Sailing to Freedom

Escaping from Norfolk in Capt. Lee’s Skiff – The Underground Railroad by William Still

Hey, that’s my boat!

I’ve been reading a lot lately, which feels good. I’ll share here the ones that really rang a few bells in the old brain pan.

I found this one through a backdoor. When looking for the source of an image, I came across this exhibit of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

That lead me to a book by the same name.

It’s a fascinating piece of history. The stories correspond to a few elucidated in greater detail by David Celceski, a historian who grew up in coastal NC in his book,

The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina

It’s a detailed compilation of how centuries of black enslaved and freemen of the Outer Banks and coastal NC learned the dangerous trade of navigating those waters from early settlement, so their white owners wouldn’t have to take the risks. But this skill gave them a valuable advantage when it came to vying for freedom, or assisting others in escapes, as the Civil War approached. (Thanks for the recommendation from Steve Earley.) In some cases, they joined the Northern Navy and assisted in raids and blockades of Southern ports, because they knew the dangerous shoals so well.

The photo above, though, was included in the Sailing to Freedom book. It looks very similar to the larger version of my Melonseed skiffs, which is what caught my eye. What a fascinating backstory to the engraving.

A group of slaves escaped in this boat by sailing from Norfolk all the way to Philadelphia. That’s hard enough to do now, with modern weather forecasts and GPS, when you’re assured of getting help if you need it.

I can’t imagine doing that in the mid 1800s, when contact with anyone at all could mean capture and/or death.

4 Replies to “Sailing to Freedom”

  1. Thanks for sharing. My family is from southern VA and growing up there got me interested in boats – not something many Black Americans are into these days. But in my own hobby restoration business and travels, I’ve learned so many fascinating maritime histories of free and enslaved African Americans even well into the 20th century. Whitewashed ads from the 50s and 60s totally erased us and our contributions (and other non-white groups) from these environments. Tragic, really. Wooden boat people are awesome though, and the truth is being revealed.

    1. That’s great Emil. You might really like The Waterman’s Song. I sure did. It goes into great detail the long and amazing history that has essentially been erased or forgotten. Not only the long tradition of black sailors, but an amazing fishing industry that’s hard to fathom now.

  2. Thanks Barry. I love the pic as well as the story. It adds to the romance of building a 19th century sailing vessel. I look forward to checking out the book.

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