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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

Running man image from workshop poster

The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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The Underground Railroad (XHTML)

The Underground Railroad
 
Thoughts suggested upon hearing a Lecture delivered by Edwin H.
 
Coates,[1] at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y.[2]
 
 
 
By Cecilia Devyr
 
 
 
Were its directors monied kings
Who buy the statesman from his trust?
Or politicians of the rings
That chain the Nation in the dust?
Nay, they were Men and Women too,
Whose souls were roused by slavery’s crimes;
God’s inspiration thrilled them through,
And nerved them for those dangerous times.
They had no leaders and no plan
Save that which reached them from above;
‘Twas love to God and love to man
That made their work effective prove.
On them no Congress e’er bestowed
In bounteous boons the public lands,
And no appropriations flowed
To them through great official hands.
They had their Charter from the Lord;
Their bonds were sacred in His sight;
But slavery’s base and hireling horde
Encompassed them with watchful might.
The law, but it was law indeed,
And not infringement bold and strong?
Can a Republic plant the seed
That bears the bitter fruits of wrong?
They called it law – the cruel code
That gave to slavery its desire;
They called it law, until its load
Exploded in rebellion fire.
It was the proud aggressor’s will,
And not the Nation’s own decree;
Her olden edict glitters still,
That all are equal born, and free,
A sword of state that vengeance flamed,
Dark prison walls that hugged their gloom,
Fines bloodhounds, – tyrannies unnamed –
Combined to work for Freedom’s doom.
But up and down through every State
This grand, mysterious railroad wound;
Its baffled foes in rage and hate
Declared that it was Underground.
For through the solitude and crowd
It was concealed from selfish eyes;
‘Twas like the pillar and the cloud,
It guided and it wrought disguise.
Who saw the fire that moved the car?
Who knew the signal of alarm?
They passed it close, to seek afar,
Whose hearts were brooding aught of harm.
Oft from his hut, through storm and rain,
Came forth some ancient, tottering slave,
To be the foremost on the train,
The flying fugitive to save.
It always bore its trembling freight
Through shadows of the darkest night,
And cleft the folded glooms of fate
With but the North Star for a light.
No gladness, only tears and prayers
And anguish passed along that road;
Wild, maddening fears and crushing cares,
That sent the simple hearts to God.
The train that sped the slave away
Through solitudes and busy marts
Still rolled its wheels by night and day
On Abolition hearts.
They knew its weight, they knew its strain,
And nobly kept their solemn pledge
To bear the burden and the pain,
And be for God the opening wedge.
A future outline, rough and dim,
Grave bodings round the bondsman thrown,
But childlike faith sufficed for him;
He felt, he knew, the yet unknown;
For e’en friend Whittier ne’er divined
The end, how distant nor how nigh;
But said with firm prophetic mind
That “Every wrong shall die;
For laws of changeless justice bind
Oppressor with oppressed,
And close as sin and suffering joined,
We march to fate abreast.”
O! as we read these words that gleam,
And view that miracle – the Past,
We know that God with even beam
Shall mete our measure at the last;
For when the South her judgment bore,
Did East and West and North escape?
She had the streaming crimson gore,
And they the sable crape. 
Both symbolize the parted breath
F ghastly soldiers on the field,
Who died when slavery met its death;
When cannon-balls the compact sealed.
And still with Whitter, our trust
O’er sin and sorrow rises high;
“We only know that God is just,
And every wrong shall die.”[3]
Toil on, brave workers, “Mind the light;”[4]
The Orient flashes o’er the sky;
By that great victory, won at night,
Take courage – “Every wrong shall die.”
 
 
 
 


[1] Edwin H. Coates was a well-known Philadelphia abolitionist and operated an Underground Railroad station at Sixth and Cherry Streets. After the Civil War, he was a popular speaker. 
[2] Site of the historic Mount Lebanon Shaker community, established in 1787.
[3] Fragment quoted from John Greenleaf Whittier, “Song of the Negro Boatmen,” lines 59-60. The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1892) 269.
[4] Fragment quoted from Whittier, “The Shadow and the Light,” citing St. Augustine, Soliloquies, Book 7. Whittier, Poetical Works, 234.