Make Freedom Ring!

Image by Tissen Vadim

Nancy could not have been Blacker. That is what she was called, “Black Nancy,” a description she loved and hated simultaneously. Depending upon who was calling her Black made a significant distinction. She was born in 1850 in a little township, Roxboro, in North Carolina, just north of Durham. She had been separated from the rest of her biological family and never could recollect anything about her parents or siblings—if she ever had any. She was reared by a White family, considered to be “poor Whites,” until she was 11 and discovered they were only lacking in the abundance of material things. Their richness rested in love, tolerance of others, and friendship. Nancy’s family treated her with equal respect.

Nancy felt the love, and most importantly, she felt safe.

Until one day she remembers walking toward her home and feeling immediately that something was not quite right.

The closer she got to the front of the house, the more it screamed “empty.” She slowly opened the front door. Everything and everyone was not there. Her eyes affixed to some papers lying on the floor. An oversized white quartz rock sat on top of the papers, which were fluttering and trying to take flight. Nancy recognized the rock as the same one her family would use to prop open the front door when a cool breeze was welcome, not just to enter but also to blow as intensely as it wished. Unbeknownst to Nancy at the time, that quartz would be the only recognizable item that attached herself to all the people she loved.

Nancy was fortunate. She could read and write. Her adopted family included her in reading and writing sessions. She bent over, and with the heavy quartz in one hand and the note in the other, Nancy’s eyes filled so quickly with tears that to this day, she never knew what the last sentence read.

All Nancy could read was the following:

Dear sweet child, we are leaving to head west for better lodgings and a better living. We always knew that this day would come, and yet we could never find the words or the right time to share with you our plans. The talk is that all Blacks will soon be free. It may take some years, but it will happen. We would not take you with us, for strangers would not understand that you are ours and might take you from us, especially when they found out you do not have “free papers” to back us up. So to spare you and us, too, such a heartbreak, we are moving on, and we are certain you can take care of yourself. It would be painful if you were taken away from us as we head westward, not knowing if you were treated fairly—or not.

Nancy, attached are your “free papers.” We have been working on this plan for some time now, along with Attorney Thomas. You know him from meeting. He has made it possible for you to never be sold, mistreated, or taken away from your home. This house is now all yours. Attorney Thomas also wrote up a deed for you in your name. Nancy, you are a free person. No one can take away what is rightfully yours. We never told you how you came to us. You must and should know.

Your mother was a runaway slave. She was pregnant with you when we found the both of you lying in the back-forty south field under a haystack. Had it not been for your crying so loudly, we may have never known the both of you at all. Your mother, Sallie Beth, and you hid out in our home until your mother suffered a terrible accident as she was running from patrollers looking for any runaways. She fell into Hyco Lake, not far from the farm. She could not swim. One of our neighbors told us about your mom’s accident. Look just beyond the main garden, and you will find a marking with Sallie Beth’s name on it and the dates 1830–1853. That is your mother’s final resting place. You were never told before now for our fear someone may have known her to be a runaway, and figure you too were property and not free, as we said you were.

Your mom was always fearful that one day she would be found and taken back to South Carolina, and you too would have been taken from her and sold. Your mother would not say if you had any brothers or sisters. Only that your father was a freeman and could not marry her because she was not a free woman. She called him John-Lee. Before your mother’s passing, we promised her that you would always be safe with us and treated with love. We have fulfilled that promise.

Nancy, please understand that our decision was made from love for you and to honor your mother’s dying wish. You can be free as long as you remain here, in Roxboro. No one here will doubt your freedom. No one here will ever know you are the daughter of a runaway. No one here will take your land away from you. If you are ever in need of anything, Attorney Thomas is a Friend, just like we are—Quakers. He knows the entire story and you can trust him, as a Friend. Remember how we started each day? Asking to be always held in the Light, and trusting the Teacher Within to guide us? Well now, dear daughter, you are still amongst Friends who will hold you in the Light—always . . .

Nancy could not take in another word. She dropped the rock, and the papers fell at her feet.

Nick Tiemeyer on Unsplash

Nancy was only 11 when she was faced with being on her own. That night, Nancy recalls crying herself to sleep. Waking up to only hope everything before now was just a dream—an awfully bad dream.

Reality shook her to the core. It was morning. A new day. “The chickens, the chickens!” she screamed. They need to be fed, eggs gathered, along with some wood to start a fire for breakfast. Nancy’s tears slipped down her dark, black face and onto a hot skillet as she attempted to scramble eggs with some apples. Nancy went through the motions as if her family were still there. She could not eat. The hogs had a hot breakfast that morning. Then she thought of her mother, a face she could not recollect. Born of a woman who so desperately wanted freedom, she would rather run to an unknown destination than stay in a familiar place. “The unknown,” says Nancy, “this all is unknown to me, right now.”

