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Love Stories That Transcend Bonds Of Slavery, Time

By Donna Britt
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page B01

The love stories recounted in author Betty DeRamus's new book, "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad," are more than a century old. But they still have the power to make listeners' hearts race, break -- or sing.

There's the one about John Little, a North Carolina-born runaway slave whose whip-scarred back was a spider's web of welted flesh -- and who carried his ailing wife atop it during their flight to freedom.

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There's Lear Green's story, too. The 18-year-old runaway was "round-featured" and "good-looking," according to the 1857 Baltimore Sun ad offering $150 for her return. Owned by a Fells Point businessman, Green got herself packed into a wooden chest and spent 18 hours inside it as she was shipped north by steamer to meet her fiance, an escaped barber.

Then there's the story of James and Fanny Smith, a Dickensian tale of beatings, imprisonment, remorse -- but most of all, faith.

James Smith's faith in God wasn't the "puny, soft-fleshed" type of those whose belief is the equivalent of a Sunday morning stroll, DeRamus writes. Smith's faith was muscular enough to fortify him for two decades after he shambled away from his family in chains.

Each night after his labors, the born-again Richmond area slave preached the gospel to fellow slaves, even after his master whipped him for it. Sold away from Fanny and his two children to a slave trader for refusing to stop worshiping with other bondsmen, Smith was purchased by a Georgia cotton grower who ordered his overseer to administer a 100-lash beating to discourage the slave's stubborn prayerfulness.

When the overseer later overheard Smith praying for his soul, he begged Smith's forgiveness -- and promised not to recapture him if he escaped.

So Smith ran back to Virginia, where he learned his wife had been sold. It took 22 years of jailings, beatings, searching and, yes, praying before he found Fanny in Canada, where she had fled.

What would today's youngsters make of loves as determined as Smith's and Green's? What would they think of Little's reaction when he and his still-frail wife encountered a deep river after three months traveling?

Strapping their shared belongings onto his wife's back, Little placed her atop a log and swam, stroking the water with one arm, balancing and guiding her with the other.

Such effort, sacrifice and risk in the name of love seem hard to fathom in a era in which "romance has almost fallen into disrepute," DeRamus says. "Youngsters today think it makes you a punk.

"I defy anybody to call John Little a punk."

DeRamus, a columnist at the Detroit News, will read from her book today at Howard University's bookstore and tomorrow at Karibu Books in Hyattsville. Such stories, she says, are "neglected and forgotten aspects of the black experience."

Slavery was the nation's most wide-reaching and seismic tragedy. But our understanding of it often is limited. "So-called slavery experiences are portrayed only in the bleakest of forms," DeRamus explains. "Slavery was bleak -- but it was also one of the greatest lessons in survival. Escaping slaves and slave couples displayed extraordinary creativity and courage. . . .

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