February 29, 2012


Today is the last day of Black History Month, and we are enjoying an extra day! Since this year’s BHM Blog has taken us on a world tour through Black History and international cuisine, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to an African-American chef, who set the world on fire (but, thankfully, never any of his kitchens!), with his culinary delights.

Patrick Clark was a genius in the kitchen. He showed an early penchant for cooking and became the first ‘celebrity’ Black chef – indeed, one of the early celebrity chefs of any race – while having a great influence on colleagues, ‘foodies’, casual diners and aspiring chefs – of every race. Sadly, he died way too early, in the prime of his life and career.

While Patrick paved the way for other Black haute cuisine chefs, there is still a dearth of them. Even recently, at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, of the 480 students, 35 to 40 were Black; and as recently as six years ago, of the 2,700 students at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., only 85 listed themselves as African-American, up from only 49, in 2001.

When asking White or Black chefs how many Black chefs they can name, who are not cooking ‘Soul Food’, the list is woefully small. Interviews with dozens of black chefs and restaurateurs revealed that struggles with family members, struggles with employers and struggles with themselves have all contributed to the scarcity. There is also a perception amongst many White chefs that Black ones only know how to cook "fried chicken and collard greens,' and oftentimes, even if he or she came out of a French kitchen, for instance, s/he ends up cooking Southern food." One such chef, Lance Whitney Knowling, a veteran of high-end Manhattan kitchens, who is now the chef and owner of Indigo Smoke in Montclair, N.J., said that several years ago, he received a call from the owner of an upscale restaurant in New Jersey to whom he had sent a cover letter and résumé.

The owner said, "I'd have to have somebody like you," Mr. Knowling recalled the restaurateur saying. "I couldn't have a Black guy or a Latin guy back there, because it would make my customers uncomfortable." When Mr. Knowling said he was Black, the restaurateur said, "You're kidding." No, Mr. Knowling said. The conversation grew awkward, and the restaurateur apologized. While very happy with the success of Indigo Smoke, he still points out the irony of his own situation, saying, "I'm classically French trained. I wanted to be the French chef, and that's what I studied for years and years, and now I run a barbecue restaurant – an upscale barbecue restaurant and Soul Food restaurant."

The point is that many aspiring Black chefs often still find few mentors or peers, especially now that Patrick Clark has died.

Patrick Clark was born in March 1955, in Brooklyn, New York. According to a longtime friend, he was “different from other children. While his friends spent their allowances on baseball cards and movies, he saved his money to buy cream cheese, determined, by the age of nine, to make the perfect cheesecake.” Patrick’s interest in cooking began almost as early as his memories of smell. From his mother's kitchen, wafted the scents of seasoned fried chicken, pork chops, and other ‘soul food’ delicacies; and when he was old enough, the young Patrick would visit his father's kitchens. His father, Melvin Clark, was a chef with Restaurant Associates in Manhattan, and worked in the kitchens of Charley O's, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and the Four Seasons. Given his bloodlines, there is little wonder that he aspired to be a chef, and whence his first influences came. Despite his father’s warnings that being a chef was extremely hard work, Patrick pursued his dream.

So, he enrolled in the hotel and restaurant curriculum at New York City Technical College (his father’s alma mater), from which he earned an Associate of Arts Degree. Then to hone is craft, he entered the culinary arts program at what is now Great Britain’s, Bournemouth & Poole College; and subsequently put his training into practice with an apprenticeship at Braganza restaurant in London.

Bournemouth & Poole College

Following his English stint, he mastered his skills in France,
under the coveted tutelage of chef, Michel Guérard, at his three-star restaurant, Eugenie-les-Bains. Recalling that experience, Patrick said, "It was mind blowing for an African-American kid from Brooklyn to go to France. The respect for food, in its raw state, and the intensity of the preparation – that’s what stuck with me."

Michel Guérard
Having developed a flair for French cuisine, Patrick returned to New York and began his career, in earnest, working as an assistant chef at Regine’s one of the hippest restaurants in New York, at the time. Soon after he started working there,” Patrick, as a guest speaker in a wine class at his old school, New York Tech, met a pretty student named Lynette. Like complementing spices, Clark knew he had found his soulmate, when their first argument revolved around the preparation of a steak. The two married in 1979; and it was Lynette who convinced her husband to take the position of Executive Chef at a new restaurant called, Odeon, in a neighborhood of gaunt warehouses, not yet known as TriBeCa.” Patrick had a good job at Regine’s, and was worried whether people would travel all the way downtown to a warehouse district, to eat on mismatched furniture. Lynette’s hunch was a good one, and Odeon was a smash. So much so, that Patrick received two stars in the first New York Times review of Odeon, in 1980. As unusual as the neighborhood was, the fact that Patrick, just 25, was producing fine nouvelle cuisine, at a time when very few Black chefs went into this field, was indeed, a rarity.

''Customers would rave about the food, and I'd say, 'why don't you meet the chef','' said Keith McNally, one of the original co-owners of Odeon, adding, ''and they would be startled [because he was Black].'' Three years later, buoyed by Odeon’s success, Keith, and his partners, opened a second restaurant, Cafe Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side, so Patrick then had two kitchens to run.

However, even while abroad, Patrick never forgot his cooking ‘roots’. His mother's down-home cooking and his father’s menus, combined with his European training, helped him create his own exotic, ‘New American’ cuisine, including signature dishes such as, tuna with black-eyed pea and artichoke salad, and white chocolate banana cream pie. Patrick also fulfilled a lifelong dream of launching his own restaurant, the highly regarded Metro, in 1988. Sadly, it closed two years later, due to post-Recession economic woes.

The sunshine of the West Coast lured Patrick to be the Head Chef at Bice, in Beverly Hills. At first, diners were perplexed that a French-trained chef would come to work at an Italian restaurant. But Patrick soon made his mark on the menu, and ‘those in the know’ knew to order the specials, which weren't always Italian but were almost always mouth-wateringly delicious. Ruth Reichl, The Los Angeles Times restaurant critic at the time, wrote, "Clark is one of the rare chefs whose food is both straightforward and sophisticated," simultaneously awarding him 3 Stars. Patrick then opened the kitchen of a second Bice, in San Diego, California. 

Bice San Diego

Armed with his 3-Stars accolade, ‘Angelinos’ expected Patrick to open his own restaurant, but this time, California was experiencing its own financial problems, and he and his family missed family and friends on the East Coast.

Patrick then moved, with his family, back to the East Coast to take over the kitchen at the very prestigious, Hay-Adams Hotel, in Washington, D.C., which is just across the street from the White House, and where he cooked for the likes of Heads of State to Poet Laureates. When he first arrived, however, it was not without controversy. Patrick’s independent streak made its mark, when he decided that he did not care for the way the cobb salad was served at the Hay-Adams – all chopped up and thrown together – so he changed it, initiating many complaints from ‘traditionalists’, who preferred the old version. Patrick’s response was to remove it from the menu, prompting a boycott and a petition drive. "I really feel if you don't take the risk and take certain things off the menu that people are used to, people will never be ready for a change," he told the Washington Post, shortly after the controversy, adding, "[Washington's] an old city with some very distinct dining habits. I would like to break some of them."

Al Fresco Dining at The Hay-Adams Hotel

And break them, he did. In fact, President Clinton and (now Secretary of State) Hillary Rodham Clinton became frequent visitors to the Hay-Adams, and were so taken with his unique, culinary style, that they asked him to interview for the Head Chef position at The White House. He was one of four candidates; but decided to remove himself from the pool because he would have had to work exclusively for the White House and would not have been able to engage in his charity work, which was very important to him.

Patrick worked with his very good friend, Chef Joe Randall, on projects such as events for the National Council of Negro Women, and helped to coordinate the judges for the "Real-Men-Cook" Annual Gala. Patrick was also a founding member of Board of Trustees for the Taste of Heritage Foundation, a United Negro College Fund’s annual fundraiser, which raises scholarship funds for African-American culinary arts students. Those were just a few of his many, community outreach projects.

Chefs Joe Randall and Patrick Clark

Click here to see a short interview with Patrick while preparing for a Taste of Heritage event. 

In May of 1994, Patrick was named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region at the annual James Beard Awards. Thus anointed by the food world’s Oscars (and already the recipient of the distinguished Grand Master Chef Award in 1988 and 1989 (as well as 1988’s Chef in America National Medallion), Patrick found himself fielding offers from all over the world.

