Friday, April 11, 2014

John Hunn, the Underground Railroad, and the Puzzle of Human Nature

John Hunn (1818-1894) puzzles with his goodness. Why, amidst a world of people bent on their own ends, caught up in their own problems, do people regularly appear like John Hunn?

Hunn was a Quaker farmer who lived near Middletown, Delaware, and an "engineer" on the Underground Railroad. One of the main Underground Railroad routes, the one traveled by Harriet Tubman, crossed from Maryland's Eastern Shore into central Delaware and thence up through Wilmington to Philadelphia and beyond. Middletown was smack in the middle of this route, and Hunn  helped hundreds and possibly thousands of people escape from slavery. He was tried and convicted three times for his work. After he was fined $10,000 each for two counts of aiding escaping slaves, it was hinted to him that his fines might be waved if he promised to stay out of the business in the future. He refused, vowing "never to withhold a helping hand from the down-trodden in their hour of distress." As a result his farm and home were seized and sold.

After the Civil War a former Underground Railroad operator named William Still began collecting stories about the work, which he eventually published as a book. He wrote to Hunn, who was then living in a freedmen's settlement on the South Carolina Sea Islands, and asked him to tell the story of his service in the cause. Hunn responded:
I was twenty-seven years-old when I engaged in the Underground Rail Road business, and I continued therein diligently until the breaking up of that business by the Great Rebellion. I then came to South Carolina to witness the uprising of a nation of slaves into the dignity and privileges of mankind.

Nothing can possibly have the same interest to me. Therefore, I propose to remain where this great problem is in the process of solution; and to give my best efforts to its successful accomplishment. In this matter the course that I have pursued thus far through life has given me solid satisfaction. I ask no other reward for any efforts made by me in the cause, than to feel that I have been of use to my fellow-men. No other course would have brought peace to my mind; then why should any credit be awarded to me; or how can I count any circumstance that may have occurred to me, in the light of a sacrifice? If a man pursues the only course that will bring peace to his own mind, is he deserving of any credit therefore ? Is not the reward worth striving for at any cost? Indeed it is, as I well know.

Would it be well for me, entertaining such sentiments, to sit down and write an account of my sacrifices? I think not. Therefore please hold me excused. I am anxious to see thy book, and will forward the price of one as soon as I can ascertain what it is.
In response to a second plea from Still, Hunn consented to recount a few stories of his work. One concerned a woman named Molly who escaped from bondage in Cecil County, Maryland. She made it as far as John Alston's farm near Middletown before she was captured by "man-hunters" and taken to New Castle Jail. Her owner drove up to New Castle in his wagon and claimed her:
She was hand-cuffed, and, her feet being tied together, she was placed in the wagon. Before she left the jail, the wife of the sheriff gave her a piece of bread and butter, which her master kicked out of her hand, and swore that bread and butter was too good for her. After this act her master took a drink of brandy and drove off.

He stopped at a tavern about four miles from New Castle and took another drink of brandy. He then proceeded to Odessa, then called Cantwell's Bridge, and got his dinner and more brandy, for the day was a cold one. He had his horse fed, but gave no food to his human chattel, who remained in the wagon cold and hungry. After sufficient rest for himself and horse he started again. He was now twelve miles from home, on a good road, his horse was gentle, and he himself in a genial mood at the recovery of his bond-woman. He yielded to the influence of the liquor he had imbibed and fell into a sound sleep. Molly now determined to make another effort for her freedom. She accordingly worked herself gradually over the tail board of the wagon, and fell heavily upon the frozen ground. The horse and wagon passed on, and she rolled into the bushes, and waited for deliverance from her bonds. This came from a colored man who was passing that way. As he was neither a priest nor a Levite, he took the rope from her feet and guided her to a cabin near at hand, where she was kindly received. Her deliverer could not take the hand-cuffs off, but promised to bring a person, during the evening, who could perform that operation. He fulfilled his promise, and brought her that night to my house, which was in sight of the one whence she had been taken to New Castle Jail. I had no fear for her safety, as I believed that her master would not think of looking for her so near to the place where she had been arrested. Molly remained with us nearly a month; but, seeing fugitives coming and going continually, she finally concluded to go further North. . . . 
Molly eventually made it to Canada and safety. One thing to note about this account is that while the white participants (Alston, Hunn, and others) are named, the "colored" remain anonymous. No one wrote down the names of the man who found Molly by the side of the road, the owner of the cabin where she was sheltered, or the blacksmith who struck off her chains. Historians think that most of the aid given to those who ran for liberty was given by blacks; in fact people at the time seem to have assumed that black people would always render whatever aid they could. Slave-owners saved their worst anger for white men like Hunn, who seemed to them to be traitors to their race; white engineers like Hunn also drew special praise for their willingness to help those who were not of their own people.

But to Hunn there was no his people or your people, there were only people. When he saw men and women who needed help, he gave it. He lost his property and livelihood, but what he gained was worth much more to him than land, wealth or fame.

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