Story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico gains attention

Whereas researching U.S. Civil Warfare historical past in South Texas, Roseann Bacha-Garza got here throughout the 2 distinctive households of the Jacksons and the Webbers residing alongside the Rio Grande. White males headed each households. Each of their wives have been Black, emancipated slaves.

However Bacha-Garza, a historian, questioned what they have been doing there within the mid-1800s.

As she dug into oral household histories, she heard an sudden story. The 2 households’ ranches served as a cease on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, descendants stated. Throughout Texas and components of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, students and preservation advocates are working to piece collectively the story of a largely forgotten a part of American historical past: a community that helped hundreds of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

“It actually made sense the extra I examine it and the extra I considered it,” Bacha-Garza stated of the secretive route.

Just like the extra well-known Underground Railroad to the north, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, the trail in the wrong way supplied a pathway to freedom south of the border, historians say. Enslaved individuals within the Deep South took to this nearer route by way of unforgiving forests then desert with the assistance of Mexican Individuals, German immigrants, and biracial Black and white {couples} residing alongside the Rio Grande. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, a era earlier than President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

However simply how organized the Underground Railroad to Mexico was and what occurred to former slaves and those that helped them stays a thriller. Some archives have since been destroyed by fireplace. Websites related to the route sit deserted.

“It’s bigger than most individuals realized,” Karl Jacoby, co-director of the Middle for the Examine of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia College, stated of the route.

Slave homeowners took out newspaper adverts providing rewards and complaining that their “property” was seemingly heading to Mexico, Jacoby stated. White Texans banished Mexican Individuals from cities after accusing them of serving to slaves escape.

Slave-catching mobs ventured into Mexico solely to face armed resistance in small villages and from Black Seminoles — or Los Mascogos — who had resettled in northern Mexico, stated Jacoby, creator of “The Unusual Profession of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Grew to become a Mexican Millionaire.”

Escaped slaves adopted Spanish names, married into Mexican households and migrated deeper into Mexico — disappearing from the report and historical past.

Historians have identified concerning the secretive path for years. “ The Texas Runaway Slave Undertaking ” at Stephen F. Austin State College features a database of runaway slave commercials that element the extent of the path. The Federal Writers’ Undertaking of the Melancholy-era Works Progress Administration gathered tales as a part of its Slave Narrative Assortment, together with ones from former slaves overtly speaking concerning the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Former Texas slave Felix Haywood informed these interviewed in 1936, for instance, that slaves would snort on the suggestion they need to run north for freedom.

“All we needed to do was stroll, however stroll south, and we’d be free as quickly as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Haywood stated.

And in 2010, the U.S. Nationwide Park Service outlined a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, by way of Texas to Monclova, Mexico, that may very well be thought of a tough path of the Underground Railroad south. A invoice that President George W. Bush signed six years earlier designated El Camino Actual de los Tejas as a Nationwide Historic Path and inspired the event of partnerships to create extra understanding round this neglected freedom highway.

However this Underground Railroad is simply beginning to enter the general public’s consciousness because the U.S. turns into extra various and extra individuals present an curiosity in learning slavery, stated Bacha-Garza, a program supervisor for the College of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Group Historic Archaeology Undertaking with Faculties in Edinburg, Texas.

Bacha-Garza stated Nathaniel Jackson, a white southerner, bought the liberty of Matilda Hicks, a Black slave who was his childhood sweetheart, in addition to Hicks’ household. Jackson married Hicks and moved from Alabama to Texas earlier than the U.S. Civil Warfare. There, alongside the Rio Grande, they encountered one other biracial couple, Vermont-born John Ferdinand Webber and Silvia Hector, who was Black and in addition a former slave.

The examination of the Underground Railroad to Mexico comes because the U.S. is present process a racial reckoning round policing and systemic racism. Additionally, this 12 months Mexico counted its Afro-Mexican inhabitants as its personal class for the primary time in its census.

Over the past 50 years, the fields of African American and Chicano Research have boomed with groundbreaking analysis and new work redefining the U.S. expertise. However not often do the 2 fields work together past 20th century civil rights tensions, stated Ron Wilkins, a not too long ago retired Africana Research and Historical past professor from California State College, Dominguez Hills.

And consequently, tales about African Individuals and Mexican Individuals working collectively to battle racism should not shared, Wilkins stated, together with the historical past of the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

“If we knew this historical past, we’d come collectively and strengthen that solidarity,” stated Wilkins, a former member of the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Some Mexican American households are discovering themselves having uncomfortable conversations about race within the wake of their newfound consciousness of the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Ramiro Ramirez, 72, a psychologist, rancher and descendant of the Jacksons, stated members of the family typically argued amongst one another after they discovered Matilda Jackson was a former slave and so they had “Black blood.”

“I used to be very proud. However I used to be additionally very offended,” stated Ramirez, who lives within the border metropolis of Mercedes, Texas. “Even after 200 years, racism could be very robust. Folks don’t need to speak about it.”

He stated he’d like to satisfy the descendants of the slaves who, together with his household’s assist, escaped to Mexico. He footage them wanting rather a lot like him, however with completely different lives south of the border.

“Or perhaps,” Ramirez stated, “they now dwell again up right here.”

Russell Contreras is a member of The Related Press’ Race and Ethnicity Group. Comply with him on Twitter at

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