At America’s oldest black church, in Savannah, Georgia, there are holes in the floor. Story has it that these were air holes for runaway slaves who were hidden below the sanctuary of the First African Baptist Church. This was one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad.
And near my home, in Westbury, Long Island, there are two houses that allegedly were northern stops on the same transit system taking slaves to freedom further north. Although slavery was outlawed in New York, runaways were not safe, as the Fugitive Slave Law allowed runaways, wherever they were in the United States, to be returned to their aggrieved “owners.”
The Underground Railroad is part of America’s sad history of oppression. Most stops along the way go unmarked and many never had been known but to a few.
This piece of American history comes to mind by a story halfway around the world. Chen Guangchen’s escape to freedom in China is breathtaking. Forty-year-old Chen is a human rights activist and self-taught lawyer who served four years in prison on bogus charges because he publicly accused the government of compulsory sterilizations and forced abortions. After his release, he was placed under house arrest. Those who tried to visit Chen were turned away or beaten.
Chen’s arrest and detention received international attention. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and many human rights groups and individuals took up his cause.
After weeks of pretending to be too weak to get out of bed because of a long-standing stomach ailment, under the cover of darkness, Chen made his way past unsuspecting guards, who took three days to notice that he was no longer in his house. Chen knew the area well. He grew up in the Shandong village where he was under house arrest, so he moved quickly through fields and across rivers. Upon leaving his home area, he was aided by others who assisted him on his way to Beijing where is presumably received shelter in the American Embassy.
Chen is also blind.
But less so than the authorities that arrested him in the first place for speaking the truth. Less so than those who owned slaves or passed laws making it legal to capture escaped slaves in the North to return them to captivity.
The capacity for human cruelty and moral blindness is astounding. More astounding is the courage of a blind man and those who over the span of two centuries and continents have helped oppressed people to find freedom.