Formerly enslaved woman sitting in her home near Greensboro, Alabama is superimposed on a portion of the Heritage Trail at Howard Tunnel in Montgomery County, Maryland. Photo credit: New York Public Library and Creative Commons

Steal away on New Year’s Day. Why most enslaved people ran away as the year began

Frederick Douglas lamented in his memoir how the six days between Christmas and New Year were some of the worst times of manipulation for enslaved people, but this interval also marked the duration where most escapes took place.

Situated at about a 45-minute-drive from the Nation’s Capital, Montgomery Parks in Montgomery County, Maryland, boasts lush landscapes with thick foliage lined with trees and creeks. At one point in history, the almost impenetrable vegetation proved to assist in covering up the tracks and in some cases, the scents of enslaved peoples from Hound dogs searching for those escaping slavery.

Within the green throughway is the Underground Railroad Experience Trail, a path marking an option in the multiple routes used in clandestine trips for those who made daring attempts to flee the brutal institution of American slavery. One of the escapees in this region was Harriet Tubman, who is said to have used this path or one nearby on one or more of her trips to the south. Tubman escaped from Dorchester County in 1784 then helped others run away.

At night, Montgomery Parks is pitch black; especially following the winter solstice. Occurring just four days before Christmas, the celestial event marks the darkest day of the year and the first day of winter. It was also the perfect time for those living in bondage to run. So they did, and in the greatest numbers at any point in the 12-month cycle.

“Without calendars, newspapers, or clocks, it is difficult to keep up with dates. With this in mind, Christmas automatically becomes an ideal time to escape, unlike Easter or Thanksgiving, it comes around on the same date every year, like clockwork,” explains Cassandra Loftlin who is both a chef and an anthropologist.

| Read: Black cemetery preservationists in Maryland sue to block development

Loftlin, whose ancestors are from Augusta, Georgia, teaches classes explaining how food was eaten traditionally using the natural calendar of the seasons and community events. When it came to the winter holiday, she informs, “Everyone knows when it is Christmas. It is a definitive marker in time that everyone can set their proverbial watch–to start and execute the well-planned escape.”

To flee in the cold winter months is daring in itself. The frigid temperatures alone were dangerous for most enslaved peoples with little or sufficient clothing to protect them from the elements. Even more risk-driven, the land offers less food to forage at this time of year. But it is the perfect time to steal away.

While winter months offer lengthy, dark days; from Christmastime to the New Year, frequent holiday parties paired by the more-relaxed-than-usual enforcement of restrictions, gave those who stole away, a better chance to go unnoticed longer. Moreover, a head start was needed.

Slave patrols and bounty hunters unearthed soil in their efforts to locate enslaved peoples who fled. Then, if runaways were found, the cruel practices used to capture and subdue them made escapee’s efforts to successfully evade capture, even more calculated.

“Escaping imprisonment is not something that can be done on a whim, simply when the opportunity presents itself,” says Loftlin. “This theory detracts from my ancestors’ acumen, skill, and intellect. To be free, you must be ready with a plan, otherwise, you will be caught and returned or maimed and killed. To escape takes months of training, knowledge acquisition, and resources.”

. . . .
A marker in Montgomery Parks marking the Underground Railroad Trail. Photo credit: Montgomery Parks website.

With all the talk of freedom and those who craved it, most remained in captivity. Frederick Douglass, one of the most prolific and documented self-emancipated persons on record, wrote about those long nights during the holiday season. But his account tells a sordid reason why the enslaved celebrated. Many, but not all slavers allotted winter festivities at a period for enslaved people to join in on Christmastime merriment. In his memoir, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, he writes:

The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded [it] as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters.

Rather than rest, enslaved people were expected to celebrate—dance, sing, eat and imbibe in fermented beverages. Loftlin calls the time off as “superficial circumstances” where “a slaveholder and overseers [presented themselves as being] in more of a benevolent spirit, requiring fewer demands on the time and labor of the enslaved.”

Astute in his assessment, Douglass argued that slave owners did not “give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it.” 

More so, the festivity was presented as a reprieve that showed a merciful and fair master, on one hand. On the other, it displayed a good Christian slave owner allowing those who followed the teachings of the bible to practice their faith. But, it was the exact same faith that was interpreted differently by some in bondage.

“Many slaves were deeply Christian, so it seemed appropriate to them that this is the time of year to bounce. What better way to honor God’s will than to escape around the holidays?” Opined Donavan Ramon, professor of African American literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Added Loftlin. “Some scholars proclaim that the birth of Jesus was inspirational and reminded the enslaved that they were saved, redeemed, and free in the spiritual world, perhaps causing them to ponder physical freedom as well.”

| Read: Ceremony to rebury old remains of Charleston’s early enslaved

For Douglass, winter holiday celebration was a cruel irony that held “the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.” Thus, the overindulgence of alcohol and food would have the reverse effect in the end. If freedom was anything like this, it would largely be rejected. “[Slave owners] object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation,” proposed Douglass.

While the majority of enslaved peoples never left captivity, attorney Jonathan D. Martin, who studied slave sales provides another impetus for those who did leave within those six days between Christmas and the New Year. He notes in his book, Divided Mastery, that the auctioning of enslaved people and “hiring transactions [such as renting out the enslaved to others] began, following custom, on New Year’s Day.” To avoid another separation, or be placed in the hands of a crueler slave owner, running became the only option.

While there is no accurate count showing how many enslaved people fled, and how many were successful, the New Year offered new beginnings for those who left slavery. For fugitives, to leave also meant to detach from family and friends in hopes of a better life, or paving the way for those who came later. In the end, self-emancipation was the greatest gift and act of revolution.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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