Award-winning journalist Betty DeRamus has written about race riots, refugee camps and other news events around the world. But more recently she's been pursuing a different kind of story -- this one dating as far back as the 1600s and set against the backdrop of African American slavery. She describes what she found in a new book titled Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad.
Ms. DeRamus began writing Forbidden Fruit after meeting the descendants of an interracial couple who overcame huge obstacles to marry in the mid-1800s. That spurred her on to look for more love stories -- at family reunions, in court documents, census records, unpublished memoirs and old newspapers. Looking back at a time when marriages between slaves were not legally binding in the United States…and when masters could sell or move their slaves at will, she found accounts of people who risked everything to be together.
"It's the story of couples who faced mobs, bloodhounds, bounty hunters, bullets, whippings, everything you can imagine, every possible peril," says Betty DeRamus. "When the first escape didn't take, they had to do it again and again and again, before they finally were able to achieve their goal."
Many stories in the book unfold along the “Underground Railroad,” the organized network that sheltered fugitive slaves during the decades before slavery was abolished in the 1860s. Other stories feature people who relied on more informal methods to stay together. Some couples walked across several states or waited decades to be reunited. One pair traveled in disguise from south to north, with bounty hunters in pursuit, then sailed to England. One young woman hid herself in a wooden chest and had herself shipped to the man she loved.
An 1806 Virginia law even led some people to renounce their freedom. "That was one of the surprises in my research," Betty DeRamus says. "The Virginia Assembly ruled that any newly-freed blacks would have to leave the state. And some of those newly-freed blacks petitioned the Virginia Assembly saying they would rather go back into slavery than be free without their families.”
The book tells the story of Joseph Antoine, a slave in Cuba, who was freed, moved to Virginia and fell in love with an enslaved woman. “When her owner was about to move west, he threatened to sell her off to someone else so that Joseph Antoine would not be able to see her any more -- unless he agreed to become what was known as an indentured servant, which was temporary slavery,” the author says. “And he did so."
Forbidden Fruit also includes the account of the couple who launched Betty DeRamus on her research. Isaac Berry was a black slave living in Missouri when he fell in love with Lucy Millard, a white minister's daughter. After learning he was about to be sold, he fled north to Windsor, Canada, walking by night and hiding out by day. Lucy promised to follow him. She was supposed to leave home for boarding school at the time. But, instead, she bought a train ticket north and eventually reached Windsor.
"As the story is told," says her great grandson, Jim Cross, "she walked that summer looking for him, and finally one evening heard him playing his violin in a tavern. She recognized him because he had a special way of playing. And they met, they married and stayed in Canada, I think, for 19 years."
The couple eventually resettled in Michigan, and opened a school that welcomed mixed race children. But they paid a high price for their life together. "They never saw any of their families again,” Jim Cross says. “Isaac didn't see his mother or his brothers or sisters again, and Lucy gave up her family -- for love, which has to be pretty powerful."
The story of Isaac and Lucy Berry has been handed down from generation to generation. "It's our roots, our beginning in this area," Mr. Cross explains. "It's caused our family to be very energetic. Lawyers and many, many educators, professional people, business people, have come out of this family and have done remarkable things."
Not all the stories in Forbidden Fruit end happily. But Betty DeRamus says most of the stories are about reunions, and she hopes they will provide a new way of looking at the history of slavery. "The way the story is traditionally told, it emphasizes the victimhood of African Americans," Ms. DeRamus says. In contrast, with her approach, she believes "you hear about the creativity, the courage of people. And they've passed on the legacy of their heroic actions to their families, and families are being inspired by these stories even today."