Shoulder to Shoulder

by Kathleen Franks for Porch Stories™ Ghost Tour 2009, Hudson, Ohio

~

Yesterday I finally found out what I’ve been wanting to know ever since I was lynched that night. Lynched, you say? Now I know that when hearing the word, “lynch”, you have concluded that I must have been a Negro, a slave, an African-American as you folks call people of color these days. No, I was a white man who lived in Hudson about a hundred and fifty years ago. Those were the times when this Western Reserve was being settled by men and women of courage and determination. Here in Hudson we had a penchant for hard work and a belief that anyone who did his fair share was entitled to his portion. We had a reputation for community cooperation and respect for each and every inhabitant which included the native Indians.

When slavery became an issue in our country, we naturally felt repulsed by the idea of using a fellow man to do work without receiving a wage. Most of us were from the eastern shores where this great country took hold. We knew how our constitution was written and what it said about all men being created equal.

I was a man who was opposed to slavery so much so that I became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. My station was just up the road on the property that I owned on what now is Hines Hill Road. I had a slave camp, a clearing in my backwoods where runaway slaves could rest up a bit.

I’ve kept an eye on my property ever since that day I was lynched. I had to know what happened afterward. I wanted to know if those slaves that were there that night got away safely, especially that young married couple. While I waited all these years to hear the end of the story, I have been privileged to watch this little village I love so much, grow into the beautiful town that it is.

~

If I told you that I am a ghost, would you run away screaming? Please don’t. Most ghosts come around only because we’ve got some unfinished business, a story left untold or just out of plain curiosity. We never mean any harm. I guess we’ve got a reputation for spooking people because of a few “bad apples” among us who get their jollies from scaring you. But most of us would never do any harm.

I’ve been living in Hudson since 1805. Some think that living is only for those who reside in a human body. That’s understandable. How could you think otherwise? As humans, we only know one way of living. But as ghosts, we know of many. The possibilities are endless. We ghosts get to do some of the things that we couldn’t get done before we died, like, catching up on all that reading, finishing that quilt, practicing our music – you know what I’m talking about. You know those books that you keep on your night stand? We love reading over your shoulder. It’s so nice and peaceful nestled on the back of your pillow. We love reading your stories, but this time, I have a story to tell you. It pieces together some of Hudson’s history that you may have been wondering about.

~

It was a cool evening in late autumn in the year 1836. I understand that you’ve already heard the story of Roger and Moll, the runaway slaves from Virginia who left their master’s plantation one mid-summer day when Moll was six months pregnant! What a story they had to tell when they arrived at my farm that evening. We could hardly believe our ears. The serenity of the night when Moses was born, the stars in his eyes, the moon on his face, the hope in our hearts is my last memory as a human and one of the best.

Not an hour had passed after Moses was born when the tranquility of that beautiful night was shattered by the sound of barking dogs and horses’ hooves cracking the cool night air. Quickly we hid Moll, Moses and Roger in the tunnel under the barn. The other slaves that had been at the camp for the past day and a half fled into the woods. My family rushed to our house and bolted our door. Minutes later, the commotion of dogs, horses and shouting men converged upon my property. Pounding on my door they demanded to see me, “In the name of the Lord Almighty, open this door! The business at hand is urgent!”

Before I could answer, they had kicked my hand-hewn solid hickory door down, and burst into my home, “Release the slaves you are harboring! Return them to their rightful owner lest you be prosecuted under the law!” snarled a man who stood so close to my face that I could feel the heat of his anger.

“Who are you to demand such a thing of me?” I retorted, “Such accusations do not go lightly in these parts.”

“I am Mr. Edward C. Covey, owner of the Bluestone Creek Plantation in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. It is known that you provide shelter for negro slaves. You are in possession of two of my most prized slaves, Roger and Moll. I have been in pursuit since they took off three months ago. Their trail leads onto your land. I command you to turn over my property!”

“Which Negroes could you possibly be talking about? I have never met any negroes with such names,” I mused.

With that perceived insolence on my part, Mr. Covey ordered his men to take me outside.

Before I tell you what happened next, allow me to let you in on the character of Mr. Covey. His reputation as an unusually cruel and harsh slave master was known far and wide. But his tactics were not of his own originality, no, he was tutored by a Mr. Lynch, who was an infamous slave owner who boasted that he could break any negro no matter how stubborn or stupid. He was held in high regard by his peers for these unique abilities.

Lynch’s methods were so effective that he was often called upon to visit neighboring plantations to “train” slave owners. In other cases, slaves would be sent to his plantation to be broken. These unfortunate souls would wind up in this tortuous habitat for a year or more before being sent back to their original owner. I’m sure Mr. Lynch extracted a handsome fee for his services.

Covey also was well-respected among his peers for his prowess. His credentials exceeded that of being a mere slave trainer, he also was a professor of religion, along with being a charter member and highly esteemed elder of the Methodist church. However, men of such high station in the church were regarded among slaves as the worst of the worst. Under that shell of righteousness was a seething pit of rage that easily spewed out their scorching hypocrisy upon their slaves. Elsewhere in their communities, these men were mild-mannered gentlemen.

Covey’s tactics went beyond brutality. He used psychological methods as well. Slaves who came to my camp told me stories of Covey crawling on his hands and knees through a cornfield then springing up right in their midst and screaming, “Ah Ha! Hurry up now! Get on!” Consequently, he was known as “the snake”.  Other times he would jump out from behind a tree, a bale of hay, a horse trough – one never knew where he could be lurking. This element of surprise served him well in gaining control. His skillful use of deception rounded out his repertoire of manipulation.

