Read the true story I'm about to tell you and then visit a historical marker placed upon hallowed ground, just east of Johnsons Park at N. 17th St. and W. Fond du Lac Avenue. The marker refers to a farmhouse owned by the brave Milwaukee abolitionist Rev. Samuel Brown that was used as a safe haven by runaway slaves, the first of whom being Caroline Quarrells, one of my favorite heroines of all time.
As the story goes, Caroline was fifteen or sixteen years old in the summer of 1842, six years before Wisconsin became a state. She sewed and embroidered while waiting on her demanding St. Louis mistress hand and foot. One day in a capricious fit of pique, the mistress decided to cut off all of Caroline's beautiful long hair. As any self-respecting female can imagine, this was adequate motivation to get the heck out of town. Somehow this illiterate plucky teenager saved $100, threw a bundle of her clothes out of the window, and took off for the Mississippi to board a steamboat for Alton, Illinois. From there, abolitionists snuck her on a stagecoach bound for Milwaukee.
Caroline Quarrells, as I imagine her:
Constantly pursued by bounty hunters, Caroline was hidden by the courageous Rev. Brown in Milwaukee and then spirited away to Pewaukee, Waukesha, Spring Prairie, and parts north. In early September of 1842, Caroline crossed safely to freedom in a town established by escaped slaves called Sandwich, Ontario. After her crossing, Caroline began to cry, asking if it was possible that she had been tricked and taken back to Missouri because it appeared to her as if she were on the banks of the Mississippi, opposite St. Louis. Eventually she was convinced that she was indeed safe and free. She settled in and learned how to read, married happily three years later, and was instrumental in building the first black Baptist church in Sandwich.
Want to read more about the plucky Caroline? Check out Black Pioneers: An Untold Story by William Loren Katz or any number of other MPL titles about the Underground Railroad.
Celebrate Black History Month--it's all around you.