FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Martin Richardson, Field Worker
(Verbatim Interview with Arnold Gragston, 97-year-old ex-slave whose
early life was spent helping slaves to freedom across the Ohio River,
while he, himself, remained in bondage. As he puts it, he guesses he
could be called a 'conductor' on the underground railway, "only we didn't
call it that then. I don't know as we called it anything--we just knew
there was a lot of slaves always a-wantin' to get free, and I had to
"Most of the slaves didn't know when they was born, but I did. You see,
I was born on a Christmas mornin'--it was in 1840; I was a full grown
man when I finally got my freedom."
"Before I got it, though, I helped a lot of others get theirs. Lawd only
knows how many; might have been as much as two-three hundred. It was
'way more than a hundred, I know.
"But that all came after I was a young man--'grown' enough to know a
pretty girl when I saw one, and to go chasing after her, too. I was born
on a plantation that b'longed to Mr. Jack Tabb in Mason County, just
across the river in Kentucky."
"Mr. Tabb was a pretty good man. He used to beat us, sure; but not
nearly so much as others did, some of his own kin people, even. But he
was kinda funny sometimes; he used to have a special slave who didn't
have nothin' to do but teach the rest of us--we had about ten on the
plantation, and a lot on the other plantations near us--how to read and
write and figger. Mr. Tabb liked us to know how to figger. But sometimes
when he would send for us and we would be a long time comin', he would
ask us where we had been. If we told him we had been learnin' to read,
he would near beat the daylights out of us--after gettin' somebody to
teach us; I think he did some of that so that the other owners wouldn't
say he was spoilin' his slaves."
"He was funny about us marryin', too. He would let us go a-courtin' on
the other plantations near anytime we liked, if we were good, and if we
found somebody we wanted to marry, and she was on a plantation that
b'longed to one of his kin folks or a friend, he would swap a slave so
that the husband and wife could be together. Sometimes, when he couldn't
do this, he would let a slave work all day on his plantation, and live
with his wife at night on her plantation. Some of the other owners was
always talking about his spoilin' us."
"He wasn't a Dimmacrat like the rest of 'em in the county; he belonged
to the 'know-nothin' party' and he was a real leader in it. He used to
always be makin' speeches, and sometimes his best friends wouldn't be
speaking to him for days at a time."
"Mr. Tabb was always specially good to me. He used to let me go all
about--I guess he had to; couldn't get too much work out of me even when
he kept me right under his eyes. I learned fast, too, and I think he
kinda liked that. He used to call Sandy Davis, the slave who taught me,
'the smartest Nigger in Kentucky.'
"It was 'cause he used to let me go around in the day and night so much
that I came to be the one who carried the runnin' away slaves over the
river. It was funny the way I started it too."
"I didn't have no idea of ever gettin' mixed up in any sort of business
like that until one special night. I hadn't even thought of rowing
across the river myself."
"But one night I had gone on another plantation 'courtin,' and the old
woman whose house I went to told me she had a real pretty girl there who
wanted to go across the river and would I take her? I was scared and
backed out in a hurry. But then I saw the girl, and she was such a
pretty little thing, brown-skinned and kinda rosy, and looking as scared
as I was feelin', so it wasn't long before I was listenin' to the old
woman tell me when to take her and where to leave her on the other
"I didn't have nerve enough to do it that night, though, and I told them
to wait for me until tomorrow night. All the next day I kept seeing
Mister Tabb laying a rawhide across my back, or shootin' me, and kept
seeing that scared little brown girl back at the house, looking at me
with her big eyes and asking me if I wouldn't just row her across to
Ripley. Me and Mr. Tabb lost, and soon as dust settled that night, I was
at the old lady's house."
"I don't know how I ever rowed the boat across the river the current
was strong and I was trembling. I couldn't see a thing there in the
dark, but I felt that girl's eyes. We didn't dare to whisper, so I
couldn't tell her how sure I was that Mr. Tabb or some of the others
owners would 'tear me up' when they found out what I had done. I just
knew they would find out."
"I was worried, too, about where to put her out of the boat. I couldn't
ride her across the river all night, and I didn't know a thing about the
other side. I had heard a lot about it from other slaves but I thought
it was just about like Mason County, with slaves and masters, overseers
and rawhides; and so, I just knew that if I pulled the boat up and went
to asking people where to take her I would get a beating or get killed."
"I don't know whether it seemed like a long time or a short time,
now--it's so long ago; I know it was a long time rowing there in the
cold and worryin'. But it was short, too, 'cause as soon as I did get on
the other side the big-eyed, brown-skin girl would be gone. Well, pretty
soon I saw a tall light and I remembered what the old lady had told me
about looking for that light and rowing to it. I did; and when I got up
to it, two men reached down and grabbed her; I started tremblin' all
over again, and prayin'. Then, one of the men took my arm and I just
felt down inside of me that the Lord had got ready for me. 'You hungry,
Boy?' is what he asked me, and if he hadn't been holdin' me I think I
would have fell backward into the river."
"That was my first trip; it took me a long time to get over my scared
feelin', but I finally did, and I soon found myself goin' back across
the river, with two and three people, and sometimes a whole boatload. I
got so I used to make three and four trips a month.