In 1995, Patrick decided to stay on the East Coast and accept an offer in his home city of New York, to revive the culinary reputation of the world-famous, magical, highest-grossing-restaurant-in-America, Tavern on the Green, in Central Park, as its Executive Chef; and where more than 1,500 meals were served per day, presenting an unusual challenge to Patrick, who was used to smaller kitchens.

Tavern on the Green

Revive it, he did, once again attracting hungry, discriminating New Yorkers and tourists. In the summer of 1996, Patrick introduced Tavern on the Green's first ever outdoor barbecue grill. Later that year, the father of five created a diverse and adventurous children's menu. "Children often determine where people go to eat nowadays," Patrick told Florence Fabricant, of the New York Times. "Why not let them eat like Mommy and Daddy, with a regular three-course menu instead of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some other slap in the face?"

While Patrick was one of the first Black celebrity chefs, he did not let racial issues affect him. ''He didn't feel there was prejudice against him,'' said Stephen Moise, the Executive Sous Chef at Tavern. ''But, he could see how young, African-American kids could feel that there was a lot against them, and he wanted to be an example of somebody who succeeded by working hard and believing in himself.'' Bruce Wynn, a younger African-American who was a pastry chef at Tavern, said, “Mr. Clark couldn't help being inspirational because, even with his rigorous French training, his heritage still shone through. He lived the flavor that he grew up on, and he spread that flavor. ''He was very demanding, sometimes harsh, but he was constant. And the flavor never wavered.''

Tragically, Patrick had to leave his post at Tavern on the Green, in November 1997, after he was found to have congestive heart failure. He entered Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center to await a heart transplant; and was so disappointed by the poor hospital food, that he snuck in his own cooking equipment and ingredients to have proper food prepared for him. The transplant never took place because Patrick was also found to have amyloidosis, a plasma disorder, which ruled it out. He died in February 1998, at the way-too-young age of 42, leaving behind his wife of eighteen years, as well as five children, including his son, Preston, who is now a chef at El Paseo, in San Francisco, California; and who is truly making a name for himself, in his own right, becoming the third generation of Clark men to tickle the tastebuds of delighted diners, the world over.

Preston Clark

Patrick was so busy cooking for others, that he never published a cookbook, but one of his culinary ‘fans’ did. Check out “Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine,” By Charlie Trotter, to really see how Patrick could sizzle. Meanwhile, he did publish recipes in magazines. Here is a lovely Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Garlic Croutons Recipe from Food & Wine Magazine. Enjoy!

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Garlic Croutons
By Patrick Clark
Serves 12

2 ½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves – 2 minced and 1 halved
2 quarts chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 ½ cups heavy cream
Twelve ½ -inch-thick diagonal slices from a sourdough baguette
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Peel and thickly slice the Jerusalem artichokes and transfer to a large bowl of cold water mixed with 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice.

Melt the butter in a large enameled cast-iron casserole. Add the chopped onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring often, until the onion is translucent, about 7 minutes.

Add the minced garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for 1 minute longer.

Drain the Jerusalem artichokes and add them to the casserole along with the chicken stock,1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper.

Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to moderate and simmer until the Jerusalem artichokes are very tender, about 35 minutes.

Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender and purée until smooth. Return the soup to the casserole. (Make ahead: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.)

Bring the soup to a boil over high heat and cook until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the heavy cream.

Season the soup with the remaining 2 teaspoons lemon juice, salt, and white pepper; keep warm.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the baguette slices with the vegetable oil and toast for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Rub each crouton on one side with the halved garlic clove.
Ladle the soup into a tureen or shallow bowls. Garnish with the garlic croutons and minced chives.

Sources: NYTimes, Time Magazine, Los Angeles, YouTube, Chef Joe Randall, Food & Wine Magazine, Google, Bing

February 28, 2012


Harlem, New York has always been cool; but it continues to get cooler and cooler. What make it cool are the people who live, work and play there; and the culture that it has to offer. The music, dance, food and art are all fabulous; and there’s something to satisfy every taste.

Delights, such as the Apollo Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Gospel Choir and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture comprise just a ‘drop’ of what’s on offer. In terms of food, more on that later.

Dance Theatre of Harlem
Harlem Gospel Choir
Schomburg Center

Even former President knows how cool Harlem is. After he left The White House, he set up his office there.

