South Jersey, where I grew up, is marked by waterways, within and all around. Waterways and stories of freedom. All kinds of sounds are carried over the flat terrain.  Rumors, signals, warnings, pointers – they kept listeners alert.

Sounds were music to ears that were trained in hearing – and in overhearing. Keen listening was necessary when Delaware was the last vestige of slavery, when Jersey was a welcoming shoreland. Between the two was the call in the spiritual: “Wade in the water, children, God’s-a gonna trouble the water.”

To listen hard was to get the message, to get the Bible’s messages of God’s children finding escape from captivity. The 19th century brought this message up to date. With their bounty hunters wielding bloodhounds, hot on the heels of those thirsting for freedom, It came at high cost, to those who risked all

The waters would make a way, but the pilgrims had to step into the water. The payoff was that they would throw the pursuers off their trail. That’s what the “choir” was singing about, telling you that the time had come. To take the step was not a sign of desperation, but of hope, of a trust that they were not alone. The Underground Railroad was still running, as it still does, in certain ways, to this day. What messages are there to be overheard today?

filed under: