Back in 2011, when I had just published Saint Maggie, Dan and I paid a visit to Belvidere, the town where the Rev. Jacob Harden's trial occurred and the prototype for the fictional town of Blaineton. We took some photos of some of the old houses and buildings there. This one reminds me a bit of Maggie's boarding house in that it has a "new wing" behind it. Since I don't have Photoshop, the phone wires and tops of the cars parked in front remain!
The Underground Railroad does not figure as a central part of the plot in the first three books, and yet it is very much part of the story of Maggie Blaine Smith and her diverse family.
As mentioned in earlier blogs, my characters have a station on the UGRR in the (fictional) town of Blaineton, New Jersey. Nate & Emily Johnson, who belong to Blaineton’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, are conductors or station agents. They live and work with Maggie Blaine, who owns a boarding house on the town square. Before the first novel SAINT MAGGIE begins, the Johnsons have already invited Maggie and Eli Smith (the abolitionist, lapsed Quaker editor of the penny weekly Gazette – and later Maggie’s husband) to join them in their efforts. The hiding place is a small tunnel between Maggie’s cellar and the Gazette cellar.
I need to say that actual tunnels were not common at all in the historical Underground Railroad. Most hiding places were not that extreme. They were haylofts, closets, spring houses, or “hidey-holes” in attics and behind closets. I was ignorant of this reality when I started SAINT MAGGIE, but since the tunnel has to do with other aspects of the plot, it still remains. However, I might edit the explanation of its existence to describe it as a winter-time passage and storage area between the outbuilding (where Eli lives) and the main house.
And yet, the Underground Railroad station on Maggie’s property brings in two characters, Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe, at the very end of the story. And they become part of the ensemble in the two novels that follow.
The second book, WALK BY FAITH, starts with Maggie’s house and the Gazette burning down in early 1863, thanks to anti-abolitionists. After sojourning at Samuel’s house (Sam is Maggie’s brother), the family eventually moves to Gettysburg. We learn that Eli comes from Gettysburg and his old family home now is a UGRR station co-managed by the Quaker meeting attended by Eli’s sisters and the town’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation.
Although the Civil War is now at midpoint, I postulate that self-emancipators and other refugees are trying to escape the violence and coming up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
I have no idea if this really was going on. However, at this point in the war, while escaped slaves and fugitives might very well have come north, another dynamic was at work. The Confederate army was in the vicinity, taking both self-emancipators and free blacks into custody, and planning to send them south into slavery. At this point, Underground Railroad stations seemed to have been used to move numbers of people away from this danger and/or to keep them hidden.
Historically, as the Union Army continued to press into the South, self-emancipators gravitated toward Union troops. In response to the flow of refugees, “contraband camps” were set up for them. The truth is that neither the army nor the Union itself had any idea what to do with newly-freed people of color. There really was no plan.
The third book, A TIME TO HEAL, focuses on the period after the Battle of Gettysburg. The old Smith House in Gettysburg has become a hospital where the wounded of both sides are cared for by Maggie’s family. Only one former slave, a man called Moses Galloway, comes to their station on his way north. The book also sees the departure of Matilda and Chloe Strong, which is handled by the Quaker communities. The mother and daughter are accompanied by white conductors on their rail trip to Canada, where they are going to be reunited with the rest of their family.
The procedure of having white people travel with black people still might have been followed in 1863. The problem was that African-Americans journeying on a rail line were viewed by white travelers as objects of suspicion. It was safer therefore for them to be in the company of a white person and to be viewed as a servant. Even though people of color in the Union technically were considered to be free, life still was not easy for them. Whites feared that a flood of freed slaves would tumble into their towns, take their jobs, and look for housing. They were considered to be a threat. They also were considered to be “lesser beings” and socially inferior.
The Underground Railroad does not play a role in the other novels in the Saint Maggie series, mainly because historical circumstances are changing. Instead, the people of color in Maggie’s fictive family face new challenges, primarily being perceived of and treated as equals.
With this in mind, racism and the struggle for equality shows its face in my latest work-in-progress, a full-length novel tentatively called THE GOOD COMMUNITY. In this story, Emily and Maggie learn that the Blaineton School not only won’t accept black students, but the small number of black children who do live in town do not have a school of their own. I think you can guess where Emily and Maggie are going to go with this and the sort of trouble that follows.
With that, I hope you all had an enjoyable Valentine’s Day. Regardless of whether or not you have a love interest or a partner, I hope you celebrated with good friends or family or simply treated yourself with kindness. I had one friend who used to buy herself roses on Valentine’s Day! Remember, you are worthy of love – and, even if you don’t believe it, you are loved by Something/Someone greater than yourself.
I wish I could tell you what next week’s blogs will be about – but I have no idea. So, I just will have to surprise you and myself!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder