ARLINGTON, Neb. — They fled slavery in Nebraska on Thanksgiving night in 1858, running for their lives. • The two women crossed the Missouri River on a skiff piloted by a sympathizer. Once in Iowa, they relied on the goodwill of strangers who hid them inside covered wagons and safe houses along their fraught journey to Chicago. Behind them hurried a prominent Nebraska City man, their owner, in hot pursuit. • Now, a century and a half later, a teacher from this Washington County town just northwest of Omaha wants to follow their path. • Arlington High history teacher Barry Jurgensen is planning to trace the escape of the two ex-slaves — he calls them freedom seekers — whose names were Celia and Eliza. He has plotted a 500-mile, monthlong journey that he will take mostly by foot from Nebraska City to Chicago. Where he can, Mr. Jurgensen will camp outside the places used by the women on the Underground Railroad. • Right now, he's raising money and training for the trek, which means strapping on a pack and hiking around Arlington or west Omaha, where he lives with his wife and two small children. • The 32-year-old is embarking upon this journey for a few reasons. • First, it's another way that he can take a subject that may seem dead and buried and bring it to life for his students. • Second, by taking the arduous journey himself, he can get a sense of what the women went through.
Third, he can raise awareness and money to help a modern-day abolitionist group, the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. The Atlanta-based nonprofit is focused on preventing and eradicating a form of slavery that exists today — sex trafficking.
The group bears the name of a man who was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped from it in 1838, and became a powerful speaker, writer and abolitionist. One of his autobiographies, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," was a best-seller and remains on high school and college reading lists.
The group's president and co-founder is Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a descendant of Douglass. Morris also is the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became a major figure in turn-of-the-century America as an educator, orator and adviser to U.S. presidents.
Morris is coming to Omaha on March 11 to promote Jurgensen's journey, which is called Walk Forever Free. The Washington County Historical Association has organized a dinner and speech in Omaha and is selling tickets.
Jurgensen's American history class is so popular and demanding that students, mainly juniors, must apply to get in. Once accepted, they spend the spring semester deep-diving into slavery and the Underground Railroad, the unofficial network of safe places and "conductors" who helped slaves flee to freedom.
Today, the National Park Service is trying to map the very diffuse system of safe houses and routes. Jurgensen's students have helped put various sites in Nebraska and Iowa formally on the record as part of the Underground Railroad.
All spring, Jurgensen's students work in pairs to research Underground Railroad conductors and fleeing slaves — or "freedom seekers," as Jurgensen and the National Park Service prefer. They note that the terms "slave," "fugitive" and "runaway" are drawn from the disparaging perspectives of a slave-holding society. "Freedom seeker," on the other hand, reflects the goal of liberty that people such as the Nebraska City women, Celia and Eliza, undoubtedly had.
The students spend class time, weekends and even part of the summer doing painstaking research. They conduct database searches and make formal records requests. They travel and do other detective work to assemble facts and make 25 to 30-page requests to the Park Service to place more locations on the growing list of Underground Railroad stops.
Students Riley Smith, 16, and Trevor Toebben, 17, are trying to learn about a freedom seeker from Missouri named John "Jack" Howe. They already had an old newspaper obituary, which gave a brief biography about how he was born into slavery. But after requesting records from the National Archives, they got a sheaf of copied documents from Washington, D.C., detailing Howe's service in the Civil War. He had enlisted in 1864, two years after escaping slavery.
"It's definitely eye-opening, kind of like slavery is not forgotten," Riley said.
"It's bringing alive what's been covered up, sugar-coated," Trevor said.
Take the case of Celia and Eliza.
Not much is known about the pair except that they were "servants," as the Nebraska City News called them in 1858. And those "servants" decided to "quit" and get the heck out of Nebraska City — an unquestionably daring decision that was derided in the one-sided news coverage at the time. It described the slave owner, Stephen F. Nuckolls, as a "townsman" and their Underground Railroad helper as "some vile, white-livered Abolitionist."
"They will doubtless be found in some Abolition hole," the newspaper said.
Celia and Eliza made it to Chicago safely despite Nuckolls' offer of a $200 reward. They got help from freed blacks and sympathetic whites, including a deacon from a Congregational church in Tabor, Iowa.
At great personal risk, the helpers hid them and ferried them in a covered wagon. Some were beaten for helping the pair escape. One had his property ransacked — he later sued, and an Iowa jury found Nuckolls guilty and awarded the helper a hefty judgment.
Eliza popped up in headlines two years later. She was reportedly working as a housekeeper at a downtown Chicago brothel when word got around that she was an escapee from Nebraska City. Nuckolls went to Chicago to retrieve her.
A 2013 book on Iowa's Underground Railroad called "Necessary Courage" gives this account: In 1860, Nuckolls demanded that Chicago authorities arrest Eliza. No one would. So Nuckolls went to the alleged brothel to fetch her himself. Eliza resisted but was put in Nuckolls' carriage. Then a crowd of mostly black Chicagoans surrounded them. In the hubbub, Eliza was taken to a jail but eventually got away. Nuckolls was foiled.
The story of Celia and Eliza has fascinated Jurgensen, who is eager to retrace their steps. Besides walking, he may also catch an occasional ride in a wagon, which has been offered. And he'll have company — some current and former students, as well as a fellow teacher, have said they will walk with him part of the way.
Of course, his journey won't be the same as Celia's and Eliza's. He won't feel the terror of a rich and powerful slave owner on his heels. He'll have GPS and support.
But in treading some of the same route, in connecting physically with the flight of Celia and Eliza, he will experience the Underground Railroad and its promise of freedom. And he will be raising awareness about slavery today.