My father was always a story-teller. As he aged, it will surprise no one, he began to repeat his favorite stories more frequently. Then about twenty years ago, at a family gathering, my niece, Bronwyn, suggested to ‘Grampa Chuck’ he could just number the stories. Then when one came to mind, he could just call out the number, we could all laugh and he would be spared the trouble of telling it (and we the tedium of hearing it again). Everyone thought this was a fun idea and even ‘Grampa Chuck’ laughed at the joke. He did not laugh, however, ten minutes later when he started in on some old chestnut and the same granddaughter tried to cut him off and give the story a number (#19, I think)!
What number to give when? Which story is “Number 14” and which one should be “Number 26”? No one really ever refined the scheme to that degree. However, everyone in the family agrees on which is Story 1 and Story 2. Both were stories told to my father by his ‘Grandpop Fred.’
Family Story 1: The Handy Gadget
Freddy was born in about 1845 to a staunch and devout Methodist family. They lived on land settled in 1797 in upstate New York by an ancestor named Charles James. When Fred was about eight years old, he and all the other kids from the Methodist church went on a picnic. Some time during the afternoon, Freddy needed to relieve himself and so he went into the bushes near the picnic site. Having unbuttoned and lowered his drawers he was just about to “make water” when he discovered he was not alone. A little girl from the group was squatting nearby; he was directly in her line of sight. As she glanced up at him, she exclaimed, “Why, Freddy! What a handy gadget to bring to a picnic!”
That is funny Family Story #1: a young child, smack-dab in the middle of the Victorian Era who had no better idea of the difference between boys and girls than that.
Family Story 2: Going Like the Devil
This second Freddy story carries a bit more gravitas than the first. It seems Freddy could be a compelling prevaricator when he needed to be. On one particular Sunday morning when he was about ten years of age Freddy managed to convince his no-nonsense parents that he was too sick to go to church. Reluctantly, they left him home in bed.
As soon as the family wagon was out of earshot, Freddy was out of bed, making his way to the pull-cord in the upstairs hallway of the farmhouse, the length of rope which lowered the ladder to the attic. Freddy, it seems, had been forbidden with the most solemn warnings from going up into the attic. Which of course meant that as a young boy, no destination on earth was more desirable and alluring than that hot, musty uppermost space, a place he would normally never have considered going.
Once he had the cord in hand he pulled it until the stairs began to descend. Once they were fully down, he unfolded them and ascended to the trap door. Attics are generally dark, even on bright, Sunday mornings and so once Fred had pushed up the door, he was surprised to see a light, a lit kerosene lamp, perched on a small dressing table. At the table sat a tall woman, combing out her long gray hair while peering into a looking-glass. Something moved in the dim space up over to his right and Fred realized several very dark men were squatting there in the shadows. Of course, Fred took all of this in within an instant. And in that very same split-second, the woman saw the reflection of the boy in the mirror and let out a scream, just as the boy screamed and Freddy went down that ladder, “going like the Devil was after him.” He flew into his room and under his bed where he stayed until his family returned from the Methodist services.
And that is how Freddy discovered the Underground Railroad which ran right through his family’s farm, from somewhere in the south, on the way to Canada.
Harlow Phineas James and Armenia Thomas James, Fred’s parents, were Christ-believing, Bible-reading Methodists, devoted in their faith, who, every day, broke U.S. Federal law. Armenia was the local “Stationmaster” of the last “station” on their “track” of the great “Railroad” network. The gray-haired woman in the attic had been the “conductor” who had escorted those “very dark” men to the James farm during the previous night. She and they were waiting in the attic for the next nightfall, whereupon she would return to her farm away back south about ten miles and either Armenia or her husband would “conduct” the blacks to a boat a few miles away on the shore of Lake Ontario, where British North Americans  were waiting to row the precious “cargo” to freedom.
Yes, that is how Frederick Douglass James discovered the great pathway which thousands of runaway slaves took to freedom. The man for whom Freddy had been named just ten years before was, of course, the famous black abolitionist orator and journalist. I wonder how often northern white farmers in that day named their children after any black person, let alone a notorious trouble-maker? Not very often.
I learned Story 1 from my father. I heard Story 2 while I was sitting beside my grandfather on his bed. I was about the age of Freddy himself. So, it was from Fred’s only grandson that I heard the funny story. And from Freddy’s second son I learned of how my family, my Christian forbears, had played a part in both American history and redemptive history.
The Fugitive Slave Law was an execrable act of Congress originally enacted in 1793 under George Washington, but made much more stringent in the Compromise of 1850, signed into law by the quintessential dough-face President, Millard Fillmore, which made it a crime for anyone to “aid and abet” a runaway slave. In grave acts of civil disobedience, my great, great grandparents obeyed what they believed was a higher law.
I draw sustenance from this family story. It has many lessons. It gives me a sense of what it is to personally be a part of history. I learn from the story about how actions, my actions count. History has never been a dry or boring and distant subject for me because I know my family to have been a part of it. When, as a Christian, I act alone, but especially when I act in concert with my community of faith, I make a difference. We all change the world for good or ill just by being in it but when we work together for a cause which has been impressed upon us by the Spirit of God, illuminating the Word of God, we can bring redemption into very dark places.
What message or messages do you hear in these stories?
Peace and grace, Trace
1 Back to Post Check out the Wikipedia article “Underground Railroad” and look especially at the map of the main “Railroad” “tracks.” Note the one which travels up New York’s Hudson River Valley and runs west, south of the Adirondack Mountains, ending near the shores of Lake Ontario, not far from Rochester, N.Y. That was a main “track” which would have subdivided into several smaller “tracks,” as far back as Syracuse. One of those “tracks,” a northern spur, would have ended near the eastern shore of the lake where the last “station” was the James farm.
The “Railroad” grew exponentially and became much better organized after the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. It had to grow and get better or be destroyed.
2 Back to Post Due to the persistent efforts of William Wilberforce and his Christian caucus in Parliament called the “Clapham Sect,” Britain had already abolished slavery in the 1830s.