By Andy O’Brien
In 1837, a young African American man named Leonard Black made up his mind to emancipate himself. After several years of brutal treatment at the hands of his enslavers, the 17-year old set out on foot from Maryland with nothing but 75 cents in his pocket and the clothes on his back.
Born in 1820, Leonard Black suffered severe trauma throughout his childhood. The youngest of six children, he was sold to a carpenter and separated from his parents and siblings at the age of 6. While he was away from his family, his mother and sister were sold to enslavers in New Orleans and his four brothers were forced to work for other white people. Over the next several years, Black was transferred to several different masters, each more cruel than the last. He was whipped, branded with searing hot iron, beaten with a shovel, and had his front teeth knocked out by an iron-toothed rake.
As Black later recalled in his 1842 memoir, The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black: A Fugitive from Slavery, he felt “owned like a cow or horse.” He was forced to wear rags, without even a pair of trousers. He suffered constant hunger due to his meager provisions. One day, he and an enslaved teenage girl named Eliza were so hungry that they snuck into their master’s garden to eat a watermelon.
“For that offense,” Black later wrote, “our cruel master stripped us and tied us both together and whipped us till the blood ran down on the ground in a puddle.”
Black was briefly reunited with his four brothers when he was returned to his old master, but shortly three of his brothers ran away. He made up his mind to follow them north. He took the chance to escape one Sunday when his master thought he was in church. Black soon found himself fleeing on foot from slave catchers and their bloodhounds, through forests and swamps. At times, he had to physically fight off men who sought to turn him into his enslaver for a reward. Finally, after arriving on a steamship from New York to Providence, Rhode Island, Black walked the final 40 miles, all night, to Boston and immediately began looking for his brothers.
After asking around, Black met an African American woman named Sarah Taylor, whose husband John R. Taylor ran a boarding house that served as a station on the Underground Railroad. As Black recalled, “I asked her if she knew anything about my brothers. She said a George Black had passed through Boston, and lived in Portland (Maine). She said, ‘Come home with me, for I perceive you have been a slave,’ I went and boarded with her for $3 a week. I got a gentleman to write to Portland to Mr. George Black, the man I thought was my brother. He supposed I was one of his brothers, he having three brothers in the West Indies. He invited me to come to Portland, and offered to pay my fare. I was very ragged and dirty. Mrs. Taylor wrapped me up in Mr. Taylor’s cloak, and sent me to Portland. Mr. Black sent down his man to the steamboat to get my trunk; but instead of having a trunk, I had scarcely any clothes to my back.”
Unfortunately, when he arrived at George H. Black’s home at the corner of Milk and Exchange streets in Portland, he learned that George was not his brother. Originally from the West Indies, George H. Black (1800-1842) was a Baptist minister and abolitionist activist who owned a clothes cleaning business. While he didn’t know anything about Leonard’s brothers, he was very kind to the young refugee. Mrs. Black made him new clothes to replace his rags so he could wear something presentable to church. The Blacks gave Leonard free room and board for the year while he attended school.
“Mrs. Black, his wife, was more than a mother to me, and the whole family were very kind to me,” Leonard Black wrote.
The following year George Black helped him get a job as a farmhand in Bridgeton, where he worked for a season. After that, he moved back in with the Blacks to work for abolitionist businessman George Ropes at his manufacturing company in Portland. When George H. Black moved the family to Boston to take a position as pastor at the historic African Meeting House in East Cambridge in 1838, Leonard followed them – he had fallen in love with the Blacks’ daughter Mary. Months later, they married and eventually had four children.
After the Civil War, Leonard Black moved down to Petersburg, Virginia, where he became a very popular pastor of the First Baptist Church there. On the day of his funeral in 1883, every store that employed a Black person in Petersburg closed, and more than 5,000 people attended his memorial services.
Next month this column will cover other Underground Railroad stations around Maine