A Stronger Kinship
Little, BrownCopyright © 2006 Anna-Lisa Cox
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-316-11018-3
Chapter One The Journey: 1860-1866
"The truth is, the nigger is an unpopular institution in the free states. Even those who are unwilling to rob them of all the rights of humanity, and are willing to let them have a spot on earth on which to live and to labor and to enjoy the fruits of their toil, do not care to be brought into close contact with them."
-Editorial from the Illinois State Journal, March 22, 1862
She must have been so tired of walking. Elizabeth Conner was moving, and moving in the Midwest in 1866 meant walking, walking for days through wilderness, through strangers. The wilderness pressed so close that even horses had trouble passing through the roots that tripped and branches that scratched.
Elizabeth almost certainly walked with a group of roughly twenty, although only ten of them were adults. Old experiences, old wounds, had taught these travelers that there was strength in numbers and in arms. Elizabeth's husband and her brothers-in-law all had weapons she knew had killed many a Southern white man not long ago. So she walked with dear Nancy and Abigail, and they walked alongside husbands. Strangers stared at those dark warriors, and their wives must have had the same urge. The men had walked together for years over hundreds of miles, walked through mud above their knees, walked through the wrecked bodies of their dead comrades, walked straight into gunfire when everything in them was telling them to run away. Now they walked together, with their unfamiliar children, their long-imagined wives now real, into a dreamed future they planned to make true, a future of fairness and prosperity.
Like many pioneers in America's past, they had left a stable and sure place to find a more successful life. That place was the only home Elizabeth had ever known, Mount Pleasant, Cass County, Michigan. Cass County had given shelter to a group of Quakers in the 1830s who then made it home to any blacks who wanted to come-and they came by the hundreds. Some were escaping slaves, rebelling against the idea that they were owned by anyone. Others were long free but sought the freedoms the South would no longer offer them. In Cass County they were able to attend schools, farm their own land, and raise their families.
This was more than unusual; it was feared. In the antebellum Midwest, although some white settlers were willing to use African American slave labor, most were averse to the idea of African Americans living near them, especially if they were free; this attitude extended deep into the new northern territories. As a legislative committee in Ohio made clear in 1832, free blacks were considered more of a threat than slaves, for they were seen as a "corrupting influence," and more important, they infringed upon white employment opportunities. Elizabeth's father, Henry Shepard, had been among the hundreds who sought shelter in Cass County before the war and who had managed to escape census takers and slave catchers to make a home south of Canada, a home in a nation that was rightly his.
Until he turned twenty-one, Henry Shepard had been owned by someone. Henry promised himself that on his twenty-first birthday he would liberate himself, and he did, walking north as best as he could. But north was the direction the winter came from, howling in hard, and the most freedom he found was a swamp where he could hide. Henry's feet slowly froze and rotted from the wet ground, but that pain was not as terrible as the loss of liberty, and he must have gone down running, still trying to move even after the dogs found him and white men recaptured him.
The man who thought of himself as Henry's owner may have taken one look at Henry's destroyed feet and felt sure that here was a safe slave, one who would literally never run again. But as soon as he deemed himself recovered, Henry made another bid for freedom. This time he was successful and kept walking north on those rotten feet until he had walked all the way to Canada.
Maybe Canada ended up being too cold for a man who had been brought low by a winter. Michigan wasn't easy, but it was easier, and more settled. And it gave Henry a place to become a hero. Although he managed to keep the fact secret from most who knew him, for many years he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, bringing escaping slaves from Cass County to the next station in Schoolcraft, and sometimes beyond. He must have been determined that others would not suffer, as he had, to find the way to freedom. He married, had a family, had Elizabeth. And then the war came. What could possess an old man, a man with family and a home, a man with freedom, to walk back into the land that had enslaved him? All that had happened to him in those first twenty-one years of his life must have risen up in him, must have taken him to that enlistment station. And then Henry walked again, walked all the way back to the South with a gun in his hand, and almost all the black men of Cass County went with him.
