It never ceases to amaze me that there is always a story within a story. You can never judge or make an assumption about anyone, anywhere. When we do we perpetuate the ignorance that has plagued us for way too long. The service I planned to attend this morning has been cancelled like many others across the world. I wanted to share, though my Easter morning has had a change of plans, why I am forever changed for the better.
Last year when I decided to move out of New York City and take residence in this town halfway between NYC and Philly, I am not gonna lie, I was skeptical about putting myself in a situation of becoming a minority. I was looking for a place where I could expand my cooking options and experiences and this is something only space can provide. Embracing the slower pace, nature and access directly to farms and outdoor cooking is exactly where I was in life and worth every risk in changing my surroundings.
Having personally experienced racism many times, I thought of those times where I would feel threatened or scared, having to question people’s intentions. It’s not my nature to want to question or assume the worst however anyone who has been in my skin understands you always need to stay alert.
I made the move and I’ve been pleasantly surprised, proving my theory that I’ve always felt, that people are more similar than different. I have learned that much ignorance that we are left dealing with is just fear and fear can be diffused if given the chance.
Being that this place is somewhat country or spread out, you don’t encounter as many people as you would in a more densely populated area like NYC. I really only encounter people on my walks or my runs, or at the grocery store etc. Still maintaining a hyper alert sense, I would notice the things that people do because this is what you’re trained to do when you are from a certain place or you have a skin tone. You have to watch what people do and how people interact with you. For example, this distance from my home to the gym is about 4 miles and it is an enjoyable walk/run and serves as the perfect warm up and cool down, so that’s what I began to do. There are no sidewalks in my trajectory so you’re forced to run on the shoulder or share the road. One of the things that really stood out has been the majority of people who pass me would not only acknowledge me on site, but would slow down, give me more than enough room to feel safe and even in most cases give a nod, smile and a wave.
To further my point I befriended a sweet older, white, gentleman who walks his little dog daily on my route. It was only inevitable that we would strike conversation, as we passed each other most days. Not only was he excited to meet me, learn about where I’m from and my cooking journeys, but it became clear we couldn’t be more different. He loves to discuss his political views from the extreme right and myself being on the opposite side of the isle, normally this spells disaster. Funny enough, just choosing to not engage in those conversations still has left us with a great friendship, sharing stories of our lives and this area. He is one of my biggest fans and though it’s clear we don’t align politically that has no bearing on friendship. Again, a first for me.
As this happened, more and more frequently, I’ve realized that these people are a bit different than others than I’ve encountered in a predominantly white area. For example, I’ve lived, or spent quite a bit of time down south. I’ve been in situations where people would make it their business to scare you, or yell out a racial slur as they drove by in their vehicles.
This place was a lot different and ironically my daily run would teach me much more than I ever imagined as to why.
Along my run, I always stop at this church less than a mile from my home. It’s a small building, quaint, with a graveyard on the property. I always think to myself, there is something special about this place. I just felt it. So I would stop, take a breather, stretch and as the times went by it became a place for prayer and meditation. A spiritual rest stop of sorts. Come to find out this church is Mt Gilead Church.
Built around 1835, this church was constructed in the same style as a one room schoolhouse and was the last stop on the underground railroad before fugitive slaves crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey. The land it sits on was owned by a free black couple who transferred the title to three black men who were trustees in 1843 for five dollars. Learning about this stop on the underground railroad and the stories that unfolded has been more than remarkable. I’ll leave you with one of the most famous stories here.
The most famous resident of that era was an escaped slave named Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, a man of massive stature and gentle disposition. After fleeing from his master William Anderson of York, Maryland, Big Ben lived on Buckingham Mountain for eleven years, sometimes venturing forth to work on the local farms. He was out chopping wood in the spring of 1844 when his former master and four other men including a famous slave catcher spotted him. They attacked Big Ben and despite his frenzied struggles, he was badly injured, bound up and transported to a slave prison in Baltimore to await sale to the Gulf. His price was $700, but he proved unmarketable because of his injuries.
A contemporaneous account of Ben’s capture is found in a letter dated March 23, 1844. Interestingly, the writer refers to him as little Ben:
The neighborhood talk for a few days past has been concerning the capture of that giant of a runaway slave known by the cognomen of little Ben. He was chopping in the woods when he was accosted by three strangers (his master and another person remaining in the carriage out of sight) who told him that he must go with them. He refused and they fell on him. Ben fought like a hero came near cutting one fellow’s head off with his axe but was at last so disabled by their clubs that he had to give up. That notorious character Squire Bailey is generally suspected of having given information of Ben. If guilty he ought certainly to feel the Negro’s vengeance.
Source: Letter from Richard [surname unknown] of Buckingham Township to Jacob F. Byrnes of Wilmington, Delaware, MSC 472, folder 6, Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, PA.
Having heard what occurred, the local Quakers convened a meeting and raised the funds to buy Big Ben’s freedom. He was brought back to Buckingham, but never recovered from his injuries and, when he could not work, ended his days in the local Bucks County Almshouse. His gravesite remains a mystery.http://mountgilead.org/the-history-of-mount-gilead/