by Storyteller Lyn Ford
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 5 minutes, 58 seconds.
Small stories can teach us who we really are
Lyn Ford tells a story that was passed down by her favorite storyteller, her father. When she was young she would ride around with her father and he would tell her stories. Sometimes he would tell her stories late at night when she was crying, upset after a hard day at school. As the only girl “of any color” in the gifted program at school, Ford put up with a lot of teasing and harassment. She wouldn’t find her father’s stories in the history books at school, but they would help her understand who she was.
As an adult, and a professional storyteller, Ford decided she wanted to tell the stories of the Underground Railroad. But the stories were not the stories everyone knows, but the small stories she heard from her father. She researched the work of Mr. Henry Burke, an important historian and folklorist in Ohio, and came across a reference to one of her father’s stories – the story of Josephus who was born into slavery and worked for a ferryman in Ohio transporting people across the river.
The way Ford’s father told the story is that the so-called owner of Josephus always told Josephus that he was too stupid to do anything other than what he was told, and that he should just ferry across and unload the people with their luggage and come back. One day an Abolitionist met Josephus at the ferry and asked him why he didn’t just step off the ferry himself on the other side of the river and then he could be a free man. Josephus revealed that although he was called stupid, he must get smarter at night because he was secretly transporting people across the Ohio River and into freedom. He did this for over twenty years until the Emancipation Proclamation came into place.
This story helped a young Lyn Ford remember that the words she got called at school were not her real name. The story of Josephus helped her understand who she really was..
- Video of Finding Josephus (MP4 format)
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- Transcription Text of Finding Josephus (PDF format)
REFLECTIONS & DISCUSSION QUESTIONS ABOUT
1) Lyn Ford talks about the importance of knowing the small stories that are not included in our history books. She remembers her visit to the library to research the work of Mr. Henry Burke and when she came across the reference to Josephus, she got goose bumps and started to cry. Consider…
… What are other examples of hidden or undocumented histories?
… What do you think motivated Ford to do this research?
… Why was Ford so moved when she came across the name Josephus?
2) In the story of Josephus, it is told that he participated in the Underground Railroad for about twenty years, moving several people a month across the river to freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation came to pass. What do you think of Josephus’ choice to put the freedom of others before his own? How would you characterize such a person? What do you think Josephus received in return?
3) Ford tells us that her favorite storyteller is her father because his stories taught her who she was. Who are the storytellers in your family? What are they like? What sort of stories do they tell? What do you get out of hearing their stories? How do their stories change you? What are the stories in your family that most fully reveal who you are?
You can be a person who carries important stories for future generations. Ask someone in your family or one of your close friends to tell you a story that helped them in their life, a story that taught them who they are. Listen well so you can remember it and pass it on.
STORY TRANSCRIPT of
by Storyteller Lyn Ford
Note : The transcript below of the video and audio story is not in correct text book English. It is a transcription of the spoken story. There are also a few variations from the spoken word. This text is for your guidance and reference as you start to study and think about this story.
My name is Lyn Ford and I wanted to share a story about my childhood with my father who was my favorite storyteller. His name was Edward M. Cooper, but his nickname was Jake and he would tell me stories. Sometimes we would be riding to help someone with some chore, and sometimes we would be riding to do an errand for someone else, my father helped everybody. Sometimes he shared stories late at night with me that I wouldn’t have heard on those rides. He was trying to help me, I know that now.
It would be after a hard day at school and everyone would be asleep except for my father who has just come in from work and he would hear me crying and I would be by myself and he would tell me a story, because he would know I had a hard time during the day, being the only child of any color in a classroom that was called the fast learners, what we call now call “gifted”. And being the only African American, child in those days what was called a colored child, I was teased and taunted both by African American children and European American children and called names that hurt and I didn’t understand.
My father would get me up and tell me a story. One of them I remember very well. He would tell me these stories and he used to say you need to know these stories. You won’t find them in the history books. They don’t put our stories in those history books; they might put Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, but not these kinds of stories. You need to know them to know who you are.
One of them was about a young man called Josephus, who was a slave from the time he was born and for many many years and he remained enslaved, the so-called property of a ferry man on the Ohio River, so that he could help others to escape to freedom. Well, as my storytelling career progressed I wanted to share the stories of the underground railroad, not the big stories that everybody knew but those little stories that came from my father.
I was trying to research them and I couldn’t find anything about that story that I remembered so well and so I thought maybe my dad had made it up, that it was one of dad’s legends and I was going through the work of Mr. Henry Burke, who is an African American folklorist and historian in Marietta, Ohio. I was sitting in the library reading some of his work and there were a few sentences about someone called Josephus.
My heart just stopped and I felt goose bumps up and down my arms and I know that I started to cry, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes as I saw that name and read that that was a code name for a slave on what was then the Virginia side of the Ohio River who helped folks to escape across the Ohio River for 50 years until Emancipation Proclamation came into place. That area is the mouth of Duck Creek, State Route 77, it goes from Ohio into West Virginia now across a bridge and in the history of Josephus it is said that he carried folks, two or three every month, across that river at the mouth of Duck Creek, so that they could be free before he was.
But my father’s story went a little differently. He said that Josephus was purchased by a ferry man in that area when he was about 10 years old and the ferry man told him what he would do. “You help folks, get on the ferry. You put their bags on the ferry, help them off on the other side, and put their bags off on the other side. You do what I tell you to do and don’t worry about anything else because you are too stupid to do anything else”.
And this went on and on and Josephus grew from a boy to an adolescent to a young man. When he was grown and matured, an abolitionist from Marietta came across the waters at some other point in the Ohio River and said to Josephus, “Why don’t you take the ferry yourself and escape to the other side? I could help you if you need, but why are you staying here? When, if you just take the ferry, you could be free?”
And my daddy said that Josephus said to that abolitionist, “Well, sir, I can’t. I am too stupid to know what to do. At least that’s what that man keeps telling me. But at night, when it gets dark, I must get a little smarter, because I have been helping folks run away across this part of the river for the past 20 years and that man ain’t caught me yet. So he can call me what he wants to call me. I know who I am”.
And then my daddy would say words that helped me to remember this story even if I had lost many of his other tales. “You got to know who you are, you got to remember that an adjective – like stupid – is not your name, you got to know these little stories to know who you are.”
©2011 RaceBridges For Schools. This lesson plan is part of an initiative for educators called RaceBridges For Schools. It is a project that seeks to provide free tools for teachers and students to motivate them to build stronger and more inclusive communities. This guide may be freely used, reproduced and distributed for educational purposes as long as this copyright information is displayed intact. The video and audio excerpts and transcript included in this unit is copyrighted by Lyn Ford. Used with permission: www.lynfordstoryteller.com