Some have argued that Midwestern racism was worse than the racism of the South. As an editor of an Iowa paper wrote in 1862, "It has long been manifest that there was a far greater prejudice existing against association with the negro at the North than at the South." Obviously, this is an old argument. Yet the Midwest was also a beacon of hope for both blacks and whites intent on settling and creating a new way of being together. These sentiments may not have been popular, but they were strong enough to create open warfare before the Civil War and strong enough to put through some of the earliest civil rights laws passed in this country. Henry Shepard did not walk on injured feet to settle in Michigan because it was worse than being enslaved. He probably would have agreed with the historian and sociologist Charles Payne, who wrote, "The Southern racial system, in fact, allowed for a great deal of personal contact across racial lines, perhaps more so than in other parts of the country; it just had to be contact on terms defined by white people."
Now it was Henry's daughter's turn to find a new and better life with her four children, Johnny, Irene, Mary, and little Lillie, her sweet flower, her new baby. Johnny and Irene were born before the war and would still have been warming to their father, whose face had been but a photograph for more than two long years. But Mary and Lillie were homecoming babies- Mary just toddling at two, Lillie still in her mother's arms -new children in a new world.
Elizabeth and the women who walked with her- Nancy and Abigail - had all watched their men leave for war. They knew why their men had to go, they knew all the million reasons why, some told as tales on a winter evening, others as secret and hurting as nightmares. Still, it had been so hard to see them walk away, their babies weeping, the whole world weeping, and cheering too.
Nancy had been luckier than many, having only one baby to care for while Joseph was gone to war. There are no surviving descriptions of Nancy, but there are many of her beloved and adventurous husband. His friends described him as "a true raw-boned man," "a gritty man," who worked "often when he was not able." When Nancy's true raw-boned man enlisted, all the army wrote was "eyes and hair, black; complexion, brown; height, 5'10"." But he was much more than that to Nancy.
Nancy's brother, William Frank Conner, had left Elizabeth with two children under the age of four. But those may as well have been Nancy's own, for she and Elizabeth had shared a home for the long and lonely time their men were gone. It was Elizabeth who had been at her side during little Joseph's birth; it had been Elizabeth who was able to read aloud William's letters home, giving them both comfort. And when the men came home, both Elizabeth and Nancy bore children of the homecoming within months of each other, Elizabeth's Lillie and Nancy's Franklin. When, a few years later, Nancy finally had a little girl, she named her Lilly, after her niece, her beloved friend's daughter.
Now here they were, the summer of 1866, less than a year after the men's return, going to the land William and his friend and brother-in-law Himebrick Tyler had bought in Covert. They would have certainly told her of it, lovely land, all good timber and rich soil, and few people there.
Cass County had long been cleared for farming, but as the travelers walked farther into Van Buren County, they walked deeper into woods. These were trees that they would soon know as well as family. There were the locusts: tough, covered in thorns, and repellent to insects. Locusts ignored spring, standing with branches bare, defying warm days, nesting birds, and the full green leaves on the branches of all the other trees. Finally, begrudgingly, they would fill out with small leaves, miserly of their green. But every second or third year, not regular enough to be counted on so always a surprise, the locusts would bloom, and for a brief time the North Woods turned into a scene from far Arabia. Long heavy clumps of jasminescented blossoms would droop from every surface of the tree, even the trunk, gracefully hiding the long barbs that could draw blood from unsuspecting fingers, a veritable rose of a tree. This flowering would come so late in the spring that one could whisper that they really were a summer flower - they even smelled best when the air was warmest- but deep in the heart one knew that this was spring for the locust trees, well and truly, and they were blooming, like some children do, in their own sweet time.
But it was not spring, nor summer, that brought color to Covert; it was the fall. And the color could come overnight. First to change were the weed trees, the sumac and the sassafras, which sent suckers out under the loam to create clumps and stands of themselves in patches where there was sun. The sassafras would turn a pale yellow, but the sumac would bloom into deep and startling red, shedding its leaves to reveal dark velvet cones of seeds that looked right pretty in the winter when wearing a cap of snow. From the scrubby weed trees to their tall companions - the cherry and oak, maple and locust- it was as if the color were a fire and the whole forest were burning.
