A 20th century underground railroad

I have been reading The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson about the migration of black people in the 20th century from the South to the North and West.   I intend to post a review of it tomorrow, but there was a particular passage that was so fascinating that it deserves a separate post.

A brave black editor in Mississippi named Arrington High wrote a newsletter attacking segregation.  In 1957, he wrote an article exposing white segregationist politicians who patronized a black whorehouse.  The authorities had him declared insane and committed to a state mental institution, where he could expect to spend the rest of his life at hard labor.

the-warmth-of-other-suns_s6c10The asylum put patients to work on farms owned by the state.  One of High’s chores was to get up at 5 a.m. and milk the cows.  One morning early in 1958, instead of going to the barn, he walked down a deserted path to a row of automobiles, with four white drivers and a black driver.  He got in beside the black driver, and the caravan was waved through by the armed guard at the gate.  They drove to the Alabama line, where he got out of the car, walked across the line and joined another caravan with Alabama license plates.

They took him to a black funeral home.   He was told to lay down in a pine coffin with breathing holes.  The coffin was sealed shut and flowers were put on top.  The coffin was put in a hearse and driven to a railway station, where it was shipped to Chicago and opened 15 hours later by waiting friends.

The whole story reminds me of someone escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.  In the 1970s, the Soviet Union also dealt with dissidents by having them declared insane.  There was a medical diagnosis called “sluggish schizophrenia,” a unique form of supposed mental illness which had no symptoms.   But I suppose it was a sign of progress, both in Mississippi and Russia that there came a time when dissidents were railroaded into mental institutions rather than being killed out of hand.   And progress did not stop there.  The changes that have taken place in the American South and in Russia during my lifetime are a reminder that freedom and democracy are not hopeless causes.

As Wilkerson pointed out, the hearse technique was used by the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves out of the South before the Civil War.  The precision with which Arrington High’s escape was organized indicates that there was another underground railroad operating in the 20th century.   Wilkerson couldn’t get anybody to tell her details “in case, it would seem, it might need to be used again.”

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One Response to “A 20th century underground railroad”

  1. Robin Cain Says:

    I also began reading this book and the mention of Arrington High had me googling his name, which is how I found your post. Shameful that such a dark spot in history offers so little information on this man’s courageous efforts.


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