An enslaved Floridian’s astounding journey to freedom inspires awe, conversation—and poetry.

By Janet Scherberger

Editor’s Note: The exhibit “Journey to Freedom: The Odyssey of Abolitionist Moses Roper” won a Secretary of State award through the Florida Main Street Awards Program. 

In 1834, 19-year-old Moses Roper had already tried to escape from slavery 19 times. A forced laborer on an Apalachicola steamboat, Roper was ferociously beaten after every attempt, but undaunted, he set out a 20th time, fleeing through the woods. Roper was chased by wolves, hid from his pursuers in the brush, and dodged alligators on a river crossing. He overcame hunger and heat, ultimately walking almost 400 miles to reach Savannah—and freedom.

Roper went on to earn a degree from the University of London and lecture throughout Europe.

His remarkable story was the focus of an exhibit that opened last fall at the Apalachicola Main Street Museum and was on view at the Apalachicola Arsenal Museum earlier this year. The exhibit was made possible with a $5,000 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities.

Moses Roper
Photo of Moses Roper

“It’s just an amazing story of survival,” says Augusta West, curator of the exhibit. In Savannah, Roper parlayed his experience on a steamboat to get a job on a schooner headed to New York City. He eventually made his way to England, graduated from the University of London, and in 1838, published A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery. An 1840 edition of the book, purchased from an antique bookseller in England, is part of the Apalachicola Museum exhibit. His entire narrative is available online through the University of North Carolina.

Roper lectured more than 2,000 times on abolition, including in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

“He was an incredible advocate for the transatlantic abolitionist movement,” West says.

He moved back to the United States in 1861, and died in Boston 30 years later.

Yet Roper’s story was virtually unknown—including in the community where his triumphant journey began.

“We reached out to members of the local African-American community and asked if they had heard of him and the answer was always, ‘No,’” says West. “When I told them about [his story] and asked if they thought it should be told, the answer was always, ‘Yes.’”

As one viewer wrote, “Classic example of the lack of real Black history in our society. Please get this to our local schools or get the students here.”

West’s collaborators included Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray, a scholar at the University of Edinburgh; Meredith Devereaux, a descendant of Roper who lives in Australia; content producer Dhyana Ziegler in Tallahassee; and Elinor Mount-Simmons, of the Hillside Coalition of Neighbors, an African American civic group in Apalachicola.

The exhibit includes a photo of Roper’s white father, who was also his enslaver; his record of enrollment at the University of London; his marriage certificate; a page from the census showing his family living in Canada during the 1850s; and a newspaper clipping announcing his death in Boston in 1891.

The exhibit has been such a success with the public that it may become a permanent part of the museum. And West hopes the exhibition will travel, likely to Roper’s native North Carolina, and England, where he lectured.

Even though Roper’s story is about just one person, West says the feelings it inspires are universal.

“There are so many elements that people of all backgrounds can relate to, whether it’s trauma, the longing for home, the bonds of family or the power of faith,” West says. “It’s about overcoming adversity and not giving up hope.”

Retired biochemistry professor James Hargrove was one of those deeply moved by the exhibit.

Moses Roper exhibit 3
The exhibit inspired James Hargrove (left) to write a poem about Roper’s journey.

He was so intrigued by his first visit that he returned to the museum a few days later for the official opening in September 2021. It was an extraordinary night, Hargrove says, with neighbors of different races coming together to celebrate Roper, and have the kind of conversations you don’t have when crossing paths in the grocery store aisle.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “It was a striking thing and not that common.”

In addition to talking with West, he met Mount-Simmons, who told him she was descended from enslaved people.

That night Hargrove couldn’t sleep. Thoughts of Roper’s extraordinary odyssey and the people he had met at the museum swirled in his mind. The next day he wrote a poem.

“Of course, his name was Moses so the starting point wasn’t too hard,” Hargrove says. Here’s what he penned:

Oh, Moses,
Your mother did not hide you
Among bulrushes in the Nile’s waters.
When Pharaoh came hunting,
You slipped away in the night
And crossed many rivers, one by one,
So bloodhounds
Could not catch your scent.
When thorns cut you
And stones bruised your feet,
You left dark blood that shone
in the moonlight. You outran
The dogs, the rifles and the chains,
The torture of cotton presses,
And now you stand on that far shore
Beckoning to all men who would be free,
All people who have bled like you,
To swim across those dark waters,
Not without fear, smelling
Their own blood, but knowing,
As you know,
How precious it is
To free a country
From its own chains.

Hargrove wasn’t alone in his strong reaction to the Roper exhibit.

Another visitor wrote: “I think I am related to John Gooch, one of his enslavers. This was both beautiful and devastating. What an amazing exhibit. Thank you.”

Curator West says one reason museum goers are so moved is that his story unfolded in the community where they live.

“People can picture the pine forests and rivers he was crossing. It brings the story home for the people in this region,” West says. “We appreciate Florida Humanities so much for supporting us. This wouldn’t have been possible without the grant.”

2022 Spring Vol. 46 Issue 1

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.