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View from Mars Hill: North Star's connection to slavery both literal and symbolic

View from Mars Hill: North Star's connection to slavery both literal and symbolic

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The Watch Tower with the Big Dipper

"The Watch Tower with the Big Dipper"

A popular children’s storybook that seems especially germane right now is “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

It tells the tale of a peg-legged sailor who travels around the pre-Civil War South, teaching a song to slaves about a group of stars called the drinking gourd — better known as the Big Dipper. It centers around the fact that the gourd points the way to the North Star, a directional beacon for slaves escaping to the northern states or Canada.

The storyline includes an oft-repeated claim that the song incorporated encrypted directions for fleeing the South via the “underground railroad.” While this assertion has come into question in recent years, the basic idea that the North Star played an important literal — as well as symbolic — role for slaves stands firm.

The use of the North Star (Polaris) as a directional guide goes back centuries. It isn’t a particularly bright star — it barely makes the list of top 50 brightest stars — but serves as a useful directional tool because it sits very close to earth’s true north. By locating it in the sky, observers can then determine the other cardinal directions. This was especially important for travelers of old who did not have compasses or other navigational instruments to guide them.

The North Star was thus important to many groups of people, but perhaps none more so than the slaves. As a directional guide pointing their way to the North, it also became a symbol for freedom. The noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, reinforced this concept in 1847, when he began publishing a weekly antislavery newspaper. The stated goal of the paper was to “attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three million of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”

The paper’s motto was “Right is of no sex — truth is of no color — God is the father of us all, and all we are brethren.” The name of the paper? Douglass called it “The North Star,” in reference to the star’s importance to escaping slaves. Just as the actual star served as a guide for physically escaping slavery and pursuing a new life of freedom, the paper became a guide for what freedom really meant.

On a related note, in the 1910s — half a century after the Civil War ended — an amateur folklorist named Harris Braley Parks told of the existence of the drinking gourd song, based on supposedly having heard it sung several times and then listening to a man in Texas explain the encoded words that described the path for slaves to escape to the North. The song was published in 1928, and the story behind the lyrics soon became entrenched dogma.

In recent years, several scholars have brought a cloud of doubt to the validity of encoded words in the song. Perhaps the ditty really existed in pre-Civil War days, but it didn’t include any encrypted directions of escaping to the North.

We may never know if the tale as related in “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is true, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the North Star to the slaves.


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