underground Railroad, Fairfield was known as "devoid of moral principle, but a true friend to the poor slave." On this damp evening as his charges collected themselves at the edge of the river near Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Fairfield quickly had to devise a plan to get all of them across the river and on their way to Cincinnati, which was another twenty miles north.

Fairfield brought the group to this particular spot on the river, near the mouth of the Big Miami, because he knew he might find some skiffs tied to the bank. Within a few minutes, Fairfield found three small boats and broke them free of their moorings. When later asked if he had any qualms about this act of larceny, Fairfield simply replied, "No; slaves are stolen property, and it is no harm to steal boats or anything else that will help them gain their liberty." After he dragged the skiffs over to the fugitive slaves, they all crowded onto the three rather fragile vessels and began their voyage. The overloaded and rickety boats almost immediately began to take on water. When the skiff carrying Fairfield started to sink only a few yards from the Ohio shore, he jumped out onto a sandbar and found himself in water two to three feet deep. As he attempted to drag the boat to land, Fairfield began to sink in the mud and quicksand. The others jumped in to help him, and they all ended up wading to the shore. The muddy journey left everyone soaked to the skin, and some lost their shoes in the struggle.

Finally on the Ohio riverbank, Fairfield tried to get his bearings, as he needed to hide the large -- and now very conspicuously disheveled -- group while he figured out how he might navigate them through the next passage of their journey. Although they were all exhausted and chilled from the rain, the fugitives followed Fairfield's instructions to hide in the ravines outside of Mill Creek while he went to get help. Fairfield, who had many contacts in the Underground Railroad, went to John Hatfield, "a worthy colored man, a deacon in the Zion Baptist Church... a great friend to the fugitives -- one who had often sheltered them under his roof and aided them in every way he could." Once Hatfield understood the dire situation of the runaway slaves, he sent a messenger to Levi Coffin, the reputed "President of the Underground Railroad," to ask for assistance. Coffin quickly decided that the best way to move the fugitives through the area was to stage a mock funeral procession. In his own words, Coffin recounted the drama:

Several plans were suggested, but none seemed practicable. At last I suggested that some one should go immediately to a certain German livery stable in the city and hire two coaches, and that several colored men should go out in buggies and take the women and children from their hiding-places, then that the coaches and buggies should form a procession as if going to a funeral, and march solemnly along the road leading to Cumminsville, on the west side of Mill Creek. In the western part of Cumminsville was the Methodist Episcopal burying ground, where a certain lot of ground had been set apart for the use of the colored people. They should pass this and continue on the Colerain pike till they reached a right-hand road leading to College Hill. At the latter place they would find a few colored families, living in the outskirts of the village, and could take refuge among them... We knew we must act quickly and with discretion, for the fugitives were in a very unsafe position, and in great danger of being discovered and captured by the police, who were always on the alert for runaway slaves.

Coffin's plan worked quite well, and the escapees, with provisions from Hatfield's black neighborhood, were able to make it through to College Hill. One sad footnote haunted the story, however, as the smallest fugitive, the one infant, died during the mock funeral procession. The baby apparently had fallen ill during the cold, wet escape across the river. The child's mother had wrapped the infant tightly in blankets to muffle its cries. When they finally reached their destination, she was stunned to discover that her baby, whom she had thought was just sleeping, had passed away. The group quickly but respectfully buried the child in the Methodist Episcopal cemetery and moved on.

This evocative story highlights the profound relationship that African Americans have always had to death and the funeral experience. During slavery, from its beginnings in the transatlantic slave trade through the antebellum period, death was often imagined as the ultimate "freedom" from a life of oppression. When African slaves first began arriving in the New World, many believed that death was a way for their spirits to return home to Africa. In this account from the Underground Railroad, the mock funeral procession acted as a protective façade that literally conveyed the enslaved African Americans to their freedom. Yet in the loss of the infant it also acknowledged that the specter of actual death was ever present. Throughout African American history, death and funerals have been inextricably intertwined with life and freedom.

Excerpted from To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death by Suzanne E. Smith Copyright 2010 by Suzanne E. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Harvard University Press.

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Suzanne E. Smith