It’s now a commonplace to note how divided the United States is politically. The way the story is told, there are now two tribes, each sure the other side is largely wrong. We are said to know this, even if we are less than sure about everything “our side” may say, even if we are skeptical, even critical, of some in our faction. You may not believe that this is true about you, but this is what is widely said, and you may say something like this about others, even if you do not believe it about yourself.
I’m about to simplify a story, condensing its humanity so that you will only see moments in several people’s lives. That means you are going to need to pay attention, because the things it may lead you think about are only going to be there for moment.
On a summer day, 177 years ago, a sheriff bearing a writ from a judge knocked on the door of a house on the banks of Lake Harriet, which was then on the outskirts of Minneapolis Minnesota. If you live in Minneapolis, perhaps you know this lake. It just so happens that I’ve spent many mornings this summer reading poetry beside it, as panting joggers and conversing walkers surround it like clockwork.
The judge’s writ commanded the appearance in court of a piece of evidence. As he knocked, that piece of evidence was being told by the people inside to run out the back door and hide. The evidence did not obey. The evidence’s name was Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old woman held as property by the family inside. By her home state of Mississippi’s laws, her mother would have been property too, and her children, if she would have any, would be property as well, the same as livestock on a farm.
How did she happen to be in Minnesota? The man that owned her had traveled up the Mississippi river with his family to escape the heat of the south’s summer, taking a steamboat as far north as the great river was navigable. For his and his family’s comfort, he had taken one of his slaves, Eliza Winston, with him. The laws of the state he traveled to explicitly forbade slavery, but three years earlier the national Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott remained property when he had been brought to Minnesota.
Living in Minnesota then were people allied with a faction that sought to end the practice of slavery. They were looking for people claimed as property to contest those claims. How did they view the slave owners? Of course, as evil you may think. Wouldn’t anybody? Somehow, Eliza Winston had made contact with these slavery opponents. One of them, William Babbitt, would swear out a complaint that her slavery on Minnesota soil violated Minnesota law.
Imagine if you could own something as useful as another human being as property, to have complete control over them. Wouldn’t that be useful; and as a business venture, potentially profitable? The faction that owned other people certainly felt that way. How did they view that other faction, the ones who sought to end that practice? They viewed them as wrong certainly, but they also saw them as annoying self-righteous busybodies that needed to be taught a lesson, a view that was sometimes shared even those that weren’t sure that slavery was a good and necessary thing.
Since Eliza did not hide, she was taken to directly to a courtroom. Despite the rapidity of the actions, the courtroom was packed with those from both factions. Eliza’s owner was there with his lawyer, who pointed out Dred Scott. The lawyer for Babbitt had testimony from Eliza Winston that she was indeed a slave, that she’d been passed around like property between several owners, and the lawyer stipulated that Minnesota’s constitution clearly forbade slavery in the state.
The judge ruled, that based on Minnesota law, Eliza Winston was now free. As soon as he pronounced, a clergyman in the crowd jumped up and condemned the decision as “unrighteous,” pointing out that, regardless of the state or federal law, Christianity and its scriptures approved of slavery. I don’t know more of what he said, but he could have claimed that Babbitt and his faction were worse than thieves and rustlers, in that they not only stole, they were self-satisfied in their actions. The crowd stirred at this, and then there was moment of calm in the summer courtroom. Eliza Winston’s owner walked over to the woman that he had owned like a horse or a cow, and he calmly asked her if she wanted to come back with him and return to Mississippi. And Eliza, no longer property, answered that she wished to be free and remain in Minnesota. As Eliza Winston left the courtroom, the Minnesota clergyman was still orating on the wrong that had been done to the slaveowner.
That night, those angry at the decision went out around the town looking for Eliza Winston. What would they have done if they had found her? One can only guess. They surrounded Babbitt’s house and battered down the door seeking Winston or Babbitt, and crying for blood. They similarly broke into another house seeking Winston. Winston, however had been moved somewhere else, and may have fled as far as Canada. A year later the Civil War broke out, and Winston, no longer property, became as if a ghost. There are no pictures of her, no tales of great or even small things that she may have done. Some even say she went back to the south after the war. In Minneapolis there is an inconspicuous historical marker about her case, placed along the Mississippi river that brought her here, and not much else.
Then last year Dave Moore was told a version of Eliza Winston’s story by a friend. The friend, or perhaps Dave, got a couple of the details wrong, and I have left a lot of details out of the story as well—that may not matter. Dave was struck, mixing Eliza’s story and the tale of his friend choosing to tell him this story together, and then forming this lovely, vulnerable song.
Here’s what I ask you, now that you’ve heard my telling of Eliza Winston’s story. If you ever find yourself in a world of factions, and you find yourself in one of those factions, perhaps not sure of what you think, but sure that the other side is clearly more wrong. Ask yourself what Eliza’s story, and the story of slavery tells you.
If you would like to read more of the details of Eliza Winston's story, William Green has the most complete telling I've seen here.