Clark’s story adds a puzzle piece to the larger picture of slave experiences, Bernstein said.
“There is so much that nobody has paid any attention to,” she said. “We have a great deal of knowledge about slavery and escapes from slavery, but it’s very scattered, and this is my small attempt to unscatter one piece of the knowledge.”
In her narrative, Clark describes a childhood of abuse. After surviving five floggings, she resolved “to escape or die in the attempt.” She was 34 years old when she fled in 1856, hiding in a cabin for 11 months. The following year, she and her brother obtained forged passes to travel to Washington to see President James Buchanan’s inauguration. She stayed in Washington for two years, passing as a free woman and working as a servant. Her brother had moved on to New York. In 1859, having secured a train ticket, she joined him.
“Her story reminds us an escape often didn’t take days or months. It could take years,” Bernstein said.
Among the narrative’s many moving passages is Clark’s recollection of witnessing the Leonid meteor shower while making one of her seven daily trips for water in 1833.
“It was on one of these early morning excursions that she saw the ‘stars fall,’” Ferris wrote. “This scene is vivid in her memory. The children were on their way to the spring. They were not old enough to be alarmed by the unusual sight but ran along trying to catch the stars as they fell.”
The account of the Leonid event deepened Bernstein’s conviction that Clark’s narrative deserved a wider audience.
“She wasn’t extraordinary, but that’s exactly why I had to share it. The fact she never gave a speech or ran for Congress doesn’t mean she didn’t matter. She’s one of many, many stories and it deserves to be heard,” she said.