This post may be triggering to survivors of abuse.
One morning in the spring of 1842, a young woman secretly boarded a ship heading north along the Atlantic coast of America. The woman was Harriet Jacobs, and she had been enslaved since birth in the plantations and manors of the American South. For seven years, she had been hiding from her owner. And then suddenly she was on a northbound ship, inching closer by the moment to the free soil of Philadelphia.
Jacobs later reflected on the journey: “The balmy air of spring was so refreshing! And how shall I describe my sensations when we were fairly sailing on Chesapeake Bay? O, the beautiful sunshine! the exhilarating breeze! And I could enjoy them without fear or restraint.” Jacobs and another woman fleeing with her woke up early the next morning “to see the sun rise, for the first time in our lives, on free soil… the waves began to sparkle, and every thing caught the beautiful glow.”
What can the first few moments of freedom be like for someone coming out of exploitation and slavery?
Frederick Douglass called his first breaths of free air “a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced.” Many children we’ve worked with feel that some excitement when they finally realize they’re in a new chapter – no longer trapped in exploitative situations. But there’s often some nervousness and mistrust mixed with it. (Is it too good to be true? Is this just another betrayal?) Many times too, they’re just exhausted.
One young girl came to our Round Home at age 8. Her small body had been through so much — there was the sexual exploitation, but also the malnutrition, the beatings so severe that the other members of her community alerted the police. She got out of the car and walked through the garden. This brick path has carried many young people with heavy histories and cautious steps. Every child who walks down this path has a chilling story. The march down this path closes the torturous chapter and turns the page to a new season of safety, health, and adventure.
Shy at first, she met the older girls waiting for her inside the door. But she was grinning from ear to ear, taking in the plants and the smiles and the sweet night air.
They welcomed her warmly and then gave her some space. (A lot of attention can be overwhelming at first, especially if you’ve come to feel safest when you’re invisible.) This little girl has a close friend – someone she met while they were both being exploited – who came to the Round Home six months before, at age 5. Bursting with excitement, her friend showed this new guest a tour of the gardens and the living room and the shelves full of toys.
They went to the kitchen so a nurse could fix this newcomer a bowl of rice and some dessert. After dinner, a set of clothes was laid out for her. With the help of the staff, her friend makes sure she has everything she’ll need for bedtime: some comfy pajamas, a toothbrush, a comb.
Pause to think of the simplicity of these things: putting on clothes that nobody will make her take off. Climbing into a bed that she can have all to herself. Eating a meal that didn’t come at the expense of her own safety.
This was the first night of freedom for her As she went to bed that evening, freedom meant physical safety. Food. A friend who could promise her that things would get better. And since that night, freedom has come to mean many new things to her. It’s meant growing in self-confidence. It’s meant testifying in court against her trafficker. And doing for other newcomers what her friend did for her: welcoming them, showing them that they matter.
Today, a few years later, we almost can’t believe she’s the same person who walked up our brick path that night in September, so small and tired. Freedom has strengthened her body and given her back the glow in her smile. This is what we fight for: not just the first few moments of freedom, wide-eyed and giddy and apprehensive, but the story that unfolds from them.