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Why Christmas was the best time of year to escape slavery

This 1864 engraving in Harper's Weekly depicts enslaved people leaving their home to take the Underground Railroad to freedom. (Library of Congress)
5 min

It was the night before Christmas, and as Jarm would remember it later, “though cold, it was as clear and beautiful as Tennessee sky could make it.”

He stood outside the slave cabin with his enslaver’s horse, a stolen saddle full of food and a forged travel pass. He sneaked inside briefly to kiss his sleeping mother on the forehead. For her own safety and his, she couldn’t know he was about to escape.

Thus began a weeks-long journey as Jarm and a friend traveled north to Canada and freedom. They encountered suspicious White people who physically attacked them and demanded to see their passes, and sympathetic White and Black people who fed them and their horses and guided them onto an Underground Railroad they didn’t even know existed.

Though their escape was harrowing, Jarm didn’t have to deal with perhaps the greatest threat in his bid for freedom: Jarm’s enslaver, Mannasseth Logue, who was also his biological father. Nor did he have to run from a slave-catching posse called by Logue. No posse had been called because Logue didn’t know Jarm was gone.

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, claimed by Christians to be the son of God, but for enslaved African Americans, the holiday season also offered miracles of a more practical sort. It was the best time of year to escape.

There were a few reasons for this. It was often the only time of year enslaved people were given an extended break, according to the Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If they escaped at the beginning of the break, then their enslavers might not become aware of it for a week or more, when work began again and they didn’t show up, giving them a huge head start.

Plus, during their time off, many enslaved people were allowed to visit family at nearby plantations, an activity that required a “pass” from their enslavers permitting them to be on the road by themselves. If during their escape they were caught or questioned by Whites, they could use the pass to convince others to let them go.

On Christmas Eve 1854, Harriet Tubman, the fearless “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, rescued three of her brothers from the plantation near Cambridge, Md., where they were enslaved. Tubman’s brothers had attempted to escape before but had chosen to return to their wives and children. Then the family found out that the brothers’ enslaver planned to sell them just after the holidays.

The brothers had been given passes to have Christmas dinner with their mother, but they never showed up. Instead, their sister led them on a secret path to freedom.

For the second year in a row, the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge is offering a Christmas Eve walk on the site of the Thompson Farm, where the brothers were enslaved, along the first several miles of their escape route.

Renowned as a Black liberator, Harriet Tubman was also a brilliant spy

Christmas also played a role in one of the most audacious escapes in history. In 1848, William and Ellen Craft were young newlyweds in Macon, Ga., where William was enslaved as a “hired out” cabinetmaker and Ellen was an enslaved house servant to her White half-sister. Though they wanted to start a family, Ellen was terrified of being separated from her future children the way she had been separated from her mother when she was 11.

So in the days leading up to Christmas, both acquired those crucial passes from their enslavers for a few days off. Ellen, who could pass as White, cut her hair and dressed in fine men’s clothes William had purchased with his savings. She wore bandages on her face and a sling on one arm as a further disguise. Then she went to the train station and purchased two tickets north. William posed as a loyal servant tending to his injured master.

They kept up the ruse for days. At one point they were detained, but they got out of it and arrived to freedom in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.

The Crafts later moved to England, wrote a book, had five kids and, after the Civil War, located Ellen’s mother and brought her to live with them.

In 1857, three years after helping her brothers escape on Christmas, Tubman returned for her parents. All told, she led between 50 and 70 people to freedom.

Jarm, who escaped on his enslaver’s horse on Christmas Eve, made it to Canada, but he didn’t stay there. He soon moved to upstate New York, where he learned to read and write and took the name Jermain Wesley Loguen. He became a respected minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and opened schools for Black children, and his home became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

But because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Loguen was not entirely safe. Even in abolitionist-heavy New York, bounty hunters could have legally attempted to recapture him at any time.

In February 1860, 26 years after his escape, he received a letter from the widow of his enslaver demanding $1,000, or else, she threatened, she would sell him to someone who would come up and get him. Loguen’s furious reply is one for the history books and worth reading in full, but this is how he closed:

I will not budge one hair’s breadth. I will not breathe a shorter breath, even to save me from your persecutions. I stand among a free people, who, I thank God, sympathize with my rights, and the rights of mankind; and if your emissaries and venders come here to re-enslave me, and escape the unshrinking vigor of my own right arm, I trust my strong and brave friends, in this City and State, will be my rescuers and avengers.

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