EASTON — It symbolizes ancestral roots and rock-solid connections.

It represents resilience and an indefatigable desire to breathe free.

But most of all, it represents transformation. A simple river rock, an ebenezer of both oppression and victory, now rests near the town that provided sanctuary for Dorchester County native Francis Molock at the northernmost station of the Underground Railroad.

For as long as humans have occupied the planet, they have employed rocks and monuments built of stone to signify freedom, military victories, laws, boundaries and a life to be remembered. From the ancient Israelites’ “ebenezer” after routing the Philistines to Plymouth Rock to Mount Rushmore, certain rocks are full of meaning.

Descendants of Dorchester County slaves gathered in Canada to present a five-pound stone that, while small in size, represents something intangible and much bigger.

Genealogist and historian Elaine Palmer McGill from Georgia, along with her cousin Mar’Leta Jones from Virginia, carried the rock from the Choptank River to Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. Its dedication was part of the town’s 156th Emancipation Festival, the longest-running gathering of its kind in North America, Aug. 3 to 5.

The stone will serve “as a tangible piece of home” and as a reminder of the sacrifices their ancestors made to live as free men and women, McGill said.

The stone was dedicated and presented to sisters Sylvia Wilson and Carolynn Wilson, curators of the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum in nearby Clarksburg, Ontario. The stone will be on permanent display along with other items related to former slaves.

McGill will help the Wilsons create a permanent display so that descendants can “touch a piece of their ancestral home and learn about Maryland’s self-emancipated slaves and their to connection to Canada and Owen Sound,” she said.

“This stone is merely a token, dedicated to all people who descended from slaves,” McGill said at the dedication. “We encourage you to touch it, connect with it, learn about its meaning and message, and to teach your children and their children about their ancestors and the importance of acknowledging and embracing their heritage.”

Following the ancestors’ breakfast on Saturday, Aug. 4, McGill was one of the speakers at a formal ceremony in Harrison Park, where the Black History Cairn, built in 2004, was rededicated. Attending the ceremony were Molock’s great-grandsons George and Terry Harding of Owen Sound.

According to the Owen Sound Tourism Office, the festival “celebrates those who made the Underground Railroad possible — braving a perilous journey from slavery to freedom —and commemorates the British Commonwealth Emancipation Act of Aug. 1, 1834, which abolished slavery in Canada. The festival is held during the first weekend in August.”

Jones read a citation from the state of Maryland to commemorate the event. Gov. Larry Hogan said Maryland citizens expressed “admiration and sincere best wishes for the memorable observance.”

The festival was “wonderful and well attended,” McGill said. She is related to the uncle of Francis Ebenezer Molock (1835-1910), who settled in Owen Sound and built a life there with his wife, Talbot native Mary Douglass, who escaped slavery in Talbot County.

Jones is related to Molock through his sister “Emily Molock Morris whose family, through her son Caleb, still lives in the Aireys area” near Cambridge, McGill said.

Molock, who was enslaved by James Alexander Waddell of Vienna, escaped in 1856 with four other men.

McGill said Molock probably was hired out to work the corn harvest on a plantation at Hambrooke Point near Great Marsh Park in Cambridge when he and his companions escaped bondage.

The Choptank River rock connects the cities of Cambridge and Owen Sound, a relationship acknowledged by Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley, who issued a proclamation stating the citizens of Cambridge and Owen Sound would be “forever bonded” in celebrating the life and mission of Dorchester native and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Ross Tubman.

Because a stone from Maryland is embedded in the cairn, the Choptank stone will be featured at the museum. The cairn includes stones from various towns in Canada including Dresden where Josiah Henson of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fame settled and established a free black community, as well as from Maryland and other states, the Caribbean and Africa. Each has a connection to slavery or the abolitionist movement.

The unfinished walls and two windows of the cairn are meaningful, as well. They are symbolic of an unfinished building awaiting more stones from other states and countries associated with both slavery and freedom.

The windows are reminiscent of the “Little Zion Church,” the first black church built by escaped slaves in Owen Sound. They are patterned after the original windows discovered in the basement of the current British Methodist Episcopal Church.

McGill, along with her mother Alma Perry “Blondie” Palmer, her sisters sisters Kathryn Sheppard and Angela Johnson, and cousins Jackie Jones-McKnight and Venus Jones, waded out into the Choptank at Great Marsh Park and found a stone that seemed to be native to the river. McGill’s mom “was born in Cambridge and has a huge family there,” McGill said.

“Many who arrived on the shores of Canada left from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a state known for brutality and a thriving slave trade through its two major ports, Annapolis, and Long (Wharf) in the city of Cambridge,” McGill said in her speech at the festival.

“Through the heart of Cambridge runs a river, deep, wide and unforgiving,” McGill said. “It’s called the Choptank River, and it has endless stories to tell.”

“One story ... is of a group of five enslaved African-American men who ... left behind family, friends and the only community they had ever known,” McGill said.

The men were Cyrus Mitchell, Joshua Handy, Charles Dutton, Ephraim Hudson (Hodson) and Francis Molock.

Molock wanted simply to cast off the yoke of slavery and benefit from his own labor, McGill said. He had planned to leave in spring 1856, accompanied by Harriet Tubman, but “Harriet fell ill with pneumonia and could not make the trip. By fall, they could wait no longer and they left from Cambridge ... in September, traveling at night on foot for some 100 miles,” keeping the river always “over their left shoulder.”

Mitchell and Molock continued on to Canada, crossing from Niagara, N.Y., to freedom in St. Catharines. Mitchell settled in Chatham, Ontario, while Molock continued on to Owen Sound, where he found work in the shipping industry. Many of his descendants still live there.

Interestingly, McGill has found no record of Molock using the middle name “Ebenezer” until he arrived in Canada.

Today, the modest home Molock built in the 1870s at 242 11th St. West, and where he and Mary raised nine children, still stands, a stop on the Owen Sound Historic Walking Tour. It is a physical reminder of his emancipation and new life as a free man.

So too is the Choptank River stone. It is a reminder of home and a terrible era, but also of a primordial desire, built into the human spirit, for freedom.

To learn more about the Black History Cairn and the heritage of emancipated slaves in Owen Sound, visit www.owensound tourism.ca/en/arts-and-culture/Black-History-Cairn.aspx.

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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