By Lashawnda K. Becoats
It all started after I began reading Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”. The book chronicles the journey of a young slave girl named Cora, who escapes from her plantation in Georgia onto a real train that runs underground through the South towards freedom. I was fascinated by her story. We all know the story about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I could not imagine an underground train taking slaves to freedom. As Cora begins her journey to freedom from Georgia to the Carolinas, our worlds begin to collide.
I embarked on a 15-day working vacation to the Sea Islands, a group of barrier islands on the Southeastern Atlantic coast that begin in South Carolina. A few days after I arrived in Hilton Head Island on my vacation, the Underground Railroad drops Cora off in South Carolina. As I laid on the beach reading about Cora, I began to become deeply disturbed. I came here for vacation and she came here to escape the slave catcher’s whip and the masters manacles. We both had our own on kind of freedom in mind, me from stress and her for freedom. How can I lay on this beach soaking up the sun when Cora was running toward her new life? Thinking about her story, I got so caught up, I couldn’t eat. I wanted to know if she would be free. She and I were both kindred spirits now and we were on a journey together.
After talking about the “The Underground Railroad” endlessly on the trip, my best friend and I decided to visit some of the nearby places rich with slave history.
Our first stop was to Beaufort, S.C. We rode our bicycles over the Woods Memorial Bridge which was featured in “Forrest Gump”. We walked around the downtown area on the waterfront, ate lunch and people-watched in The Henry R. Chambers Waterfront Park. History was all around us. The Park overlooks the bay and has plaques that tell the story of how the area was settled. Then we rode our bicycles behind a horse drawn carriage tour past beautiful antebellum and Civil War era homes. As we peeked through fences and took pictures, my thoughts still lingered on the reality of the slaves whose backs were broken to build these homes that are still standing.
Beaufort is known as “Tree City U.S.A.” You can’t help but stop and take notice of the large majestic oaks with hanging Spanish Moss that stand guard at every turn. As I marveled at their magnificence, a lyric from the song “Strange Fruit” hit me:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
Cora’s escape took her through a trail of trees with hundreds of corpses hanging from their branches. What a horrifying sight that would be!
From that moment on I became enthralled by every 200 year-old tree I saw — “Hanging trees”. I couldn’t stop wondering about all the blood soaked into their roots.
After leaving downtown Beaufort, we went to Old Sheldon Church. The church was built in 1745 and has a complicated history. According to the plaque, it was burned twice once in 1779 and then rebuilt only to be burned down again in 1865. The walk up to the remnants felt eerie. There were only massive brick walls with open arches, and grass growing where church benches might have been. I walked behind the church and read some of the gravestones. There was a dry breeze from the trees and the birds chirped now then. There with a peaceful quietness that was loud enough to hear our ancestors singing or maybe crying. We didn’t stay long.
Five miles east of Beaufort, we explored St. Helena Island, the rural low country island known for its shrimp docks, farmland and Gullah culture. The island is home to the Penn Center, one of the first schools for children of freed slaves. When it opened in 1862, 80 students enrolled. How amazing that had to be? It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. drafted his famous “I have Have A Dream” speech there. Unfortunately, it was closed so we didn’t get to go inside the building.
In our search for a local Gullah festival, we stumbled on St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease Ruins. I had to stop and touch the walls. I wanted to soak in the history. I later learned it had burned down in 1886 by a forest fire.
Our day ended after we found the annual Land’s End Woodland River Festival, which celebrates the ancestry of Gullah families with food, music, storytelling and arts and crafts. When we arrived near dusk, the setting was beautiful. More “hanging trees” overlooked the river. It looked so peaceful except the bugs were out in full force. How did our ancestors endure the attack of mosquitoes!
That night Cora and I fled to North Carolina where she endured the most difficult time on her entire journey. This is where I live. It was hard for me to believe this was the worst place for her to be.
I won’t spoil it for you. Reading “The Underground Railroad” made me realize that if I read the book while at home in Charlotte, it would not have touched me the way it did. In Charlotte, a tree is just a pretty canopy but on the Sea Islands bodies hung from many of those trees. Being in that environment and walking the land my ancestors toiled gave me a deep spiritual connection to them that I will never forget.