Presidents Clinton and Obama in the Former's Harlem Office

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that primarily spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as The New Negro Movement; and encompassed every genre of the Arts. One artist, who was quite prolific during the Harlem Renaissance, and beyond, was Charles Alston, who was painter, sculptor, illustrator, muralist and teacher.

Charles Henry ‘Spinky’ Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in November 1907, the youngest of five children of a minister and a housewife. Charles’s father died when he was three years old; but he had already influenced Charles artistically, by the illustrated love letters, that he had written to Charles’s mother. Charles acquired a stepfather three years later, when his mother married Henry Bearden, and the family moved to New York City.  Later in life, Charles ended up becoming life-long friends with, and teaching painting, to his stepfather’s nephew, who lived across the street – Romare Bearden, who went on to become one of the most influential, African-American artists of our time.

Romare Bearden

Charles’s mother was also a gifted embroiderer, so he was surrounded by creativity. As a young boy, he recalls that his first art experience was playing with play and making ‘sculptures’. He said of that memory, “I’d get buckets of it and put it through strainers and make things out of it.”

Charles graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was nominated for academic excellence and was the art editor of the school's magazine, The Magpie

While in High School, In high school he was given his first oil paints and spent time at his Aunt Bessye Bearden's art salons, which stars like jazz musician, Duke Ellington, and poet, Langston Hughes, attended. Charles later designed album covers for Duke and book covers for Langston, to earn money while studying. Charles then matriculated to nearby prestigious, Columbia University – having turned down a scholarship to the Yale School of Fine Arts – where he double-majored in Fine Arts and History and graduated in 1929 and received a fellowship to study at Columbia’s Teachers College, where he obtained his Master's in Art Education, in 1931. While at Columbia, he worked on the university's Columbia Daily Spectator and drew cartoons for the school's humor magazine, Jester. He also hung out in Harlem restaurants and clubs, where his love for jazz and black music would be fostered.

While obtaining his master's degree, Alston was the boys’ art director at the Utopia Children's House, started; and he also began teaching at the Harlem Arts Workshop, founded by Augusta Savage in the basement of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Utopia Children's House

During the Great Depression, Charles and sculptor, Henry Bannarn, directed the Harlem Art Workshop, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project – becoming the first African-American supervisor of the project.  

Henry Bannarn
There, Charles began to teach the 10-year old, Jacob Lawrence, whom he strongly influenced, and who also went on to become an extremely powerful, artistic voice within the African-American community.

Jacob Lawrence

Charles shared studio space with Henry at
306 W. 141st St
, which served as an open space for artists, photographers, musicians, writers and the like. They became knows as The 306 Group. During this time Charles also founded the Harlem Artists’ Guild, with other artists, to work towards equality in WPA art programs in New York.

The 306 Group

As part of the WPA, Charles painted murals throughout Harlem. One of his best-known ones – entitled, Modern Medicine – was created by Charles and other members of The 306 Group, for the Harlem Hospital Center, where he met his future wife, Dr. Myra Adele Logan, a surgical intern at the hospital. Despite some opposition to the murals because of the numbers of African-Americans prominent in the design sketches, the Harlem Hospital murals project moved forward, with the financial support of Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician to serve on the hospital's staff, as well as community support.

'Modern Medicine' Mural in Harlem Hospital

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Charles received funding to travel to the South to document rural African-American life through a camera lens. These photographs served as the basis for a series of genre portraits' depicting southern Black life. During this time, Charles also created illustrations for magazines such as Fortune, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Melody Maker and others; and he also became staff artist at the Office of War Information and Public Relations in 1940, creating drawings of notable African Americans. These images were used in over 200 Black newspapers across the country by the government to "foster goodwill with the black citizenry.”

In the late 1940s, Charles became involved in a mural project, commissioned by Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, who asked the artists to create work involving African-American contributions to the settling of California. Charles worked with Hale Woodruff on the murals in a large studio space in New York, where they utilized ladders to reach the upper parts of the canvas. The murals were then transported to Los Angeles, where they were hung in Golden State’s lobby.

