Crossing a great divide that redefines a person's freedom

Email|Print| Text size + By Pamela Coveney
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2005

CINCINNATI -- His name was Harry Hurdy Humphrey, and I went looking for him. He was my maternal grandfather. We missed each other by about 10 months -- he dying in June 1947 and my not arriving until April 1948.

Family lore was scant. His ancestors were slaves, but I didn't know how far back. A great or double-great grandfather apparently didn't like slave cuisine, accommodations, or status and escaped through the Underground Railroad, eventually settling near Cincinnati. He then went back for all of his family, safely transporting each of them, one by one, out of Kentucky.

At least that's how I had heard it, and I wanted to learn more. Twenty years earlier, I had tentatively tried. In that pre-Internet era, I soberly wrote to the Probate Court and asked for a piece of my history, a copy of my grandfather's birth certificate. I carefully told them the little I knew -- when and where he was born, and the names of his parents. I felt an actual chill when, weeks later, the same letter I had crafted so hopefully came back to me with the words ''no record" scrawled bluntly at the bottom. It was as though he had never existed.

So I went looking for him -- and in many ways found so much more.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is in Cincinnati overlooking the Ohio, a river that was once a line of demarcation between being chattel and being free. It is not a hugely wide river, but its symbolic width is infinite.

Walking into the Freedom Center can be entering an emotional blizzard. It is a bald, unabashed examination of slavery's barbarities, its survivors, and of the exhilarating, extraordinary courage of those who resisted, both black and white. You learn of Henry ''Box" Brown, a slave who curled his 200-pound frame into a wooden crate and had himself shipped from Virginia, finally stepping outside in Pennsylvania to freedom. You read of resilient Quakers who refused to toe the line and suffered savage beatings, imprisonment, financial ruin, and even death to help hundreds of runaways. There are omnipresent tributes to Harriet Tubman, one of the few black women associated with the Underground Railroad. She merited the elite title of ''abductor" by first escaping slavery herself and later returning to the South 19 times to guide more than 300 fugitive slaves out of bondage.

But most importantly, if you've scoured family albums for names and dates, you learn about yourself. It is then that the Freedom Center takes hold of you, because of what it offers that was missing when you first walked in: the knowledge of long-departed people with your name, overpowering responsibility of descending from survivors of this country's greatest atrocity,something new to contribute to a debate on reparations, and the simple emotional grounding of knowing more about from where and whom you have come.

In an otherwise opulent, visually stunning, and technologically dazzling setting, the Freedom Center's FamilySearch Center is a comparatively quiet room with some books and a few computers. For me, though, it is one of the Freedom Center's crowning elements. Its resources extend to the first US Census Report in 1790 and include records from Ellis Island, the Freedman's Bank with names of more than 480,000 freed slaves, several genealogical websites, and a staff of skilled volunteer researchers who are remarkably compassionate when you unexpectedly begin to cry.

It is not an easy ride. Some families, as does mine, closely guard or reinvent information that clashes with their preferred vision. The truth is often starkly different. There are inevitable surprises or painful reminders of what was systematically denied to generations of human beings with otherwise unlimited potential. One recent ancestor was illiterate; others inaccurately called themselves mulattoes, apparently shunning the then-unpopular label of ''black."

There is also guesswork. From lists of similar names, you can find your own forebears only by matching counties, names of children, and dates of birth. There are inaccuracies: You are at the mercy of a census taker's handwriting, of the fortuity of who happened to be home to respond to a census inquiry, and of ancestors' whims about what to disclose to a stranger. With some irony, I even noted the inconsistency with which various women ancestors reported their ages: One great-grandmother aged only 16 years between the 1880 and 1900 censuses. My mother's family name also apparently evolved from Constant to Constance. Still, there were mirror images among those ancestors of the person I have become. Liking to cook, play the piano, and tinker with woodworking, I felt good finding a caterer, a musician, a fence maker, and a wagon maker among them.

Harry Hurdy Humphrey's genealogical trail ended abruptly. His father, born in Tennessee in about 1840, was undoubtedly a slave, constitutionally classified as three-fifths of a person and thus not counted by the 1850 census taker. Lacking a maiden name for his mother, I could go no further.

There were unexpected discoveries, however. On my wall is a picture of another great-grandmother, Harriet Butler, who long ago sat motionless for a 19th-century photographer. She was born in Pennsylvania in about 1844, the daughter of my great-great-grandfather, the wagon maker. They were both free. The 1840 census also enumerated my other great-great-grandfather, the fence maker, as a ''free person of color." Their free status long predates Tubman's heroics with the Underground Railroad. Perhaps they were manumitted, or perhaps they simply had the courage to escape on their own. That part is forever lost to me.

I look at all of this through an admittedly clouded lens. Memories of my mother's stories have long since faded; I wrote nothing down when I had the chance. I know Harry reportedly liked crossword puzzles (so do I) and tackled them with a formal education that had ended when he was 9. My mother sat at his feet to look up words for him. He worked on the Erie Railroad as a waiter, serving food to starch-collared businessmen who would not have accepted him as a dinner companion. He supported a family through the Depression and was never out of work because the railroads always ran. When my mother, his second child, was born, he was already 43 and he adored her. He told her education was the equalizer.

In the thick of the Depression, when people were hungry, he told her to stay in school. When she finished college, he encouraged her to respond to a newspaper want ad. It was 1939, the job was in downtown Manhattan, the ad said ''college grads," and Harry told my mother that meant her.

So it was probably because of him that, when she went for the interview and was told to ride the service elevator because she was a Negro, she refused. Soft-spoken and barely over 5 feet tall, she simply said ''no."

She rode the regular elevator with everyone else because Harry had made her feel she had a right to do exactly that. (She didn't get that job, but eventually became an elementary school principal in Harlem, once praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as an innovative educator, and she later served as an educational consultant to New York University.)

Harry had siblings. I undoubtedly have distant cousins whom I have never met and whose names I do not know. Their information might differ from mine or be far more extensive. The journey, though, was purely personal, as was the distance I figuratively traveled. I never found that birth certificate, but it now matters a lot less because I found so much more.

Pamela J. Coveney is a lawyer in Boston.

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