Betty DeRamus is an author, a short story writer, a world-traveler and pianist. She lives in Detroit, her hometown.
She is the author of "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad" and "Freedom by Any Means: Con Games, Voodoo Schemes, True Love and Lawsuits on the Underground Railroad."
A passion for the troubles and triumphs of ordinary people led journalist Betty DeRamus to write two nonfiction books, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad and Freedom by Any Means: True Stories of Cunning and Courage on the Underground Railroad.
Forbidden Fruit is a collection of love stories about slavery-era couples, some enslaved, some free, most black but a few interracial, who fought mobs, wolves, bloodhounds, bounty hunters, bullets and social taboos to preserve their relationships.
Characters in these largely untold tales include a free black man who became a slave to remain with his wife and a young slave girl who is delivered to her fiance inside a wooden chest.
Freedom by Any Means bring to life little-known heroes and heroines of the slavery and post-slavery era who did everything from build their own towns to successfully sue for their freedom in court. Slavery-era black capitalists are among the many clever characters in Freedom and, according to the author, these true stories contain lessons for Americans dealing right now with record unemployment, foreclosures and other economic ills.
“In nearly every case, these 19th century black success stories—many of them freed or runaway slaves—followed the same pattern,” says DeRamus. “They took what little they had and turned it into something valuable.
“They became successful by cooking oysters, growing a different kind of cantaloupe, doing magic tricks and even making cheese. One man turned a shopping cart into a department store on wheels. These people recognized the value of whatever skills they happened to have, no matter how humble.“
In one memorable story, a former slave named Clara Brown persuaded a group of Colorado-bound gold seekers to hire her as a cook and laundress. The 59-year-old woman then traveled with a caravan of covered wagons to Denver. In gold-rich Central City, Colorado, she boiled and scrubbed shirts and nursed the sick. By 1866, she had earned $10,000, including her investments in mining claims. She eventually found 34 relatives and brought them West.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was a black 19th century boarding house owner who pretended she was the servant of her white business partner, a vice president of Bank of America. Meanwhile, she led several lives, hiding runaway slaves, challenging discrimination on San Francisco’s streetcars and using the knowledge gained from mingling with the wealthy to make the investments that earned her millions.
Nelson Gant, was a freed Virginian who managed to escape punishment for trying to steal his enslaved wife. After moving to Zanesville, Ohio, he bought and sold land, became famous for his specialty fruits and vegetables and owned a coal mine. When he died, the Zanesville Daily News called him “probably the wealthiest colored citizen in Ohio,” DeRamus said.
An enslaved North Carolina woman named Sally Williams eventually lost the small fortune she accumulated from selling home-brewed beer, coffee and gingerbread. But in her heyday, the hired-out slave earned enough to pay a girl to help her around the house.
Other slaves and freedmen that DeRamus depicts were equally savvy. Charles Shearer, a former slave rescued by Union troops, used his hunting and fishing skills to feed his rescuers and later used those same talents to run a popular summer inn. Richard Potter earned a fortune by performing magic tricks, becoming the first black and the first American-born magician.
And once he reached Michigan, Mississippi-born James H. Cole used his history of working with horses to begin building a fortune : he stabled the horses of local Union regiments. When he died in 1901, Cole’s wealth was estimated at $200,000, which would make him a multi-millionaire in today’s dollars.
Freedom by Any Means doesn’t only document the material success of some former slaves, DeRamus stresses. It also salutes people who successfully sued for their freedom in court or who liberated themselves through complicated con games and bluffs.
“They were black people who did what seemed impossible in their time,” she says. “They literally showed us the way.”
DeRamus has been an eyewitness to much contemporary history. She wrote about the old Soviet Union before it collapsed, spent time in West Berlin before its wall fell and toured Central African refugee camps with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 10 years before the Rwandan massacres.
For her coverage of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, she received an award for international reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists.
A former columnist for several publications including the Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, the Associated Press and the British Broadcasting Corporation, Betty DeRamus was a 1993 finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary.
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