SCRANTON — She’s a beautician from Scranton, a mother of seven, a self-described “Air Force brat” whose father brought his family back to his Northeastern Pennsylvania hometown when he retired in 1975.
But something else is part of Sandra Burgette Miller’s biography.
Researching her family tree has led Burgette Miller, 56, to a great-great-grandfather who escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad, and connected her to ancestors whose courage inspires her.
“When I sleep, I dream,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s like people are whispering in my ear, ‘Tell my story. Tell my story.”
Eager to answer that request, Burgette Miller has written a collection of poems titled “Tell ‘em” and illustrated them with photographs that suggest the devastation of slavery and the urgency of escape from America’s pre-Civil War South, as well as the rewards of starting a new life.
“Here I hide in this tiny space, scared to death they’ll see my face. Can’t move, won’t make a sound. Scared to death I might be found,” Burgette Miller wrote, pairing poignant words with a photo of her daughter, Georgia Miller, posing as if she were stealthily on her way north to freedom. “A loaf of bread, that I hold. A blanket keeps me from the cold. As time grows near, so does my fear. Someone’s supposed to meet me here. ‘Til then I’ll wait in this tiny space. Praying to God to keep me safe.”
Another poem depicts the pain of a child who has heard grown-ups talk about how the “mama I never knowed” had been sold — apparently to appease the wrath of “Mrs. Johnson,” who was angry that “Massa” had impregnated one of the slaves with a baby who was “born white.” Burgette Miller’s daughter Annie posed for the photo that accompanies that poem.
Perhaps the most searing poem and photo depict a mother’s anguish as her child is taken away and sold. “I kiss you away, my beautiful child,” Burgette Miller wrote. “As they drag you away, my soul starts to die. My pleads and screams go unheard, as I run behind the wagon and fall to the dirt …”
A poem filled with more hopeful emotions speaks in the voice of Burgette Miller’s great-grandfather, Benjamin Burgette, who was the son of Thomas Burgette, the ancestor who escaped from slavery.
“Tell ‘em how I felt. Tell ‘em how I hurt,” the poem begins. “Tell ‘em how I worked everyday except for church. Tell them I was a man who had 12 children and worked hard for his land. …
“Tell them I was a holy man, a loving man, a gentle man, a man who wanted his children to have and do better than I had, as my father wanted for us. That he ran from slavery to be a free man. Tell ‘em my name. Tell ‘em your name. And how all we did was not in vain.”
Burgette Miller said her research took her to the United States Census of 1860, to her family Bible, to information compiled by the Mormon Church and to a historical book called “This is Waverly,” which recounts how former slaves settled in that part of Lackawanna County.
“As a little girl, I often heard that we came through the Underground Railroad,” she said, admitting that as a child she pictured a train chugging through a subterranean tunnel rather than a complex system of traveling — perhaps on foot, or in a wagon or boat, but always secretly — from one safe place to another.
Historians describe two routes of the Underground Railroad as having stops in Waverly. One led through Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre and Clarks Green and the other led through Philadelphia and Stroudsburg. Some of the escaped slaves continued through Waverly to Canada; others settled in the area and spent the rest of their lives here.
“Thomas, the one who ran, we’ve never found his headstone,” Burgette Miller said, but several other members of the Burgette family are buried in the Hickory Grove Cemetery, off Carbondale Road. In 2003, the state set up a historical marker at the cemetery to note that more than 70 former slaves had been buried there, and several of Burgette Miller’s relatives attended the marker’s unveiling.
Thinking about the hardships her ancestors endured and the emotions they must have felt touches the author’s heart and makes her feel close to them.
“I get a feeling like I’m right there,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, it’s overwhelming.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.