I walked through the woods
leaving my life in the town behind
I was afraid of the dark
and the tight space
afraid of the unknown
I walked with my friends
we were all African American
women who wanted to be free
of Baltimore’s grasp
so we followed the call of our husbands
who had taken the journey
Everywhere was woods then
there was no escape from the trees
we had to pass
through the woods
called the Devil’s woods
as we headed North through Buffalo
We believed in the Devil
a white slavemaster who lived in the trees
with big eyes and a laughing red face
the Devil followed us
through his woods
because he lighted our way with his gleaming red eyes
and cleared a trail with his arrow-shaped tail
The woods were endless
so we needed rest
and a way
to stay inside
because the cold had come
and we could travel
We all agreed
with the Devil
to give up our souls
for a cabin of wooden logs
something that was part
of the Devil
for something that was part
So we rested in the cabin
and warmed our forgotten souls
until a while later
when a fierce white man
on a wild white horse appeared
at our door
He dragged us to where the Devil
was standing like an ancient oak tree
waiting for us
He said we’d taken something
that was part of him—
that was his own wood—
and now he wanted it back
to feel complete
But we weren’t ready to give the wood back
because it was still winter
time and the cold
wanting to be
He pointed to thundery clouds
at flashes of lightning
and the crack of thunder
The lightning flashed faces
of our husbands
their faces and beards
extending out as the North Wind
calling to us
this would be our fate, too
We ran back
into the log house
turning us invisible
the moment we reentered
the Devil’s space
We all whirled up to the clouds
joining the North Wind
following the route
we had set to Canada
Our bodies flew up in the sky
but our souls remained on the ground
in the Devil’s woods
This story took place in Baltimore
during the 1860s
I can tell this tale
because I was once
one of these women
heading toward Buffalo
to escape through
Adieu, Niagara! I’m off for New York,
To measure out sugar, molasses and pork,
Next year I’ll return if I crib enough cash,
And it won’t be my fault if I don’t cut a dash.
I put up at the “Cataract,” but could not stop there —
The landlord and I were too much of a pair.
The owner of the Cataract House Hotel from 1825-1845 was Whitney Pankhurst, after that by son Solon Whitney and sons-in-law James Trott and Dexter Jerauld.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Hail to thy roaring flood,
Eternal torrent ! dark Niagara , hail ! ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡How bounds my boiling blood,
As thy loud voice comes thundering on the gale,
And the tumultuous waves thy dark-brown rocks assail.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Fierce is thy thunder-shock,
As the wild waters in their madness leap ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡From the eternal rock,
Plunging and raging, with impetuous sweep,
Till on the lake’s calm breast thy boiling billows sleep.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡So terrible and strong,
Whirl maddening passions in the bondman’s breast, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Trampled and scarred by Wrong,
Ere the tired spirit finds its hallowed rest,
In Freedom’s stormless home, and glorious sunlight blessed.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Roll and roar on, wild river !
Man’s fetters cannot bind thy billows free—, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Chainless and strong forever ;
As thou hast been, thy leaping flood shall be,
Guarding, with watery wall, the land of liberty.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Glory to God on high !
Free as thy tide are my unshackled limbs ; ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And here, unawed, will I
Join the wild chorus thy mad torrent hymns,
Stirring the pictured mist that o’er thy bosom swims.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Far from the southern plains,
I’ve traced my pathway, through the sunless wild, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Spurning the hated chains
That on my heel clanked heavy, from a child,
Binding to earth the soul, degraded and defiled.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡On, by the beacon led,
That burns, unerring, in the northern sky, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡O’er the lone fields I fled,
To where thy thunder lifts its voice on high,
And to the bondman tells the land of freedom nigh.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Here, by thy foaming surge,
Back on the hated land where I was born, — ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Land of the chain and scourge, —
I pour the fires of unrelenting scorn,
And hatred that shall burn, till life’s last ray is gone.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡“Home of the true and brave,”
Where BASTARD FREEDOM broods her mongrel horde, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And on the imbruted slave
Plants the red heel, and with the life-blood poured,
Stains the fell altars, where her horrid name’s adored.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡It gave me but the chain,
The scourge, and task, and bondman’s life of woe, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And ruthless torn in twain
The holiest ties that bind us here below, —
Hearts that inwoven beat with one united flow.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Nor thus to me alone, —
But fettered millions lift their arms on high, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And shriek, and wail, and groan,
To Heaven ascending, in one fearful cry,
Bid the red bolts of wrath in hissing vengeance fly.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And yet our God shall turn,
And on this land his fiery volleys pour, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Till his fierce wrath shall burn
From far Astoria, to her eastern shore,
And from her Sable cape, to where thy waters roar.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Joy to the bondmen then,
When his right arm is laid for Justice bare, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And loud from every glen
And mountain, lit by one funereal glare,
Ascends the tyrant’s wail upon the troubled air.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Then shall thy torrent be
Their strong munition, and its bounding flood ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡A guard, to them that flee
From the Avenger of the Negro’s blood ;
Where blackness shrouds the land, where erst her glory stood.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Over thy rugged brow
Changeless and bright, the bow of promise bends, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Making the dark mist glow,
As Hope the clouds of Sorrow, when she lends
To Earth the joyous light which from her glance descends.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Eternal Priestess, thine
Is the pure baptism of the chainless free ; ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Cool on this brow of mine
Thy holy drops descend, as broad to me
Unroll the temple-gates of meek-eyed Liberty !
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Let the fell tyrant rage ;
Into thy arms my sinewy form I fling, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡And though his keel may wage
Mad warfare with thy billows, buffeting
The roaring floods with might, thou’lt guard me from his sting.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡He may not cross thy tide,
With the strong fetters of a tyrant’s power ; ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Thy waves in foaming pride
The shrieking wretch in madness would devour,
And clap their hands, and shout the bondman’s triumph hour.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡O that the Negro’s God
Would give to dust this mortal part once more, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡That o’er thy awful flood,
Swathed in the cloud-wreath dim, my soul might soar,
Exulting in the sound of thy eternal roar.
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Loud with thy thunder tone
My voice shall blend, and when this land shall rock ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡With its last earthquake groan,
My shout the tyrant’s dying shriek should mock,
And chant the victor -hymn to Ruin’s rending shock.
November 1, 1841
Source: Buckingham, Joseph Tinker. Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life. Boston: Ticknor, 1852.