“I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell if he could.” Harriet Tubman
This is the story of a woman who fought to escape the hellishly inhumane institution of slavery so that her family could experience freedom.
Resilience, as it relates to objects, is defined as the ability to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. Resilience, as it relates to a person or animal, is defined as being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
Margaret Garner personifies resilience. Born into slavery June 4, 1834(pre-civil war) on the Maplewood plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, Margaret entered the world treated as not only an object but an animal. Her mother Priscilla was a slave, her father was believed to be the plantation owner, John Pollard Gaines.
In 1849, at the age of 15, Margaret married Robert Garner, a slave from a nearby plantation. That same year John Gaines(Margaret’s father) sold his plantation to his brother Archibald Gaines. Margaret and Robert’s first child, Thomas, was born early in 1850. Three of Margaret’s later children (Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla) were believed to be a product of rape, fathered by her uncle Archibald. Each child was born five to seven months after a child born to Archibald’s wife. I know this sounds incestuous and scandalous but this was extremely common in America during this period.
“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”-Harriet Tubman.
In January of 1856, Margaret and her husband decided to flee along with their 4 children, his parents, and a number of other slaves. Their path was to Covington, across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, and then on to Canada. In fear of being captured, the slaves(now fugitives) split up. While some made it to freedom, unfortunately the Garners were captured.
At Cincinnati, they went to the home of relatives of Margaret’s for assistance in getting further north. Margaret’s relatives had earlier obtained their release from slavery from their masters. While at the home, Archibald Gaines and U.S. Marshalls surrounded the cabin to capture the fugitive slaves. While Robert was trying to defend them with a pistol, Margaret not wanting to return to slavery, slit the throat of her two-year old daughter, Mary, then stabbed her other children and herself. While her daughter died immediately, Margaret and her other children were only wounded. The entire family were taken into custody and imprisoned.
In an account, abolitionist Levi Coffin described Margaret Garner at her arrest as a mulatto about five feet high, she appeared to be about 21 or 23 years old.” She also had an old scar on the left side of her forehead and cheek, which she said had been caused when a “white man struck me.”
***Side Note : In 1853 William Goodell searingly observed that the slave “becomes ‘a person’ whenever he is to be punished! He is under control of law, though unprotected by law.
A trial ensued, it was known as the longest fugitive slave case. The trial was sensationalized and followed almost daily in newspapers. Although Margaret hoped to be tried on charges of murder in a free state so that she and her children would be treated as free persons. Unfortunately it was not viewed as a murder case but a fugitive slave case. She and her family were viewed as property and the family was returned to slavery.
During the families departure back to a Gaines plantation in New Orleans, the Henry Lewis steamboat they were traveling on collided with another steamboat. Margaret and her infant daughter Priscilla were thrown overboard. Margaret was saved but her daughter drowned and it’s been said that following her rescue Margaret was happy that her daughter would not return to slavery. Some speculated that she drowned her daughter. Margaret died a slave at the age of 24 in Mississippi in 1858 of typhoid fever.
In regards to her children, Margaret believed that it’s, “better for them to be put out of the world than live in slavery.”
There’s more to this story but I wanted to give you an in depth glimpse into the life of the woman who inspired me to paint this emotional piece. While rendering this painting I wondered If Margaret mourned her own life and how she mourned her children. I found myself, asking myself, what would I have done. I have a 4 year old daughter, would I have had the courage or desperation to take her life? Would I have been resilient enough to survive the conditions? Would Margaret have spared the lives of her children if she knew in just a few years, slavery would be abolished(1865). I picture Margaret sneaking out away from the slave quarters in the darkest of night, walking through a field, gathering flowers and grapes to form a pillbox hat. I can see her stare into a seemingly infinite field of darkness and shed a tear, she doesn’t break down and she has no regrets, she’s resilient and simply takes a moment to mourn.
- Duke University