Retracing route to freedom Distance: A Denver woman, hoping to raise money and awareness, is running the path runaway slaves took to Canada.

August 06, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Essie Garrett is running as if she were seeking her freedom.

The 51-year-old Denver resident is jogging 25 miles a day, retracing the route of runaway slaves to raise money for charity and awareness about the Underground Railroad. The brutal trek -- which began Aug. 1 in Harriet Tubman's birthplace of Bucktown and will conclude in St. Catharines, Ontario, on Aug. 20 -- has included stops at historic sites. Yesterday, the ultramarathon runner toured the Hampton Mansion in Towson.

"For years our history has been denied not just to black people, but to all people," Garrett said yesterday as she stood outside of the Georgian-style mansion. "This is important, 200 years of important."

Garrett has run long distances before. In 1981, she began running for local charities. Since then, she has raised more than a million dollars, her supporters say. The idea of replicating the race for freedom that slaves made to Canada occurred to Garrett last year during a run from Denver to Nebraska.

"I saw men with wheeled wagons and oxen, reliving the old Oregon Trail with their families," Garrett said. "I said to a friend, 'We as black people can be so ashamed to think of our ancestors as slaves, but we need to do something like this.' I decided to retrace Harriet Tubman's trails."

That proved difficult, Garrett said, because Tubman's escape routes were so secretive. Garrett and others mapped a route that Tubman might have taken.

Using her skills as a guide, Tubman, with the help of abolitionists, led thousands of runaway slaves to freedom.

During the early morning hours, Garrett runs briskly while a friend drives the camper where she sleeps at night. Jogging in those early morning hours puts her in touch with "a sadness that comes over you when you think how one man can hold another as a slave for generations," she said.

Friends take digital pictures, which are used for daily updates of a Web site that is being closely followed by Denver schoolchildren studying about the Underground Railroad in preparation for Garrett's return.

In the afternoon Garrett, an adult-education instructor, visits historic sites, learning as she educates.

Yesterday, she strolled the rooms of the Hampton Mansion as Park Ranger William Curtis told the history of what was once one of the grandest houses in the country. Wearing a purple T-shirt, moccasins, blue denim overalls, and a purple and black bandanna tied around her knee-length braids, Garrett touched the bell that was used to call slaves for service.

She also visited the slave quarters across the road from the mansion, and stood in a small house where slaves were forced to live.

She shook her head sadly when Curtis explained that officials had no way of knowing exactly how many blacks lived on the estate because older slaves were not considered valuable "property" and not listed in the records.

"I know I would have been a runaway," Garrett said. "I could not have lived like this."

Lenwood Johnson, a planner with Baltimore County who helped to organize a tour of Catonsville for Garrett, said the county was a "hotbed for the Underground Railroad" because of the large number of Methodist abolitionists, black freed men and the proximity to Pennsylvania's Quaker community, which opposed slavery.

Matthew Johnson, whose Havre de Grace company ATour conducts historic tours, shared the story of his great-great-grandparents Milkey and Seth Winder. The couple, who were slaves on the Hampton estate, were given away as a wedding gift in the 1820s, he said.

"My family has a personal connection to this place," he said.

As she retraces the escape route, motorists honk and wave, Garrett said. But her one wish, Garrett said, is that people remember the pain of slavery -- and the triumph of freedom.

"There were those to whom freedom was more important than life and those who died so that others could be free," Garrett said. "Once you have freedom of the mind, you cannot be enslaved anywhere else."

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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