Golden State Mutual Mural

In 1950, Charles left commercial work to return to his own artwork, becoming the first African-American instructor at the Art Students League, where he remained on faculty until 1971. That same year, he exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art   Three years later, he landed his first solo exhibition at the John Heller Gallery, who represented artists such as Roy Lichtenstein – exhibiting there five times from 1953–1958. In 1956, he became the first African-American instructor at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where he taught for a year before going to Belgium on behalf of MOMA and the State Department. In 1958, Charles was awarded a grant from and was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 1963, Charles co-founded Spiral with Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff. Spiral served as a collective of conversation and artistic exploration for a large group of artists who "addressed how Black artists should relate to American society in a time of segregation." This group served as the 1960s version of the 306 Group, and Alston was described as an "intellectual activist."
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement heavily influenced Charles’s artworks, which focused on inequality and race relations in the United States.  It was during this powerful movement, that he created a bronze bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, which, in 1990, became the first image of an African American displayed at the White House. In 1968, Charles received a Presidential appointment, from Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of Culture and the Arts. New York Mayor John Lindsay appointed him to the New York City Art Commission in 1969. He was made full professor at City College of New York in 1973 where he had taught since 1968. In 1975, he was awarded the first Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College. 

Bronze Bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Charles Henry Spinky Alston died in 1977, in Harlem, after a long bout with cancer. He lived and remained an active member of this thriving, cultural community until the end of his life.  Romare Bearden described Charles as, "...one of the most versatile artists whose enormous skill led him to a diversity of styles..." Romare also described the professionalism and impact that Charles had on Harlem and the African-American community: "'Charles was a consummate artist and a voice in the development of African-American art who never doubted the excellence of all people's sensitivity and creative ability. During his long professional career, Charles significantly enriched the cultural life of Harlem. In a profound sense, he was a man who built bridges between Black artists in varying fields, and between other Americans.” Writer, June Jordan, described Charles as "an American artist of first magnitude, and he is a Black American artist of undisturbed integrity.” I would definitely have to agree.

Charles Alston Painting
Charles Alston Painting

Charles Alston Painting

Sylvia Woods, the "Queen of Soul Food," is the founder and owner of the world famous Sylvia's Restaurant, located in the historical village of Harlem, since 1962. People have been lining up for decades to enjoy her mouth-watering, forget-your-diet, cuisine; and as my friend and Harlem Resident, Valerie Graves, recently said of her, “The Queen has still got it!” For more information on her world-famous restaurant, click here.  Sylvia has published several cookbooks, including Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, from which I cook fro friends and family, to rave reviews, from time to time. Try this gorgeous Peach Cobbler recipe from the cookbook!

Peach Cobbler
By Sylvia Woods, “The Queen of Soul Food”
Serves 12

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 29-ounce cans of peaches, drained
1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
Biscuit dough (recipe below), unbaked.
1. In a heavy 4-quart pot over low heat, melt 3/4 cup butter. Add the peach halves, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and the vanilla. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 1 minute. In a small bowl combine the flour with 3/4 cup water; stir until smooth. Add to the peaches, and stir well. Simmer until the peach liquid is thickened and smooth, about 3 minutes.
2. Cool the peaches to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill thoroughly, at least one hour.
3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 2-inch-deep, 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Prepare the biscuit dough.
4. Flour a work surface, and roll out two-thirds of the dough into a 15-by-19-inch rectangle. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour, and fold the rectangle into thirds. Place the dough in the baking dish, and unfold. Allow a 1-inch overhang around the edge of the pan, and trim off any excess. Spoon the chilled peach filling evenly onto the dough. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, and dot with 2 tablespoons butter. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9-by-13-inch rectangle. Place it over the peach filling, and press or crimp edges to seal them. Pierce top of dough several times with a fork.
5. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until crust is a deep golden brown, and filling is set (it will barely jiggle when the pan is tapped). If necessary, rotate the dish during cooking to brown the crust evenly. Serve at room temperature with vanilla ice cream.
Biscuit Dough
5 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 ¼ cups milk
½ cup solid vegetable shortening (British friends, use Trex)
4 large eggs
In a large mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix well. Make a well in the center and add the milk, shortening, and eggs. Mix the wet ingredients by hand, and slowly work in the dry ingredients. The finished dough should be soft, but not sticky. Adjust the amount of flour as necessary.

Sources: Wikipedia, North by South, CharlesHenryAlston.org, NY Times, Google, Bing 

February 27, 2012


Freedom is something that most of us take for granted. Even today, as we wake up and go wherever we want to, or need to, go, there are millions of people in the world who cannot.  Many of them are literally slaves – working long, tortuous hours, in inhumane conditions, beaten into submission, for no money.

