Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Liberating the story of area’s slave trade

Silver Spring woman’s book delves into the history of the Underground Railroad in Maryland, D.C.

E-mail this article \ Print this article


Silver Spring resident Mary Kay Ricks is fascinated by history, particularly the history of slavery, which once was a central issue in American society.

‘‘I don’t think too many of us think about it, the slaves that were here before,” Ricks said. ‘‘... This is our history. This is our neighborhood.”

Ricks, 59, recently published ‘‘Escape on the Pearl: The Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad.” The story centers around Mary and Emily Edmonson, sisters born on a 40-acre Montgomery County farm, about where Leisure World is in Aspen Hill today. The farm was owned by their father, a free black man. Their mother was still enslaved, and because that lineage was passed on through the mother, so were the two sisters.

The Pearl, a ship secretly hired by abolitionists, took 76 slaves — including the Edmonson sisters — down the Potomac River in the 1840s, toward what they presumed to be freedom. But the boat was intercepted and the slaves were jailed, then sold to Georgia and Louisiana agents. The ship’s captain and several other men involved in the escape were tried. The events partially inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Ricks worked several years as a lawyer but found herself falling in love with history, particularly local history. She decided to leave law and started a walking tour focusing on the history of the Georgetown and Dupont Circle neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

Slavery was once quite prevalent in the District. And slavery, Ricks said, was a central issue of society, so central, in fact, that America had a war over it. Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area was not immune to the issue, something many people don’t realize, Ricks said.

Knowing what came before us makes our culture richer, Ricks said. ‘‘How can you not want to study and understand it?” she said of slavery. ‘‘Plus, it’s damn interesting.”

Ricks eventually focused in on the Pearl escape and events related to it.

‘‘It piqued my curiosity,” Ricks said, adding that to her, it was a ‘‘historical mystery.”

Though she continued to do tours, Ricks began research and interviewed descendants like Rockville’s Diane Young, a descendant of the Edmonson family, and eventually wrote newspaper and magazine articles in 1998 and 2002 about the Pearl that became the basis for her book, which was published in February.

‘‘She took the time and cared enough to research,” Young said. ‘‘I owe a debt of gratitude to her. I feel indebted.”

‘‘I love researching,” said Ricks, who traveled to places like New Orleans and Oberlin College in Ohio. Her legal skills helped her locate wills and land deeds.

What she learned fascinated her. At that time in Maryland, many African-American families were mixed; some were slaves and some were free. Slaves who had been freed had to carry written proof.

Tobacco plantations began in Maryland and not in the Deep South. Some Southern states, like Alabama, for instance, didn’t even exist then.

Young said she considers Ricks a hero. It is important, Young said, to remember the past and the people who helped try to make things better. Ricks, she said, is one of the people who has helped to do that.

‘‘People who pursue different paths are true leaders,” Young said, citing people like Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Woodson as heroes. ‘‘... I see Mary Kay as a force for the same kind of thing because what she has done is to amplify history.”

Now, Ricks is considering writing a version of her story of the Pearl for young adults, focusing more on historical fiction and creating a narrative with a dialogue. That, she said, might help set the scene for younger readers and help them better understand some of the region’s and country’s history.

‘‘You get the bug for it,” she said of history. ‘‘It gets in your system.”