It had been good timber that had almost kept Nancy's parents from leaving the South, that and the familiarity of friends and kin; but her parents, William Bright Conner and Elizabeth Schrugs Conner, had dreamed of raising their family free of the racism they had known all their lives. They were free blacks, needing no "benevolent" masters to blossom, strong and beautiful, and they were more than able to compete with whites for business and success. There was no mistaking the African origins of the Conners and the Tylers. The intensity and the richness of their skin gave lie to the fact that lighter was better, more pleasing, more able to succeed in the world. The Conner and Tyler families had come from Snow Hill, North Carolina. Their roots were in the Carolinas, almost two centuries deep by the time they decided to leave. Snow Hill was the seat of Greene County, a small county in the middle of the eastern half of the state, and was named for the white sand that lay under the forests and shone through the bare patches at the tops of the hills, near enough to snow for the South.
Nancy had walked north with her brother, William Frank Conner, as well as many other Conner kin and the Tyler brothers. She must have told William's wife, Elizabeth Shepard, of that journey, of moments of beauty so strong that even terror and tiredness could not bar its acknowledgment, of standing on top of a high pass in the Blue Ridge Mountains seeing the rain fall in a valley far below where they stood. Nancy, only a child at the time, was filled with wonder that her small self could be higher than the clouds that lay spread at her feet. Unlikely as it may have seemed to them then, home, at the end of it all, would be a place of gently rolling wooded hills, with sand peeping through at the top and real snow to cover them all.
Though they were free, the large party that traveled north before the war was often stopped on their journey through the slave states, but their "free papers," legal documents that attested to their status, were honored. Despite the group's good team of horses and a wagon in which the youngest children could ride, progress was slow. Far into their journey, but still in the slave states, an aunt lost her free papers. The next time they were stopped by a group of white "patrollers," they were helpless to save her, and she was taken. The effect this must have had on the children and their families can only be imagined. Terrified and grieving, the group decided it would thereafter travel only at night until reaching the free states.
They were not out of danger yet, even when they finally reached the shores of the Ohio River. On the morning they were planning to cross to a new freedom, three white men stopped by their camp and tried to persuade William Bright Conner to trade his horses. He was unwilling to do so, and the traders soon left. Before long, though, one of the men came riding back and told Conner to pack up his belongings and gather his group as quickly and quietly as possible because his companions intended to ambush them at the bank of the river and sell them into slavery. The man told them he would return at dusk, dressed in black, to lead them away from any pursuers and guide them to another crossing, just downstream. The Conners then had to make a terrible decision. They had firsthand experience of the treachery and cruelty of whites who saw them only as chattel. They could cross the river at the point they were sure of and soon be on freedom's shore, or they could risk trusting a white man who seemed willing to betray his friends for their sake. In an agony of uncertainty, the Conners finally decided to wait for the man to return. While packing up their belongings, they must have tried to calm the children, putting on a brave face for the youngest of the group, but everyone must have been on edge.
The man finally returned, alone, as he had promised. He motioned to them that they were not to speak to him or to one another during their flight. All night the group made their torturous and silent way through the woods until it was almost dawn. The adults must have been so turned around they could not have escaped an ambush, even if they had wanted to. But then they saw the river through the trees. Their rescuer directed them to a crossing where they were able to pass unmolested. As they did so, they could see the other crossing and were able to hear an angry roar from the mob that was waiting there for them.
They had reached the free states. The Conners saw themselves as people with the freedom to choose, and they were willing to pick up and keep walking to find a better life, a choice they made over and over again, going from Indiana to Canada to Michigan. It was Michigan that would become home.
And then the war came. During those difficult days of decision, William Frank Conner must have thought of his aunt, somewhere in the South, enslaved. As a child he had been powerless to help her when the slave raiders stole her away. Now, however, he was a man, and he could fight, fight for her freedom, fight for the freedom of all his race.
The walk had worked.
William Frank Conner probably had no way of knowing it, but back in Snow Hill, North Carolina, another William Conner, a member of the clan who had stayed behind, was forcibly conscripted into Greene County's Third Regiment to clean Confederate soldiers' clothes. His same-named relative in Michigan took up a gun to shed blood, possibly on those very uniforms.