As I was making my way inside the underground railroad, all I saw was almost total darkness. I could feel the rocks begin to poke at the soles of my shoes. I could feel the dirt creep into my nostrils. I could feel the dust begin to cloud my eyeballs. I heard each footstep I took as my feet dug deeper and deeper into the mud. I faintly saw bricks and cardboard on the sides of the tunnel out of the corner of my eye. I could smell the rusty wood and damaged train tracks. But what stands out most in my memory were the raggedy leftover ladders and half-broken light bulbs I saw along the way.
The passageway got so short in one place that my dress — which I was wearing to disguise myself — started to drag and rip as my feet stepped on the fabric. I felt the sweat on my face, and the tiny holes forming in the soles of my shoes. I sensed the strings on my shoes beginning to escape their eyelets. But there was no time to rest. Nothing would stop me from reaching freedom.
After hours and hours of trudging through the mud, I finally reached freedom. I reached my final destination in the lovely North, in the state of New Hampshire. Forevermore, I will be seen as a free African American.
I go by the name George Johnson, but many know me only as ‘The runaway slave’ due to my success in escaping captivity in 1855. I left at 7pm sharp on a Monday evening as my master bathed. My success in escaping slavery was all planned out. I picked ten bags of cotton and built my master's daughter's playhouse. I spent over 15 hours working that day; my master didn’t suspect anything. I hid out in the cotton fields later after the other slaves headed over to their slave cabins. I had hidden a dress there earlier, and now I put it on to disguise myself. I tiptoed and pulled my way through the cotton fields.
I had no food, nothing to quench my thirst, no warm clothing to keep me safe. My stomach arm and leg hair began to stick up, bumps erupting on my flesh from the cold. I began to shiver and rub my hands together, blowing my hot breath into them. My stomach was growling. My head was spinning. My throat was dry. I had no clothing to keep me warm and shield me from the heavy winds. In my imagination, I started to hear my master shouting my name out aggressively in fury. I saw flyers with my face on them stating: MISSING RUNAWAY SLAVE. MUST BE RETURNED IMMEDIATELY with a reward attached.
But this was only the beginning of a seven-day-long process of being on the run. Throughout this horrifying and traumatic journey, I had to hide inside logs as spiders bit at me. I had to hide in swamps full of alligators. I had to hide in rivers as large fish nipped at my flesh. I had to hide in trees as bees stung me and insects crawled on me. I had to hide in bushes as ants climbed up my legs. I had to use large sticks as canes, due to the injuries I had accrued. Many days, I covered myself in cow dung so that my master's dogs wouldn’t be able to track my scent. To sustain myself, I had no choice but to eat everything I could find — the honey from bee hives, the bark from trees, grass, leaves, and insects.
It was Sunday morning at 10am on the 7th day when I finally reached my final destination. I saw people who looked like me in fancy attire walking the streets with the other white folks. They were smiling at me but also staring at me in sorrow; they could see that I was covered in injuries and had suffered greatly. They kept repeating to me, “You’re finally free!” “You’re finally free!” “You’re safe now!” “You’re safe now!” It was the most beautiful and fulfilling thing I have ever experienced. At that very moment, I realized I had reached Illinois and I was now considered a free man.
Anyla is a student at Walla Walla High School. She aspires to become a poet, short story writer, and essayist speaking about racism against Black people, current world problems, and hot topics. When she writes, she does it with purpose and passion. Anyla feels destined to touch others with her words, and wants to be known as someone who takes a stand and impacts lives with her writing.
Main Image: Cover of Underground Railroad Handbook