There’s a lot about the film Django Unchained that seems somewhat larger than life, such as the huge personas of do-gooder bounty hunter King Schultz and sadistic slave owner Calvin Candie, for example, or the caricaturist’s rendering of the conniving head house slave, Stephen. However, one crucial element of the film’s plot does seem to be drawn from real life: Django’s struggle to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda, echoes the lengths slaves would really go to in order to stay with or be reunited with their loved ones.
Author Betty DeRamus uncovered countless stories of slavery-era couples struggling to be together in the face of incredible adversity while researching her book, [easyazon_link asin=”0743482638″ locale=”US” new_window=”yes” nofollow=”default” tag=”trehottop-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”yes”]Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad[/easyazon_link]. “Some of them are black couples, some of them are a free black person with a slave mate, and a few of them are interracial couples,” DeRamus said. “But they all have one thing in common: All went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being separated.”[easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”right” asin=”0743482638″ cloaking=”default” height=”160″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51SBCFVZ9FL._SL160_.jpg” tag=”trehottop-20″ width=”106″]
There was Joseph Antoine, for example, a free black man from Cuba who chose of life of indentured servitude in order to stay with his wife. “In the process of working on that [story],” DeRamus said, “I discovered there were quite a few black Virginians who were willing to surrender freedom because they said the price of freedom was too high; if it meant leaving their families, they’d rather not have it. And I had never heard that before.”
Then there was Isaac Berry, the Missouri slave in love with his white neighbor’s daughter, Lucy. Berry’s owner wanted to sell him to pay off gambling debts, but Berry escaped across the Mississippi River into Illinois, then traveled to Indiana, Michigan, and finally across the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada. Lucy, meanwhile, took the money her family had saved for boarding school, bought a train ticket to Detroit instead, and waited there to meet her beau.
“Remember, there were no cell phones, no Internet, no mass communication of any kind,” DeRamus said of this incident, pointing out the extreme difficulty of setting up such a daring and far off rendezvous. “One of the most extraordinary things about these couples is the faith that they had…that somehow things were going to work out.”
Perhaps the most remarkable story in DeRamus’ collection is that of John Little, a slave who carried his unconscious wife to freedom on his whip-scarred back. You can hear DeRamus read her account of John Little and his wife in the audio above.
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.
Then there’s the story of James and Fanny Smith, a Dickensian tale of beatings, imprisonment, remorse — but most of all, faith. Lear Green, an 18-year-old runaway, has a story as well, as a woman who 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.
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.