Gary Jenkins, who brought us Negroes to Hire, joins us again tonight with another compelling and carefully crafted documentary about Kansas, slavery and the Civil War. With Freedom Seekers: Stories from the Western Underground Railroad, Jenkins traces the history of “Bloody Kansas,” and its place in the abolitionist movement. The Kansas Territory was key in the balance of the states before the Civil War, as neighboring Missouri was a slave state, bordered by two free states, Illinois and Iowa.
Beginning with the Lane Highway, originally a route to lead Free-Soilers–anti-slavery settlers–into Kansas Territory, Jenkins follows the trail’s development as path for slaves to head towards free states and eventually Canada. The trip was not easy, there were rivers to forge, “slave seekers” who sought to return the freedom seekers for a reward, as well as Missouri Border Ruffians, U.S. Federal Marshals, and Missouri slave holders, hostile to abolition.
Underground Railroad “conductors” risked loosing their property, being jailed, or killed for assisting freedom seeking slaves, yet they shared food and shelter, even in times of hardship, with those traveling to freedom. Slave seekers were aided by federal judges who would be paid $10 for ruling that the persons of color were slaves, and only $5 for adjudicating that they were freedmen. Obviously it was in the judges’ best interest to declare anyone of color–whether free-born or freed by manumission–a slave, especially when their papers could be easily destroyed.
Tales of bravery and treachery abounded, as farmers and clergy aided the freedom seekers across prairies and rivers hiding them on their property, while Quantrill’s Raiders staged false flag operations to lure abolitionists and slaves into traps.
No story of Kansas and slavery would be complete without John Brown. He was an ardent and violent abolitionist funded by a wealthy New Yorker, who escorted slaves to freedom, inspired by a meeting with Harriet Tubman whom he called “the General.” Brown and his men were eventually captured and executed, but not before leaving a legacy of freed slaves and murdered pro-slavers.
Jenkins also reveals one of the great Kansas abolitionists, John Ritchie, who aided and guided slaves, and shot a slave catcher who entered his home to arrest him without a warrant. Ritchie was cleared of murder in that case, and continued–aided by friends and his pastor–to help slaves to freedom. After the Civil War ended (Kansas was made a state just before the war began), Ritchie carried on his belief in equality, selling land to African-Americans and founding a public school which is still operating today as the Monroe Public School.
Jenkins constructs Freedom Seekers using primary source material and scholarly research, bringing the stories to life with archival photographs and ephemera, and a group of noteworthy voices which include archaeologist Jimmy S. Johnson III, who recounts his grandmother’s story about his great grandfather, a slave named George Washington who escaped Missouri to Quindaro, Kansas, and began life anew in Mound City, where he joined the Union Army and fought in the first engagement between “Colored” troops and Confederate troops in the Civil War.
Those who conducted slaves along the Underground Railway, who gave them shelter and who fought for their freedom did not believe they were breaking laws, but rather following a higher law, one in which all men are created equal and deserve their rights and freedoms, regardless of skin color. Freedom Seekers does them justice, and celebrates the best of the American spirit.