On October 24th, “Knockin’ on Freedom’s Door,” a commemorative art piece created by sculptor Preston Jackson, was dedicated at the corner of Liberty Street and Jefferson Avenue, outside the Peoria Civic Center. The sculpture honors Peoria’s role in the historic Underground Railroad movement and marks the former site of the home of Moses and Lucy Pettengill, who courageously helped escaped slaves flee the South to claim their freedom. Local poet Byron DeHaan penned the following poem for the historic occasion.
The Poet on the Process
When the Peoria Civic Center invited me to help celebrate Preston Jackson’s superb sculpture, the first step for me was to spend time with the artist in his studio…in order to fully understand the “statement” he was seeking to make. From this experience, I also learned that this remarkable work of art is, among other things, a chronology. Thus, the format for my poem became a chronology.
A second step was research—mostly in the Bradley library—on the history of fugitive slave laws and the role of Quakers and heroic figures like Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad. The top-most element of the sculpture is Abraham Lincoln. In that respect, a new best-seller, Lincoln at Peoria, by Lewis Lehrman was helpful.
For me, it was important to avoid composing any portion or line of the poem before completing the first two steps. After doing so, the poem largely wrote itself. It begins on the Kentucky shores…
by Byron DeHaan
Softly now, at this Kentucky midnight,
Here the muck and the rushes and
Black soughing of Ohio River waters:
Into the rowboat, oars cloth-covered; then
For fleeing slaves, this Quaker farewell:
The Divine Spirit go with thee, friends.
Furtive sojourners at secret stations
On an unmapped Underground Railroad,
In flight to northern states and Canada.
Passengers and conductors alike, risk-taking
Violators of fugitive slave acts, subject to
Rough punishment, even by U.S. marshals.
Ragtag progression up past Cairo —
Not much sympathy here, nor in
Franklin, Marion, Shelby, Logan counties.
Not in Tazewell either, excepting at
The farm home of John and Mary Roberts:
Make haste! Through blind doors
Bordering both sides of the hearth.
Two days hidden, porridge passed in,
Till the autumn moon lies down
And bounty hunters sleep.
Now into the wagon and ebony night
To swamp-surfeited Illinois River shores
And the boat of Moses Pettengill. Then
Quick to his cart, under buffalo robes,
And from there to the frame house
At Jefferson and Liberty Streets, right here —
Friends, this is hallowed ground!
Overnight, crouched in a cold cellar
Below Lucy and Moses’ bedroom. Now
On to Irving Butler’s in Marshall County
And a concatenation of secret stops
Underground, to Ontario and freedom.
Moses and Lucy Pettengill, abolitionists,
Honored here in steel and bronze,
Founders of anti-slavery societies, advocates for
Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass:
Since slavery is a hideous wrong, then
Fugitive slave laws are equally wrong;
It’s moral to oppose, even break them!
Many nights at the kitchen table, right here,
Animated talk with a tall whig lawyer
Up from Springfield, turning and testing
His own convictions, his own words.
John Adams whispered in his ear:
We are a government of laws, not of men.
Isn’t the law always to be venerated?
Didn’t the Constitution carve out a corner
For slavery, over three score years back?
Ruminating, the lawyer came to the need
To expand and refine his beliefs, and discover
The best place and time to express them.
Peoria Courthouse Square, two blocks north:
Flags with thirty-four stars fluttering.
An October evening, eighteen fifty-four.
Thousands gathered, packetboats disgorging more,
All to first hear a sitting senator
Extol his “popular sovereignty” — slavery to be
Made merely a matter for common plebiscite.
Answering, the Springfield lawyer laid down
A line against any extension of slavery.
More — terming it a “monstrous injustice”:
I hate it because it deprives
Our republican example of
Its just influence in the world.
Our republican robe is soiled and
Trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it!
This first full formulation often repeated:
At seven great debates four years later,
Cooper Union and on to Chicago’s convention.
From the Pettengill home to Peoria Courthouse
To the White House and immortality.
Friends, there are roots here;
This is hallowed ground.