A gut-knotting visit to a stop on The Underground Railroad–where I was literally underground retracing steps of fugitive slaves ancestors–is what I least expected from a recent trip to Wisconsin. I was in Milwaukee for the Women in Travel Summit, and decided to detour off the carefully planned itinerary for the gaggle of women travel bloggers, and do what I usually do; search for black history in the spaces I find myself because the picture is more interesting when you’re in it.
When I visit a place, I like to see reflections of me and explore influences of African history and culture. When I booked my tickets for Milwaukee, I knew I would have a great time attending and participating in WITS ’17, my first ever blogger conference, but I was pretty neutral about the excursions planned; the Miller beer factory, the Harley Davidson Museum or cheese curds aren’t really my jam.
As a city, downtown Milwaukee pleasantly surprised me! Walkable streets–some cobblestoned ones–lined by stone and brick clad buildings (mostly quirky bars and pubs) that’s easily reminiscent of a small European city surrounded by water. Beer, brats and cheese curds punctuate the city’s pub culture. If that’s what you’re into you’ll have more than enough to get into.
I’m more of a city-walking, food-sampling, history-seeking, off-the-beaten-path kind of adventurer so after much internal debate I decided to go off into the unknowns of Sheriff David Clarke’s state. I silenced my internal naysayer (because although I enjoy my own company, going off on my own in unfamiliar places scares me a bit), rented a car for the afternoon and drove the fifty miles from downtown Milwaukee to the Milton House; a historic building which was originally built as an inn in the 1800s that doubled as a stop on the underground railroad.
Joseph Goodrich who built this inn was a Seventh Day Baptist abolitionist from western New York with very strong anti-slavery sentiments. The inn was a popular stop for travelers because the city of Milton, Wisconsin sat at the crossroads of Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin and Janesville to Fort Atkinson. The location was in close proximity to Rock River too, a body of water, which I’ve learned played a significant role in slaves’ journey to freedom.
The river, the inn, his religious morality and anti-slavery sentiments led Joseph Goodrich to excavate a literal underground tunnel from his cabin out back to the basement of his bustling hotel where freedom-seekers would be fed and kept until it was safe continue their journey to Racine, where a boat could take them to Canada. Goodrich hosted freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth at the Milton House as well when she visited in the 1860s.
I didnt know to make an appointment for a tour, but the historian/docent gave me a private tour anyway (the universe really wanted me to see this place, I’m guessing). After the long, informative tour of the inn, its origins, it’s founder and its architecture, I finally got to descend the steps to the basement for a tour of the main attraction: the underground tunnel.
It was shorter than I expected, only a couple of yards long from entry to entry but it was powerful, nonetheless. Originally, the tunnel had no lights and was half the height, so that anyone passing through it had to stoop or crawl through the darkness, but it’s since been preserved by reinforcing the dirt walls with sturdier materials and making it taller so one could walk through it. I asked to go through the tunnel a second time to reflect. I used the opportunity to move through slower and without the chatter of the tour guide.
It reminded me of the dungeons in the Elmina Castle. Interesting how spaces like these seem to transport you through time and emotion. Pain seeped out of the reinforced tunnel walls, it permeated the damp, darkness of the tight space. It’s like fear, anxiety, and stress are trapped in the walls and want to speak to whoever’ll listen. Pain surrounds you and pierces through your senses. But unlike the overwhelming despair that lingers around the door of no return, I felt a light streak of hopefulness and courage in the bottom bowels of the Milton House.
I walked out of that historic house that day thinking, “I’m glad I didn’t talk myself out of going and robbing myself of the adventure that kept tugging at my spirit.” Most times what you really want (and sometimes need) should be pursed, against the odds and despite the fear of the unknown. The freedom-seekers knew this, and I’ll be mindful to carry this lesson with me wherever I go.