“The Great Escape” is a series of eight painted panels about the Underground Railroad by Charlotte artist Abel Jackson. It is currently located at 1635 West Trade Street around the Five Points Plaza in Historic West End. The exhibit is presented by LATIBAH (Life and Times In Black American History), the Collard Green Museum, and Historic West End. Originally, LATIBAH and Collard Green Museum founder, T’Afo Feimster, received a grant from the Arts & Science Council to prepare the panels for exhibition in his museum space. When that space was lost, the panels were moved to this small pocket park with the assistance of Historic West End.
Signage at the exhibit. Photo by Brooke Brown Photography.
Abel Jackson created these panels in 2014 and worked practically around the clock for weeks to finish. The first painting took six days and then he moved onto the rest essentially working on them all at the same time. He often worked 12-15 hours days on 'lite days' and 22+ hour days on others. Some friends came to help. Jackson explained “no matter how early I arrived or how late I stayed, T’Afo was there longer.”
T'Afo Feimster is a local artist and educator and founder of the LATIBAH and Collard Green Museum. Currently without a physical space, the organization continues "to serve as a center for education on the significant times and events of Black America’s cultural development" through educational tours and reenactment programs. All of the original text included here as the LATIBAH Story was prepared by LATIBAH’s research, educate, archive and development department (READ)’s team of a dozen contributors.
The original sharing of artist Abel Jackson’s story occurred in a series of interviews between Charlotte photographer Brooke Brown and Jackson and was posted on Instagram. Brown maintains a photography practice and aims to amplify Black voices with her photography. All images included here in the artwalk are by Brooke Brown Photography.
Abel Jackson (left) and T'Afo Feimster. Photo by Brooke Brown Photography.
Abel Jackson is an artist working in a variety of media who received his B.F.A from Winthrop University. Jackson maintains a studio practice and does work ranging from portraits, airbrushing, graphic design and murals.
Abel shared with Brooke that he had two months or so to work on the pieces. He researched for a couple of weeks and learned a lot, but he had a creative block about what to paint, about how to share the history. He said it’s the only time he’s had a block. He said he prayed to his ancestors asking that they show him something of their story. The message he received back was ‘put yourself in our shoes.’ He said he decided to meditate. He got really still for 30 minutes and said he felt like he went into a time machine. Something pulled him back and he became the observer of the experience. He immediately felt ‘fear’ - fear about running away as a slave and of what would happen to those left behind. Next, he felt ‘shame’ because he was afraid of the fear. He said anyone who ran had to face that fear.
Abel Jackson. Photo by Brooke Brown Photography.
LATIBAH Story: Enslaved men, women, and children toiled in the fields and house under horrific conditions. Enslavement, also known as Peculiar Institution, destroyed black family structure, human dignity and was brutal both to the body and the mind. Working in all weather conditions from sunup to sundown resulted in poor living conditions, disease and high death rates. Punishments varied from whippings to floggings to the hot box. Offenses were deemed minor or major and included: the food not being hot enough or not picking your quota of cotton for the day. Running away, stealing one’s self, was seen as a way out, thus the Great Escape upon the Underground Railroad.
Key Formal Elements:
The woman in the blue dress has just been whipped by the plantation owner’s son whose rape attempt she thwarted. You can see him sulking away to the right while she is comforted in the cotton fields by a friend.
While this is the story of the woman in the blue dress, Jackson fills the panel with supporting details to describe life on a planation. On the left side of the panel, a child is taken from their parents. On the right side, lynched figures hang from trees, a figure is whipped against a tree, and vicious dogs jumping out from the right corner suggest the “hell on earth” that slaves endured. All while the fluffy, white, puffs of cotton wait to be picked.
LATIBAH Story: Once the African was enslaved in America he could no longer communicate free and openly. Communication, even with himself, was forever changed thus ensuring the enslaved as tame, servile and ignorant. Communication was strictly controlled in order to reduce runaway or revolting behaviors. The legal Slave Codes limited the ability to travel or gather along with other dehumanizing laws. Those who dared break these laws faced several punishments. Because all communication was controlled, a coded system was devised amongst the enslaved community. The enslaved cleverly communicated about escaping to freedom through coded songs such as Steal Away – meaning, prepare for one’s escape. In addition, the Quilted North Star Pattern meant: follow the heavenly path of the North Star. These, plus many of the coded messages, face directional guidance aiding the fugitive in his dangerous flight upon the Underground Railroad.
Key Formal Elements:
The woman in the blue dress and others prepare to run. A newly married and expecting couple, a young man called “Unbreakable” with whip marks on his back, and a little boy join her in plotting escape. As opposed to the overwhelming amount of activity in the first panel, here the artist creates an enclosed room so that you feel the tension and loneliness of the group.
Notice the stones on the floor. They are arranged like the Big Dipper constellation. According to folklore, the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” song was one of the ways that African Americans would communicate about finding safe passage. Since a drinking gourd is similar in shape to the Big Dipper, it is believed that lyrics in the song directed slaves to find the Big Dipper and follow it North to freedom.
LATIBAH Story: For runaways, the North Star was the guiding light to the American North and Canada. The Underground Railroad offered an extensive network of people and places assisting in their efforts to gain freedom. Various routes and hideaways such as: rivers, caves, attics, cellars, mountains and invisible pathways were utilized.
For the sake of discretion and secrecy, the majority of travel had to be under the cover of nightfall. Whether wading through the swamps or crossing the river, night provided invisible cover for the runaway. Travel had to be in a zig-zag pattern in order to avoid leaving a clear path for the Slave Catchers to follow. It was important that these fugitives be able to correctly connect the dots in order to continue safely on their path.