Now a little background on Covey’s mentor, Mr. Lynch. Not much was known about this man. None of the slaves even knew his first name. But tales of his brutality went far and wide. I won’t go into the details of the atrocities that this man inflicted upon his victims. His name does not deserve the use of my words. I will say, however, that his last name has gone down in history as the origin of the term, “lynch”.

For the sake of some who might wonder, there is a difference between lynching and hanging. The latter is done under the cloak of justice. The former is the very opposite. Justice cannot come near when a lynching is underway, banned by the frenzy of the mob, it can only stand silent while the innocent cry out.

All this that I have just told you about Edward C. Covey and Mr. Lynch, is information that I have picked up from many hours of reading over your shoulders. One source that was very fruitful was from the writings of Frederick Douglass. I don’t know how many of you know this, but this great orator and former slave was here in Hudson in the year 1854 to give the commencement speech at Western Reserve College. He titled it, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered”. The essence of his message that day – oh, and by the way, I was there – I couldn’t help myself, I had to look over his shoulder – the essence concerned the challenge that the American School of Ethnology had been promoting during those years, namely that all men were not created equal. The founders of this ideology were three scientists who wrote a very popular book of its day entitled, “Types of Mankind”. One was a medical doctor who also was a slave owner who performed experiments on his slaves and had a strong belief that Negroes were inferior.

In the text of their book, they argued that racial groups were in fact, separate species with differences so distinct that one could arrange them in a hierarchical order. I won’t go further on this topic because it doesn’t deserve our attention, but I will say this as a man with a certain degree of common sense: if the races were indeed separate species, then there could be no mixing of them, in other words, a cat and a dog cannot reproduce, but humans of any color, size or shape can produce perfectly beautiful children.

Frederick Douglass, as you can imagine, dismantled this ridiculous premise of racial inequality in his commencement speech. His eloquence of argument was not easily refuted. As a fellow Hudsonite and a former abolitionist, I am so proud to say that I was in the presence of Mr. Frederick Douglass that day.

Talking about that day with Mr. Douglass is gratifying indeed, but there is another part of my story that carries through many more years of Hudson’s history.

The night when I was lynched there were a few other slaves at my camp along with Roger and Moll. These are the slaves that ran into the woods. Among them was a slave by the name of William Branch. I always wondered what happened to him. There was something unforgettable about his character, maybe it was his distinctive baritone voice, but no, there was much more about him than just his voice. He had a remarkable sense of humor and found it easy to make light of any situation. He had the other slaves at the camp in stitches all day long!  I felt compelled to search out his story. Yesterday, I finally found it out.

As is my habit, I was wandering through town in the evening, trying to decide which house looked most inviting for a night of literary adventure. As I floated south on N. Main with the intention of first meeting some of my friends at the old Brewster Mansion on Aurora St., I first took a turn down Owen Brown St. I was immediately drawn to #24. I’m not sure if it was the familiar voice I heard or the alluring glow surrounding the house. I paused mid-air across the street so I could get a visual on it. Then I heard the voice again. Yes, I said to myself, I know that voice, why it’s the distinctive drawl of William Branch! I just know it!

“William, is that you?” I whispered from across the street.

“Frederick? Frederick Brown?” he asked in response.

“Over here, William, I’m at the top of the oak tree.”

I invited William to the gathering at the Brewster house. The other ghosts were delighted to learn that he had moved back to Hudson after spending the past 100 years at the Cleveland Home for Colored People. I hadn’t heard that Mr. James Ellsworth had arranged for his stay there when Willliam fell upon hard times in his later years. His fourth wife had absconded with his entire savings and left him destitute. Mr. Ellsworth kindly saw to it that William had a comfortable life for the remainder of his days. To tell the story of William’s four wives would require an entire evening, not to mention all the other stories in between, such as how he happened to move to Hudson as a free man after the Civil War and become a builder of fine homes! But be assured, we’ll get to that someday.

“Tell me, William, what happened that night after I was lynched?”

In his beloved baritone voice, he related how the four of them hid in the woods within earshot of the camp. William, in fact, had a bird’s eye view from a small opening in the hollowed out tree he was hiding in. He saw Covey’s men drag me to the grand old elm that stood at the far corner of the clearing. Juliette and the children were close behind, screaming, throwing stones, doing all they could to stop the intrusion.

In an instant, William said that I was strung up on the nearest branch. He didn’t know who was more worked up, the dogs or the men. They were whooping and hollering around my swaying dead body as if they were out of their minds.

In the mania of the moment, Covey found the shackles that Roger had left behind and raised them to the sky in a gesture of hateful determination, screaming that he would find his negroes if it was the last thing he ever did. Just then a bolt of lightening came thundering through the clear night sky directly striking the shackles!

Covey’s entire body lit up with a glow that must have been seen for miles! As he fell backward William heard him scream, “Over my dead body!”

William finished by saying that he had moved back to his house on Owen Brown St. just yesterday because he had heard that Covey’s ghost had returned looking for revenge upon our town. William vowed to lead the charge in this ghostly battle soon to come! With one accord that night at the Brewster house, we rose up in solidarity, knowing that our collected goodness would triumph over this evil.

~

Oh, before I go, could some of you please find a few books on famous old battle plans? We’ll need to do some studying. Just leave them on your night stands. We know where to find you.

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About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Slavery, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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