On June 1, a group of people left the Nebraska City Post Office to embark on a 527-mile journey to Chicago to retrace the steps of two slaves who escaped from their Nebraska City, Neb., owner.
Arlington High School history teacher Barry Jurgensen led the group from the post office, which is where slaveowner Stephen Nuckolls residence used to be located. While many people thought he was crazy for wearing pants, Mayhew Cabin Volunteer Director Bill Hayes was one local resident who began and ended with the group. Even though Hayes didn’t walk the entire stretch, he did walk about 25 miles from Nebraska City to Tabor, Iowa, during the first day and met up with the group in Oak Park, Ill., July 2 to finish the last nine to 10 miles into Chicago.
“It was just for me, both the beginning and the end, just surreal,” Hayes said. “I’m always one that likes to go to these places to see where these things happened. If you talk to my wife and kids, we usually have to make some kind of historical stop to things like that. It’s just always interesting to think about that this actually took place here.”
The Walk Forever Free journey was a fundraiser for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which is an Atlanta-based charity dedicated to fighting against human sex trafficking and provides educational initiatives in schools and communities. Jurgensen said human sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery and the goal was to raise $25,000. According to the Walk Forever Free Facebook page, that goal was achieved.
Teenagers Eliza Grayson and Celia were the two slaves who had escaped from Nuckolls in the late-1850s by use of the Underground Railroad. With the help of caucasian and African Americans, the two did escape safely to Chicago as Nuckolls continued to persistently pursue them for years.
According to the Walk Forever Free Facebook page, once the duo made it to Chicago Celia seemed to disappear from history and her whereabouts are unknown. Eliza, however, began working in a brothel in Chicago were she confided to another woman about her escape. The woman then told a man, who then sent word back to Nuckolls about Eliza’s whereabouts. Eliza was arrested and detained in an armory, and Nuckolls then traveled to Chicago to retrieve her.
“Once word had spread of Eliza’s capture, the black and white populace in the surrounding area rallied together to help her escape,” a Facebook entry stated. “Many good people of Chicago, both black and white, worked together to help Eliza escape her enslavement, which should inspire us today that slavery can only be defeated when we, as one people, fight the injustice of slavery today.”
Hayes said after Jurgensen’s class had done some research and had discovered that the armory building in which Eliza was arrested and detained at is on the corner of Adams and Franklin in Chicago.
“As it just so happens what is there is called the Willis Tower, but most of us would know it as the Sears Tower,” Hayes said.
During the journey, Jurgensen retold Eliza and Celia’s story to many communities that the group stopped in a long the way. Hayes drove up to some of those stops to listen.
Hayes recalled his first day of walking. He said the first nine to 10 miles weren’t too bad, but his legs were getting fatigued. When the group had reached its first pit stop in Percival, Iowa, they rested and decided to spend half-an-hour at the Blanchard Home Site Cemetery near Percival to visit Dr. Ira Blanchard’s burial site. Blanchard was an abolitionist whom, according to historical documents, used his residence as a safe house and he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Just as Eliza and Celia had to rely on the help from other people, the Walk Forever Free group had to do the same. Hayes said the group did get a ride to the cemetery and drivers turned on their flasher signals as the group walked along Highway 2 east to Percival. From Percival, the group headed to Thurman, Iowa.
“I would say halfway to Thurman is when I could really start to feel it,” Hayes said.
The group was then met by Chuck and Kathy Douglass of Tabor, Iowa, who offered them a horse-drawn wagon ride to Tabor. The Douglasses also helped out with dinner for the group once they reached their final stop for the day in Tabor. The group rested in the city park’s shelter near the Todd House. Hayes said he laid down in the grass to cool off when the group was asked to head over to the The Main Stage and Performing Arts Center. Being totally exhausted, Hayes jokingly asked if they were walking there.
“I will admit that I had gone out walking for a couple of miles each day for two weeks before, but no training whatsoever,” he said.
Hayes didn’t stay overnight in Tabor with the rest of the group. His wife, Sena Hayes, picked him up and they drove back to Nebraska City.
Hayes learned many new things about Eliza and Celia’s journey and he also networked with more people. He met Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives founder and President Kenneth B. Morris Jr., who is a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, at a Walk Forever Free presentation at the Hitchcock House in Lewis, Iowa.
After Hayes finished with work on July 1, he and his wife had decided to drive all through the night to meet up with the group to finish the last leg of the journey from Oak Park to Chicago. Hayes finished the walk again in his pants and he was honored to be a part of the journey.
“It was kind of surreal that (Jurgensen had) just walked all of this way in just over 30 days,” Hayes said. “It’s just amazing that we were there in the moment.”
Hayes said this was the first time he’s ever participated in a walk like this and he felt inspired to do it because of the walk’s story having historic ties to Nebraska City.
He initially had met Jurgensen in December 2010 after he attended an Underground Railroad conference in Topeka, Kan. At the conference, Hayes met Iowa State Historic Preservation office archaeologist Doug Jones, whom connected Hayes to Jurgensen. Jones knew that Jurgensen and his history honors class were working on research for the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program sites and Jurgensen was trying to expand knowledge of the program and the number of Network to Freedom sites in Nebraska. Jurgensen called Hayes and asked him to give a presentation to his class about the Underground Railroad in Nebraska and sites that could be linked to the Network to Freedom program. Hayes said soon a grant was drafted to erect signs in front of the Nebraska City Post Office, Old Freighter’s Museum and Camp Creek Cemetery to link them to the Network to Freedom program.
Hayes said some of life’s greatest gifts are the simple encounters.
“It just so happened that they had that conference in Topeka and I was able to go and meet these guys,” he said. “I am a big believer in fate and things happening for a reason.”
For more information about Walk Forever Free, the history of Eliza and Celia and about sex trafficking, go to the Facebook page at http://bit.ly/1PjSOLZ.