Though I really don’t believe in coincidences, last week, something did happen to me that felt like it was a coincidence. Instead, I believe that whatever happens was meant to be. It was how the story of Margaret Garner showed up in my life during my first period class.
Garner’s life story was all over the news a couple of months ago amid the focus on the topic of critical race theory. Remember, when the GOP was using the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved” to urge educators to NOT teach such history, regardless of whether this history is true? It is the story of Garner who slashed her daughter’s throat to keep her from living her life as a slave. Let me explain what happened to me in regard to this story.
I was working as a substitute teacher at Watkins Mill High School in the Montgomery County Public Schools system. My company contracts have been canceled due to COVID-19, so I’m back working at schools again, and enjoying my work! This school is very close to my home, only three to five minutes away.
It just so happened that the full-time teacher for this U.S. History class is Caucasian, but her focus in the lesson plan at this time is slavery. Students had to watch a YouTube video titled “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” part of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s docuseries. They were to watch this video over two days and answer questions on their laptops as they watched, and she would have access to their work. So the students were very attentive.
On the first day, the video ended after telling the story of Margaret Garner. I asked the students if they remembered this story in the news earlier this fall. They did. The bell rang and I picked up a book about slavery that I found intriguing, “Many Thousands Gone: African Americans From Slavery to Freedom” by Virginia Hamilton. It is a delightful book of short stories of Blacks we know, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and others, but there was also a short chapter on Garner. I had been reading this book during class time, when there was nothing for me to do.
My bookmarked page where I was to start reading again was the story of Margaret Garner. Amazed that our last story in the Henry Louis Gates video was also the story of Garner, I told my students as they were leaving what happened, and they all agreed that this was definitely quite a coincidence. I promised them that I would write about this in my column with The Washington Informer. So I’m keeping my word by sharing this story with you.
Best known as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s award-winning “Beloved,” the Garner incident of 1856 contains one of the most groundbreaking fugitive slave trials of the pre-Civil War era. Born into slavery in Boone County, Kentucky, Garner worked as a house slave for much of her life, often traveling with her masters and even accompanied them on shopping trips to free territories in Cincinnati.
After marrying Robert Garner in 1849, they had four children. In the 1850s, having heard of the Underground Railroad in and around Cincinnati, transporting numerous slaves to freedom in Canada, they decided to use this chance to escape enslavement. On Sunday Jan. 27, 1856, they began their journey to freedom, heading for Joseph Kite’s house in Cincinnati.
Safely reaching the Kite home, they awaited their next guide. However, the Garners’ master, A.K. Gaines, and federal marshals stormed Kite’s home with warrants. Determined not to return to slavery, Margaret decided to take the lives of herself and her children. When the marshals found Margaret in a back room, she had slit her 2-year-old daughter’s throat with a butcher knife, killing her. The other children lay on the floor wounded but still alive.
The Garners were taken into custody and tried, but federal marshals were not able to serve Margaret with an arrest warrant and she never received a second trial.
Margaret Garner died in 1858 from typhoid fever, but her story lives on today.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.