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Lessons From the Past

We live in an area of the US with a deep, rich and long history. Within this article I stumbled across today, I saw the following excerpt talking about the Christiana riots, reconciliation between decendants of slaves and slave-holders and what it has to teach us about our current challenges and conflicts – in the case of the article, about Baltimore and the riots that erupted there last year. Powerful.


Take a Page from the Past by Tanika White-Davis

Some called it a riot. But to others, the violent, racially tinged confrontation that unfolded in Christiana, Pennsylvania, in 1851 was known as the Resistance. What’s happened since may be instructive for our city.

The Christiana conflict was about runaway slaves—four men who’d fled from the fields belonging to Edward Gorsuch of Baltimore County in 1849. The men had escaped along the Gunpowder Falls, through the hills, into free Pennsylvania. Under the protection of the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law, Gorsuch and his son Dickinson raised a posse to capture the runaways.

On September 11, 1851, the bounty hunters were met by a large crowd of free blacks and escaped slaves who’d settled in Lancaster County, a key way station on the Underground Railroad. Aided by white Quaker townspeople, they fought back. Gorsuch was shot, hacked with corn knives, and died in a bloodbath that became national news.

President Millard Fillmore sent in federal troops to pacify the area and round up the instigators. Forty-two white men were tried for treason in a Philadelphia courtroom. The trial was a cause célèbre for the abolitionist movement, and the subsequent acquittal of the Christiana resistance outraged Southerners. Many historians describe the Christiana Riot as the unofficial beginning of the Civil War.

In 2001, on the 150th anniversary of the incident, descendants of the escaped slaves and the Quakers who supported their resistance gathered for a funnel-cake-filled celebration and what was called a “Forgiveness Dinner.” Among those on the guest list: the great-great-great-grandnieces of Thomas Talbot Gorsuch, and Frank Parker, the 39-year-old great-grandson of William Parker, the former Maryland slave who boarded the fugitives.

Helen Mayo, who still lived on a parcel of the original Gorsuch Farm, admitted that she wasn’t sure who was supposed to be forgiving who, and what for. “God’s not going to ask me what my ancestors did 150 years ago,” she said at the time. Another Gorsuch descendent, Karen Riddlebaugh Hunter of Ohio, expressed her own ambivalence about the killing of a distant relative and what it meant to her today. “When my family told the story,” she explained, “it was told that he’d been caught in history.”

But, as the event proved, the descendants of the two opposing sides no longer felt so trapped; their dinner of reconciliation proved to be a friendly social gathering, full of hugs, speeches, and some tears. Since then, the Christiana descendants have taken bus tours to the northern Baltimore County land still owned by a relative of Edward Gorsuch. There, they’ve eaten more meals together. Somehow, the people whose families once clashed have crafted an understanding, a peace.

“We continue to come together and continue to talk about it,” says Darlene Colon, 61, of Lancaster, whose great-great-great-grandfather, Ezekiel Thompson, participated in the resistance. “We have events every year. The families, the communities, we try to keep the story going. We try to keep those relationships open.”

In April, Colon watched the news from her home about Baltimore protests-turned-violent. She felt, she says, “a terrible sadness.” With each hurled bottle, she recognized the kind of suffering that led her ancestors to rise up 150 years ago—but she holds out hope. “The kind of dialogue and togetherness we have fostered here could work in Baltimore,” she says. “Despite the hurt in our history, we have a sort of pride about how we all came together. This was a fight for freedom. It’s a fight we’re still fighting.”

– See more at: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/100/fix-the-city/#sthash.q6kqIIMq.Et3hh9sh.dpuf