The David Ruggles Education Center

I’ve been doing some research on the Underground Railroad, and I agree with the many, many writers who say that most of the stories of heroism and courage from this episode in American history will never be told, but I’m finding that there are many fine stories that have been left to us, and as historians piece the bits together, I believe they will be told.

And they are really great stories that will, I believe, capture the popular imagination and give us a new paradigm of American greatness, based on Americans who actually were great.

One of the wonderful things about history is that we’re learning so much more about it every day. Building on the work of scholars like the late John Hope Franklin, historians all over the country, and even the world, are piecing together the bits we know from court records and letters and census data.

Franklin’s book Runaway Slaves doesn’t tell any one story from beginning to end. Instead he shows us glimpses from thousands of different stories, and from this mosaic, a pattern emerges.

I’ve been reading as many slave narratives as I can lay my hands on, and it’s not easy. A lot of well-meaning people, myself included, have trouble reading slave narratives. It’s hard. You have to imagine your own child being brutalized by someone else, and then imagine your child being sold.

But what I find most amazing about these accounts is that the characters who appear in them demonstrate, in a split second, what kind of people they are.

In 1835 John P. Parker, then 14, was being chased by slave catchers and found a woman in the cotton fields who hid him in her basket.

But the overseer saw the whole thing and came running over and tipped over the basket. The woman tackled the overseer and allowed Parker to get away. She would certainly be whipped viciously, but she showed then and there what kind of person she was.

David Ruggles, for many years the station master in New York, showed what kind of person he was again and again, discounting his personal safety, helping hundreds and hundreds of runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass, escape to freedom.

Blind and in bad health from his time in jail, he moved to Florence, Massachusetts, where he was treated with what was then known as the ‘water cure.’ He regained his health and partly regained his sight and became a highly successful practitioner of the water cure.

William Lloyd Garrison was one of his patients, and he said it was the real deal.

Last Saturday I went on a walking tour of Florence and to my delight I discovered that scholars like Steve Strimer are creating a David Ruggles Education Center in the house where he lived, where people can learn more about this courageous man.

John P. Parker, once he gained his freedom, became another heroic stationmaster in Ripley, Ohio, and his house is a national landmark. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, his granddaughter went to Mt. Holyoke College.