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By Heather Leah, WRAL multiplatform producer

Halifax, N.C. — Highly secretive and illegal during its era, there are very few remnants of the Underground Railroad in North Carolina. However, if you’re looking to find clues to its past, one of the best places to begin is by following our state’s major rivers.

In the 1700 and 1800s, major rivers were known as “Freedom Roads,” and if you explore the Roanoke River in Halifax County, you’ll find pieces of the Underground Railroad’s history still standing today.

Halifax County is the only place in N.C. with three registered historic sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. In this quiet rural community, you can touch tangible remnants of this painful and often-forgotten past.

There’s a jail, nearly two centuries old, that once held captive fugitives who had attempted to escape slavery.

There’s a trail that leads to the Roanoke River – and along the trail, historians have placed signs showing actual newspaper ads ran by plantation-owners seeking men and women who had escaped slavery.

There’s even a 200-year-old stone aqueduct – imposing and draped in ivy in the middle of the woods – that was built using enslaved labor – then later used as part of the Underground Railroad itself.

Runaway ads: “Of a smiling countenance – has been very much whipped”

Along a trail to the Roanoke River, city councilwoman and historian Sandra Bryant says she can almost sense the Freedom Seekers who once walked in these very woods, following the river to a dream of freedom.

Today, the Underground Railroad Trail is just one place in Historic Halifax that allows visitors a glimpse of this history.

“We have put up newspaper ads showing what it was really like for enslaved peoples when they tried to seek freedom,” says Bryant. “People need to know. They need to understand what it was really like.”

One such ad, dating back to 1793, describes an enslaved man who had escaped, reading:

“A Negro fellow named Chance, belonging to the state of William Martin. Stout made, of a dark complexion, about five feet, three or four inches high. Has a remarkable set of fine teeth, which he shows very much when he speaks, of a smiling countenance — has been very much whipped on the back.”

“To describe the man’s smile, and in the same sentence explain he’s been whipped on the back,” says Bryant. “It’s awful. It’s important for people to really understand how it was.”

Bryant says she dreams of adding even more to this trail, to help visitors really step back in time.

“I dream of adding little camps just off the trail in the woods, to show where Freedom Seekers would hide out during the day and wait until dark to move and follow the river.”

A 200-year-old tunnel was once part of the canal system

The rapids along the Roanoke River made it an especially treacherous river for men and women escaping slavery to cross. However, those rapids also provided the opportunity for escape – in the form of a canal construction camp where slave labor was heavily used.

“Freedom seekers could hide among the enslaved men already in the camp,” says Steven Green-Hockaday.

The enormous stone aqueduct, tunnel and culvert are tangible pieces of history built by enslaved men – men who seldom have their stories told or remembered in modern history books.

“You can touch it. You can put your hands where they put their hands,” says Green-Hockaday.

The tunnel is part of the Roanoke Canal Trail, which runs along the remnants of the old canal itself – with earthen walls pushed up on either side of the modern day trail. Other ruins from its former life can be found in the woods, like remnants of the massive bulkhead for the “Power Canal,” the old stone surge control, a riverside mill and the Roanoke Canal Museum.

The museum is housed in the old power house of the canal, and antique remnants of the canal’s original locks can be seen here.

Roanoke’s rapids: A small stretch of river was “known” as a site on the Underground Railroad

Halifax County has more sites considered part of the Underground Railroad than any other place in the state – and a lot of that has to do with a small stretch of river that made a huge impact.

“There was a 7-mile stretch of rapids that made it difficult for boats to pass, but those rapids provided the ideal opportunity for freedom seekers hoping to escape slavery,” said Green-Hockaday. “Those rapids were why the aqueduct was built.”

The Roanoke River was a main transport for getting goods and services to many different places – so it was a great way to escape, says Bryant.

“It was known through the Underground Network that once you got to Halifax you would find people who could help you. Provide you food, shelter, until you could get on a boat or escape down the river,” she says.

She says the Town of Halifax was also known for having the highest free population of freed Black men and women during that time.

“Those that were still enslaved would come and blend in with the freedmen in the town,” she says.

Frank McMahon, a historic interpreter for Historic Halifax, says, “Often these freedmen would be sympathetic towards freedom seekers, even helping hide them.”

From Halifax, a person escaping slavery could try any number of tactics to get away down the river.

“Some would hide in a barrel on a boat headed north. Others would just follow the river,” says Bryant. “One narrative tells of an escaping woman who was hired on a steamboat. They didn’t care if you were escaping slavery or not; they needed workers. She was known for her amazing cooking and fine ale, and she ended up getting a job for herself on the river.”

Black History Month: Visit tangible remnants of the Underground Railroad in NC

Historic Halifax offers self-guided audio tours along the trails, as well as historic sites like the Roanoke Canal Museum and 1800s jail that are open to the public.

Here’s a look at the three main sites, as well as locations and information.

North Carolina historians specializing in the Underground Railroad have created a film called Freedom of N.C., filmed at the Historic Hope Plantation, that tells the story of Sarah Jones, a 14-year-old enslaved girl who dreams of her family living in Washington, N.C. It premiers on Feb. 12 at noon at RCE Theaters in Roanoke Rapids. Tickets are available on EventBrite.

This content was originally published here.

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