Without moving her lips, Nancy repeated to herself, I am alone. I am all alone.

“If my Momma can find a way out of no way to make freedom ring, I can get on with making sure the ringing never stops!”

Weeks passed by before Nancy would venture out beyond her property’s gate. Eventually, she needed to go into town to pick up some essentials. Along the way, her feet guided her to Attorney Thomas’s office, located in the center of town near the county seat’s courthouse. He helped the Blacks and Whites in Roxboro. No one seemed to have a problem with Blacks and Whites sitting together in his office, waiting for him with or without appointments.

“Nancy, I’ve been expecting you! What took you so long? Come on in! Are you okay? It must have been quite a shock for you to find your folks gone so abruptly. We—and I do mean we—are hoping you can find a way to understand and accept your family’s decision. Have you?”

Nancy, being all of 11, was considered tall for her age. She sat down slowly as Attorney Thomas continued to speak. Finally, she replied.

“Mr. Thomas, I am somewhat still confused, and yet as each day passes by, I can find my way back to some sense of normalcy. The chores on the farm and our animals still need tending to, and I must not let them down because of my situation. As confusing as it is, it doesn’t matter to the hogs, chickens, mules, and cows. The garden always needs weeding, and I did learn how to can the fruits and vegetables from our orchards and the garden. I think I am prepared for this coming winter, in case I cannot make it to town to buy some food and keep myself warm until spring. And then in the spring, I will need to start the planting and start all over again. So, you see Mr. Thomas, it ain’t me I’m worried about. It’s the animals that need caring for and the garden and crops that must be tended to or, or . . .” 

Nancy broke down and wept loudly. Mr. Thomas managed to leap quickly before she collapsed from sitting on a chair not conducive for weeping children.

“Now now, Nancy. Just think about all you just said. Your crops, your livestock, your garden: you are a property owner and not someone’s property to be owned. I had to adjust your age a bit, and it would be helpful not to let anyone know you are only going on 12. No one around here would know the difference between 12 and 18!”

Nancy managed a smile and her crying stopped. “You are right about that, Mr. Thomas. You must have been walking near the schoolhouse when we were doing our multiplication tables. My classmates couldn’t get past the twos.”

“That is right,” says Mr. Thomas, “you just keep finding a sense of humor in all of this, and you will discover yourself feeling much better about everything. You just hold onto your being a free person. There is a price for everything, you know. Nothing ever comes easy, nothing that is anything of worth anyways. Hold on to knowing that no one can claim you as their property. I will see to that! I am a Friend. You too are a Friend. We, Friends, are believers of the Light and of way opening. Now, Nancy, tell me what you know of openings.”

Nancy looked up and knew straight away that Mr. Thomas was having a Quaker worshiping moment with her—right there in his office. 

“Openings are opportunities given to us when we seek the Light, the Teacher Within,” said Nancy. 

“That’s right!” said Attorney Thomas. “Would you say that your mother saw a ‘way opening’ when she was pregnant and ran away from those who thought they owned her? She saw an opening, and because of that, here you are in my office with free papers, land, and a home of your own. All because your mother saw an opportunity and took it for what it was worth. Nancy, your mother never believed that freedom would willingly ring for her and hers. Nancy, your momma made freedom ring! She had an opportunity for her and her unborn child to be free people. Nancy, would you say that you are the ‘answered prayer’ that your mother wanted so desperately, and prayed for? Would you also say that the family that found the both of you helpless and defenseless were ‘openings,’ too?”

He continued, “Yes, this is all abrupt, and you did not see abandonment coming. Now that you have had time to think about what has happened, can you now see your mother’s sacrifice and determination were worth it? Why Nancy, you and I are equal under man’s law and the Divine’s mercy. Nancy, you have never been owned by anyone.”

Nancy, in her hog-calling voice, bellowed, “If my Momma can find a way out of no way to make freedom ring, I can get on with making sure the ringing never stops!”

Deborah Ramsey

Deborah Ramsey is a native of Baltimore, Md. She is executive director of a nonprofit, UniFIED Efforts, Inc., that serves underprivileged school-age children in West Baltimore’s Penn-North community. She is also a part of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership speakers bureau and was a recent grant recipient of the Open Society Institute–Baltimore’s Community Fellowship program. She is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore.

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