Slave Stealer

For several years, I have made a point to read good books aloud to my sons hand-picked for Black History Month. Last year, my older son and I “tag team” read aloud a biography about Leontyne Price, an African-American opera singer from my native Mississippi. We’ve also read numerous books about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and Ruby Bridges. We’ve enjoyed books about George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker, as well as a book about more modern-day Black inventors. We learned that the Super Soaker toy water gun was created by African-American engineer Lonnie Johnson.

Many of these works fell in line with our American history study, or we simply selected them from the shelves of our public library because they peaked our interest. Honestly, books about Black Americans and their history find their way into our book bag during our library visits throughout the year, not just in February. But in February, I’m intentional to bring a few books into our days that help us engage in Black History month.

treese of the seasons

Last week, I read January’s Sparrow, by Patricia Polacco, to my boys. This story revolves around a family of escaped slaves hiding in a town in Michigan. The townspeople (Black and White alike) help the family evade the slave catchers who’ve tracked them down with plans to return them to their owner. As usual, I struggled to keep my tears in check while reading a story involving the fear and desperation–and intense determination–of slaves escaping to freedom.

Last year, we read a book about slavery that taught me something I didn’t know, that those helping slaves escape were sometimes tattooed or even branded with the initials S.S.–letters standing for “Slave Stealer.”

Have a look at part of this poem, The Branded Hand, by American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (a Quaker who himself advocated for an end to slavery)…

Is the tyrant’s brand upon thee? Did the brutal cravens aim
To make God’s truth thy falsehood, His holiest work thy shame?
When, all blood-quenched, from the torture the iron was withdrawn,
How laughed their evil angel the baffled fools to scorn!

The poem references a boat captain who attempted to help several fugitive slaves escape but was apprehended, tried, and sentenced to be branded with “S.S.” on his right hand–marked as a slave stealer for life. The poem continues…

He suffered for the ransom of the dear Redeemer’s grave,
Thou for His living presence in the bound and bleeding slave;
He for a soil no longer by the feet of angels trod,
Thou for the true Shechinah, the present home of God!

Capt. Jonathan Walker broke the law of the land and paid a price. And although he tried to help the slaves escape, he was prevented from fulfilling the slaves’ request. This man’s name is recorded in history, and poetry has been written about him. And whereas Walker bore the marks of his “crime,” I shudder to imagine the marks the captured runaway slaves must have borne on their own bodies–if they even survived to bear those marks.

Yet I think of another man who broke the law of the land and paid a price–who stole the slaves from their evil master and set them free. Who was branded not with “S.S.” but with nail scars in hands and feet. Like Captain Jonathan Walker, he suffered for their ransom. For our ransom.

Christians sometimes like to say that God is writing a story with our lives, and that He’s a character in the story as well as the author. When I look into history, into the story of slaves brought to the New World and the story of Black Americans making monumental contributions to the whole world, I want to see God in that, too. Because He was there, moving and working, setting people free. And He’s moving and working here and now, in your life and in mine. Where might He want to set you free? 


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