This August, First Baptist Church, Puce celebrated the enduring legacy of John Freeman Walls, a fugitive slave who founded their church community in the mid-19th Century.
John’s life story is reads like a movie script: born on a North Carolina plantation in 1813, he was a first-generation descendant of African slaves. Unusually for the time, however, he became close friends with the slaveowner’s son, Daniel. When Daniel became terminally ill in his 30s, he entrusted John with the care of his wife Jane, a white woman, and their four children.
As Stacey Gibson recounts,
Months later, John and Jane fell in love and decided they would travel to a free state and marry. But the journey would be a seditious undertaking: in North Carolina, not only were interracial relationships illegal, but they were sure to unleash a maelstrom of fury from the community. The couple, along with the children, fled the plantation at night and headed toward Canada.
Slave owners quickly put a bounty on John’s head. The group travelled at night, veiled by the forests of North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. They also travelled incognito: at times, Jane pretended that John was her slave, rather than her companion. In one case she tied him to a wagon wheel and whipped him to satisfy Kentuckian slave patrollers’ curiosity.
The fugitives were sheltered and fed along the way by white and black volunteers on the Underground Railroad. In Indiana, a white Quaker abolitionist married the couple in a quiet outdoor ceremony known as “jumping the broom.” They crossed the Detroit River on an abolitionist-run boat, finally finding safety in Puce in 1846. Read more
Two centuries after his birth, First Baptist Church, Puce invited their community to celebrate this remarkable man and his passage to freedom. They gathered outdoors at the Underground Railroad Museum, which preserves John’s homestead, including the cabin that served as the original Baptist church in Puce.
As part of the day’s events, Pastor Della Bost expressed her thanksgiving for the courage of the fugitives, and the welcome they received in Canada where they were “free to worship their God, free to raise their families, and free to prosper from the fruit of their labour.” Musicians, actors, and numerous descendants of John Walls also shared during the event, which concluded with a historical reenactment of John’s perilous journey (see right).
“Even though our past was both challenging and difficult,” reflects Della Bost, “our families can now face a bright future as freedom reigns from generation to generation.” In the story of John Freeman Walls, we celebrate the promise of freedom in our land, even as we pray that God would help us extend it to others who still live in visible or invisible slavery.