Slavery in America was considered ‘legal’ from 1619 – when the country was still a group of English colonies – until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. Most of the slaves – men, women and children – were of African descent and ‘owned’ by White masters to live on their plantations and work their crops of tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee. By the early decades of the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and slaves were in the Southern United States. By the Civil War, most slaves were held in the Deep South.

It was literally back-breaking – and sometimes soul-destroying – work; and many slaves would do anything to break the chains of servitude.

Slaves in a Cotton Field

Before Abraham Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, following The Civil War, some slaves – mostly in Northern States – were either given their freedom, or were able to purchase it. Also, most States in The North had already outlawed slavery – making them ‘free’ States. Much of this organized split between the States was initially due to the Missouri Compromise, which was an agreement passed in 1820, between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory, except within the boundaries of the proposed State of Missouri.

For those slaves who were not free, many tried to escape. Many were unsuccessful and greatly suffered upon recapture. However, over 100,000  who were successful; with the help of Black and White Abolitionists and most often following harrowing journeys on ‘The Underground Railroad’ – a network of secret routes and safe houses, to escape to free States, Canada, Mexico and overseas, with the aid of abolitionists and allies, who were sympathetic to the slaves’ cause.

Legend has it that, in 1831, Tice Davids, a runaway slave, fled from his owner in Kentucky. Tice swam across the Ohio River, with his owner in close pursuit in a boat.  Tice reached the Ohio shore just a few minutes before his owner, but his owner could not find him and at first thought, perhaps Tice had drowned, but later, admitted that he had simply vanished,  saying that Tice, "must of gone off on an underground road." It is thought that local abolitionists hid Tice and helped him escape. Rush Sloane, an Ohio abolitionist, claimed that this led to the naming of the Underground Railroad. Historians continue to remain divided as to the accuracy of this statement. Nevertheless, the Underground Railroad definitely existed; and it was at its busiest between 1850 and 1860, when more than 30,000 slaves escaped, during that decade. 

In both 1793 and 1850, The Fugitive Slave Law and The Fugitive Slave Act were passed, respectively, requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their masters and giving legal authority to the slave-catchers – even in free States. Abolitionists nicknamed the 1850 Act ‘The Bloodhound Law’, after the dogs, which were used to hunt the escaped slaves.

Hunting an Escaped Slave

The Fugitive Act of 1850 did not just apply to runaway slaves. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for Free Black people to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of Freedom"—signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual Blacks—could easily be destroyed and thus afforded their holders little protection.

Certificate of Freedom

Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Despite those laws, the Underground Railroad thrived. The escape network was not underground, nor was it a railroad. It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being an underground resistance. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting ‘stations’ or ‘depots’ along the route, but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move North along the route from one way station to the next; and the routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers.  "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born Black people, White abolitionists, former slaves, and Native Americans.  The stations consisted of homes, churches, barns, shops and shacks.

Underground Railroad Station - Church

The Black conductors would sometimes pretend to be a slave to enter a plantation. After having infiltrated the plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves would travel at night, about 10–20 miles to each station – mostly on foot or in a false-bottom wagon – sometimes by boat or train.

Runaway Slaves

False-Bottom Wagon

The Big Dipper (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the Drinkin' Gourd, and was used to guide the slaves. They would stop and rest during the day, at the stations, hidden away in secret rooms and under bales of hay.

Hidden Room in the Bedroom of an Underground Railroad Station

While resting at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. The messages were often encoded so that could only be understood by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, on the 2pm Train.

There is also a theory that quilts were used to signal and direct slaves to escape routes and assistance. According to the ‘quilt theory advocates’, there were ten quilt patterns that were used to direct slaves to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at a time on a fence or a window ledge, as a means of nonverbal communication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal slaves to prepare to escape and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey. Some quilt experts dispute this theory.

Underground Railroad Station Quilt

Yet another theory about how the encoded messages were delivered was through Negro Spirituals, such as “Steal Away” and "Follow the Drinking Gourd," whose coded information helped the escaped slaves to navigate The Underground Railroad. However, scholars dispute the theory, and have proposed that while the songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the slaves’ sorrows, they did not present literal help for runaway slaves.   Click here to see and hear a 1957 recording of Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole singing Steal Away.  

Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson
Whether the disputed claims are actually true or not, has gone with the runaways slaves and abolitionists to their graves.

All of those involved in The Underground Railroad risked everything for freedom. The slaves were hunted down by any means necessary, and rewards were put on their heads, because as far as the slave masters were concerned, they had lost their property – Property, which made them money. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return.

There were many people who helped the slaves to freedom. Some of the notable ones were:

JERMAIN LOGUEN, a fugitive, son of his Tennessee slave master and a slave woman, who helped 1,500 escapees and started Black schools in New York State;
Jermain Loguen
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER, a Quaker poet who gave a powerful voice to the abolition movement;
ALLAN PINKERTON, a Scottish immigrant who managed an underground depot at his cooper’s shop near Chicago, before starting his  now-famous Pinkerton security firm;

Allan Pinkerton
JOSIAH HENSON, a Black slave overseer, who subsequently became an escaped slave who ran to Canada, and helped others to escape;

Josiah Henson
THOMAS GARRETT, a Wilmington, Delaware businessman who aided more than 2,700 slaves to freedom;
MARY ANN SHADD, the daughter of a Black agent in the Wilmington, Delaware Underground Railroad;

Mary Ann Shadd

WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON, one of the earliest, most passionate abolitionists, who spent all of his time speaking out against slavery;
JONATHAN WALKER, who was imprisoned for helping seven slaves sail from Florida, bound for the Bahamas, and branded on the hand with SS for “Slave Stealer;”

Jonathan Walker's Branded 'Slave Stealer' Hand
LEVI COFFIN, a Quaker, abolitionist, and businessman, who was deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in Indiana and Ohio and his home, in Indiana, was often called the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad". He was nicknamed "President of the Underground Railroad" because of the 3,000+ slaves that are reported to have passed through his care while escaping their masters;

Levi Coffin's House

JOHN FAIRFIELD, who was born to a slave-holding family in Virginia, but disagreed with his family's livelihood as he became a young man. When he was twenty, he helped a childhood friend escape from his uncle's farm taking him to Ohio. During the 1850s, he quickly established himself with a reputation as one of the most cunning conductors on the Underground Railroad and specialized in reuniting broken families;
WILLIAM STILL, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", who helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), and kept careful records, including short biographies of the escapees and maintained correspondence with them, eventually turning his memoirs into a book, The Underground Railroad in 1872;

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, a fugitive slave, who became a skilled abolitionist speaker, praised for “wit, argument, sarcasm, and pathos,” and urged Black people to pursue vocational education and the vote. His print shop in Rochester, New York, was a depot on the Underground Railroad; and
HARRIET TUBMAN, an escaped slave, herself, who made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. William Still, in his book, described Harriet her as "a woman of no pretension, a most ordinary specimen of humanity." Pauline Hopkins, noted Black author around the turn of the century, eulogized Tubman as follows: "Harriet Tubman, though one of the earth's lowliest ones, displayed an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with those of Grace Darling, Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale; no one of them has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering than this woman in her successful and heroic endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed people."

Harriet Tubman
All of these abolitionists – named and unnamed – free and bonded – never took ‘freedom’ for granted. If it were not for them, who knows what Black History would look like today?

Common travel food for the runaway slaves included: roasted sweet and white potatoes, jerked beef, fruit and cornbread. Here is a simple, delicious recipe for Honey Cornbread Muffins. Enjoy!

Honey Cornbread Muffins
By Pat & Gina Neely, Down Home with the Neelys, Food Network

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ stick butter, melted
  • ¼ cup honey

Special equipment: paper muffin cups and a 12-cup muffin tin

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Into a large bowl, mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the whole milk, eggs, butter, and honey. Add the wet to the dry ingredients and stir until just mixed.

Place muffin paper liners in a 12-cup muffin tin. Evenly divide the cornbread mixture into the papers. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden.

SOURCES: Wikipedia, National Geographic, The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Ohio History Central, Fold 3, Underground Railroad Experience, Google, Bing, Food Network
SUSAN B. ANTHONY, a Quaker schoolteacher, who spoke out for temperance, women’s rights, and abolition, who later led the fight for women’s suffrage;