Key Formal Elements:
Leaving in the middle of the night, the group hoped to be miles away by the time the owners knew they were gone. But the woman in the blue dress had a different plan. The artist here works with the dynamic tension of the group in motion to show the urgency of their escape. Each figure strains with movement and expressions of fear. Notice that the nature of the forest and the cotton plants frame their escape route from the slavery of their present to the unknown darkness of their future.
LATIBAH Story: In the fight against enslavement, fugitive narratives were immensely popular with the American public. Abolitionists spread their message by way of books, newspapers, pamphlets, poetry, published sermons and literature. The narratives were personal accounts and depictions of life in bondage giving a first-hand and truthful expose on the system of enslavement. Narratives were published throughout the country, such as Fredrick Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" selling 30,000 copies; "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriott Jacobs. "William Wells Brown's Narrative" went through four editions in its first year, and Solomon Northup’s' "Three Years a Slave" sold 27,000 copies during its first two years in print. This was only the beginning as there were so many stories yet to be told.
Key Formal Elements:·
With the plantation owners in quick pursuit, the young man, “The Unbreakable,” runs out as a distraction so that the rest of the group may have a chance to survive. Jackson shows the group cowering in fear, silencing the young boy after he realizes what his older “brother” was doing.
LATIBAH Story: From the individual plantation to the federal government, Slave Catching was Big Busine$$.
The economy of America Enslavement dictated the human property owners be not deprived of their chattel. Runaways came under the jurisdiction of the legalized and monetary slave catching business.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a legal requirement for society to participate in the capture of runaways whether they agreed with slavery or not. Special courts, backed by these laws, went hand and hand with lucrative rewards. The Bounty Hunter - also known as the patroller, kidnapper and slave catcher - relentlessly pursued his fugitive because it meant cashing in on the object of his pursuit.
Those who aided and abetted the fugitive were also endangered with laws governing their punishment, ranging from monetary fines to imprisonment to death.
Key Formal Elements:
From the frenetic escape through the forest under the cover of trees and nature, eventually slaves would have to have other ways to continue their journey. In this panel, Jackson illustrates how slaves would hide and journey under and inside wagons. In the original installation to bring this part of the story to life, LATIBAH built and displayed a life-size wagon to show how slaves fit inside.
Like the scene in the inside of the cabin, the artist shows us a calm and quiet scene with relatively little activity. It is that stillness that he creates that connects to the utter silence of the slaves hiding in the wagon.
LATIBAH Story: The enslaved were breaking federal law by running away to find freedom, thus having to be very careful with which strangers they trusted. One hope for the weary, tiresome but courageous runaway was that of a safe house. This was often a home with a lit lantern accompanied by a hidden messaged quilt or other identifying marks that were communicated through various conductors - those who aided the fugitives.
Safe houses were crucial to the underground railroad as they provided food and shelter amongst other necessities for the runaway. Although safe houses varied from small uncomfortable attics to fake bottom wagons to a kind strangers barn to be hidden within the hay, they nonetheless provided a day’s rest for those who dared to seek Freedom.
Key Formal Elements:
Abel shared with Brooke that someone gave the group refuge in their cabin for the night. Again, the artist uses the idea of a closed in-room to bring attention to harsh and desperate conditions of the journey.
Two important compositional devices here really enforce major themes of this series. First, notice how the figures are all arranged in a circle, touching each other. The circle is a symbol of unity and relates to their desire to stay together in order to give their group the greatest chance of success. Next, on the far left is an open window and a suggestion of a path to freedom. It represents hope.
LATIBAH Story: The Underground Railroad became “The Great Escape” for those who fearlessly fled the awful system of chattel Enslavement in the quest for Freedom between the years 1810 - 1861.
It was a secret system of escape conducted by a diverse and determined network of individuals and places aiding over 100,000 fugitives to freedom. The routes - perilous and hidden - were identifiable by the use of verbal and physical secret codes.
It was a time of great unrest as the bloodhound Slave Catchers hunted the Enslaved. The law harshly punished anyone daring to aid a runaway. Nevertheless, many risked their lives for the sake of FREEDOM.
Key Formal Elements:
Jackson manipulates the scale of the three remaining figures to place the emphasis on their survival. In the background, the young man sacrifices his life fighting the alligators in the swamp. Perhaps the regular repetition of the tree trunks suggest the prison of their former lives as they move away from that life.
LATIBAH Story: Abolitionist and Anti-Slavery organizations were a diverse group of direct and indirect participants in the Underground Railroad.
Indirect participants influenced society by demanding the end of enslavement and further exposed this disgraceful system through political and public platforms. Direct participants, by means of the Underground Railroad, devised a system of escape and provided fugitives with food, shelter, clothes, and jobs in an effort to create opportunities for runaways to live their lives as freedmen. Some of the most advent abolitionists were the Black Freedmen and women, the Quaker Society and heroines of the time such as Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and William Still.
Key Formal Elements:
In Jackson’s panel titled “Reaching for Freedom,” the focal point of the image is the area in the middle where the two outstretched hands almost meet. The composition connects back to the second panel with the figures placed in a symbolic grouping and strong linear perspective but this time in the urban setting of the North.
Come Rest now Chile, your Journey has been long and hard.
Been rot with dangers and snares,
Though the running has ceased,
your work has now just begun.
Enslaved, having been stripped of all human dignity what is there now left of you?
Family Been Sold Away
No Land or Home to Call you Own
But you are Enslaved No Longer
Free Your Mind
Your Family are your brothers and sisters around you
Your home is where your Spirit and Heart Lay.
Because You Are Free Now
Come rest a while and take time to feel your freedom.
Come now, Chili, and breath in your freedom.
Come - Drink your Freedom In