"What did my passengers look like? I can't tell you any more about it
than you can, and you wasn't there. After that first girl--no, I never
did see her again--I never saw my passengers. I would have to be the
"black nights" of the moon when I would carry them, and I would meet 'em
out in the open or in a house without a single light. The only way I
knew who they were was to ask them; "What you say?" And they would
answer, "Menare." I don't know what that word meant--it came from the
Bible. I only know that that was the password I used, and all of them
that I took over told it to me before I took them.
"I guess you wonder what I did with them after I got them over the
river. Well, there in Ripley was a man named Mr. Rankins; I think the
rest of his name was John. He had a regular station there on his place
for escaping slaves. You see, Ohio was a free state and once they got
over the river from Kentucky or Virginia. Mr. Rankins could strut them
all around town, and nobody would bother 'em. The only reason we used to
land quietly at night was so that whoever brought 'em could go back for
more, and because we had to be careful that none of the owners had
followed us. Every once in a while they would follow a boat and catch
their slaves back. Sometimes they would shoot at whoever was trying to
save the poor devils.
"Mr. Rankins had a regular 'station' for the slaves. He had a big
lighthouse in his yard, about thirty feet high and he kept it burnin'
all night. It always meant freedom for slave if he could get to this
"Sometimes Mr. Rankins would have twenty or thirty slaves that had run
away on his place at the time. It must have cost him a whole lots to
keep them and feed 'em, but I think some of his friends helped him.
"Those who wanted to stay around that part of Ohio could stay, but
didn't many of 'em do it, because there was too much danger that you
would be walking along free one night, feel a hand over your mouth, and
be back across the river and in slavery again in the morning. And nobody
in the world ever got a chance to know as much misery as a slave that
had escaped and been caught.
"So a whole lot of 'em went on North to other parts of Ohio, or to New
York, Chicago or Canada; Canada was popular then because all of the
slaves thought it was the last gate before you got all the way inside
of heaven. I don't think there was much chance for a slave to make a
living in Canada, but didn't many of 'em come back. They seem like they
rather starve up there in the cold than to be back in slavery.
"The Army soon started taking a lot of 'em, too. They could enlist in
the Union Army and get good wages, more food than they ever had, and
have all the little gals wavin' at 'em when they passed. Them blue
uniforms was a nice change, too.
"No, I never got anything from a single one of the people I carried over
the river to freedom. I didn't want anything; after had made a few trips
I got to like it, and even though I could have been free any night
myself, I figgered I wasn't getting along so bad so I would stay on Mr.
Tabb's place and help the others get free. I did it for four years.
"I don't know to this day how he never knew what I was doing; I used to
take some awful chances, and he knew I must have been up to something; I
wouldn't do much work in the day, would never be in my house at night,
and when he would happen to visit the plantation where I had said I was
goin' I wouldn't be there. Sometimes I think he did know and wanted me
to get the slaves away that way so he wouldn't have to cause hard
feelins' by freein 'em.
"I think Mr. Tabb used to talk a lot to Mr. John Fee; Mr. Fee was a man
who lived in Kentucky, but Lord! how that man hated slavery! He used to
always tell us (we never let our owners see us listenin' to him, though)
that God didn't intend for some men to be free and some men be in
slavery. He used to talk to the owners, too, when they would listen to
him, but mostly they hated the sight of John Fee.
"In the night, though, he was a different man, for every slave who came
through his place going across the river he had a good word, something
to eat and some kind of rags, too, if it was cold. He always knew just
what to tell you to do if anything went wrong, and sometimes I think he
kept slaves there on his place 'till they could be rowed across the
river. Helped us a lot.
"I almost ran the business in the ground after I had been carrying the
slaves across for nearly four years. It was in 1863, and one night I
carried across about twelve on the same night. Somebody must have seen
us, because they set out after me as soon as I stepped out of the boat
back on the Kentucky side; from that time on they were after me.
Sometimes they would almost catch me; I had to run away from Mr. Tabb's
plantation and live in the fields and in the woods. I didn't know what a
bed was from one week to another. I would sleep in a cornfield tonight,
up in the branches of a tree tomorrow night, and buried in a haypile the
next night; the River, where I had carried so many across myself, was no
good to me; it was watched too close.
"Finally, I saw that I could never do any more good in Mason County, so
I decided to take my freedom, too. I had a wife by this time, and one
night we quietly slipped across and headed for Mr. Rankin's bell and
light. It looked like we had to go almost to China to get across that
river: I could hear the bell and see the light on Mr. Rankin's place,
but the harder I rowed, the farther away it got, and I knew if I didn't
make it I'd get killed. But finally, I pulled up by the lighthouse, and
went on to my freedom--just a few months before all of the slaves got
their's. I didn't stay in Ripley, though; I wasn't taking no chances. I
went on to Detroit and still live there with most of 10 children and 31
"The bigger ones don't care so much about hearin' it now, but the little
ones never get tired of hearin' how their grandpa brought Emancipation
to loads of slaves he could touch and feel, but never could see."
1. Interview with subject, Arnold Gragston, present address, Robert
Hungerford College Campus, Eatonville (P.O. Maitland) Florida
(Subject is relative of President of Hungerford College and stays
several months in Eatonville at frequent intervals. His home is Detroit,
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