Last night the Olympia, Washington City Council proclaimed Charles Mitchell Day, honoring the 13-year-old household slave who escaped to freedom in Victoria on September 24, 1860. This is the story told in Free Boy, A True Story of Slave and Master, co-authored with Lorraine McConaghy. Lorraine, who did most of the research and the initial writing for this book, was unable to attend, so I made brief remarks, which I share with you here. I was asked to talk about the educational impact of the story.
I am speaking this evening for myself and for my co-author Lorraine McConaghy. I cannot speak for Charles Mitchell, but wouldn’t he be surprised that more than 150 years after he lived in Olympia, we would remember him and the dark early morning when he hurried down the hill to steal away on the Eliza Anderson.
Since the publication of Free Boy, his story has captured the imagination and admiration of many. A legal researcher, Thomas Blake, was challenged by the mystery of what became of the young boy and discovered that he returned to the United States just before the end of the Civil War, joined the Union Army (probably misrepresenting his age) and lived a fairly ordinary long life as a mariner, freed to make his own choices.
The 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle brought the story to thousands of schoolchildren Washington and Oregon in a traveling musical. The children I saw in the audiences were mesmerized and intrigued by Mitchell’s hard decision to leave a comfortable but circumscribed life for an unknown but free future.
Most who have learned the story are surprised that slavery was legal in Washington Territory and that an underground railroad—in the form of a Puget Sound mail steamer–operated to free a boy born into slavery.
With this declaration, you are lifting up an inspiring story of community action and individual courage during a time of deep political polarization, a city divided in its sympathies by the anticipated civil war. May this proclamation be one small step in recognizing the injustices in our shared history.