Graw Alley. Underground Railroad
art - Ezra Berger
words - Brian Goodman
Crowded around flickering candlelight in the attic of the Moore family home, fear is thick in the air.
An elderly man is unwell. Whether he fell ill or was injured on his journey, is unknown. But what is certain is that he’s dying and probably won’t survive the night.
Surrounding him are members of his family, a few traveling partners, and the owners of the home in whose attic he will soon draw his final breath. When he dies, it will be an emotional loss for his family, but it could also be a death sentence for his companions, the folks who offered him shelter, and anyone else inside that house.
This Havre de Grace residence is a safe house on the Underground Railroad - the network of homes, hideouts, paths, and people that together served as a secret escape route for untold thousands of slaves as they fled their southern servitude for the promise of northern freedom.
But travel on this railway could be perilous. The law at the time mandated citizens assist slave catchers in pursuit of their runaways. So, when southern bounty hunters tracked down fleeing slaves, they typically doled out harsh punishment for everyone involved in the getaway.
Survival on the Underground Railroad was dependent on keeping a low profile, moving only at night, and doing nothing that might alert the attention of surveying eyes from the south. For runaway slaves traveling under these conditions – in a county that was the birthplace of the eventual assassin of President Abraham Lincoln – the dead body of a slave in the house might as well have been their death knell.
As the light passes from the eyes of the old man in the attic, those in the home who are still living, and want to remain so, need to come up with a plan. A knock at the front door sends a wave of panic through the house, but it’s just the neighbors, whose home serves as a waystation on this railroad. Together they will make a difficult, but loving decision.
They bury him in the yard.
Out of fear of being seen aiding escaped slaves, which would have meant death for the homeowners, a return to a life of enslavement for the fleeing men and women, and would also reveal the location and route they had taken – cutting off a vital path in the Underground Railroad, they instead dig a shallow grave just off the side porch.
The old man is buried under cover of darkness, without eulogy or ceremony. His family and companions will hold no funeral and will have to do their grieving on the run, as they head off toward the next stop on the railroad. And the homeowners will have to live with a secret that, if uncovered, could result in their own demise.
Whether this story is fact or folktale, it is indisputable that Havre de Grace, its residents, and their homes were an essential stop on the Underground Railroad and helped save countless souls by aiding their safe northward passage.
And if those old bones are indeed interred below the Moore Family Homestead, perhaps they rest with some measure of peace, as their discrete burial allowed the secret railroad to keep on rolling toward freedom.