There’s a lot about Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated film Django Unchained that seems, true to the director’s well-known dramatic tendencies, somewhat larger than life: The huge personas of do-gooder bounty hunter King Schultz and sadistic slave owner Calvin Candie, for example, or the caricaturist’s rendering of the conniving head house slave, Stephen.
But one crucial element of the film’s plot does seem to be drawn from real life: Django’s struggle to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda, echoes the lengths slaves would really go to in order to stay with or be reunited with their loved ones.
Author Betty DeRamus uncovered countless stories of slavery-era couples struggling to be together in the face of incredible adversity while researching her book, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad. “Some of them are black couples, some of them are a free black person with a slave mate, and a few of them are interracial couples,” DeRamus said. “But they all have one thing in common: All went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being separated.”
There was Joseph Antoine, for example, a free black man from Cuba who chose of life of indentured servitude in order to stay with his wife. “In the process of working on that [story],” DeRamus said, “I discovered there were quite a few black Virginians who were willing to surrender freedom because they said the price of freedom was too high; if it meant leaving their families, they’d rather not have it. And I had never heard that before.”
Then there was Isaac Berry, the Missouri slave in love with his white neighbor’s daughter, Lucy. Berry’s owner wanted to sell him to pay off gambling debts, but Berry escaped across the Mississippi River into Illinois, then traveled to Indiana, Michigan, and finally across the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada. Lucy, meanwhile, took the money her family had saved for boarding school and instead bought a train ticket to Detroit, and waited there to meet her beau.
“Remember, there were no cell phones, no Internet, no mass communication of any kind,” DeRamus said of this incident, pointing out the extreme difficulty of setting up such a daring and far off rendezvous. “One of the most extraordinary things about these couples is the faith that they had. . . that somehow things were going to work out.”
Perhaps the most remarkable story in DeRamus’ collection is that of John Little, a slave who carried his unconscious wife to freedom on his whip-scarred back. You can hear DeRamus read her account of John Little and his wife in the audio above.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Betty DeRamus spoke at an event presented by The Field Museum in February of 2006. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.
Follow Robin Amer on Twitter @rsamer.