BY JENNIFER GAMBLE THEARD, M.Ed., ASALH Historian
The North Star is the anchor of the northern sky. It is a landmark, or sky marker, that helps those who follow it determine direction as it glows brightly to guide and lead toward a purposeful destination.
It also has a symbolic meaning, for the North Star depicts a beacon of inspiration and hope to many. It means different things to individuals, populations of people and cultures.
For African Americans, the North Star is as real as it is inspirational, and as spiritual as it is celestial. Many African Americans profess to Christian beliefs and accept the details of the Magi as written in the first book of the New Testament.
In the biblical sense, the Star of Bethlehem or the Christian Star appears in the Nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew where the three wise kings from the East are inspired by the North Star to travel to Jerusalem.
The star leads them to the Baby Jesus where they worship Him and give Him gifts. Many Christians believe that the Star was a miraculous sign from God that foretold of Christ’s divinity.
In fact, various Christian denominations extend their celebration of the Star Prophecy well into the first week of Jan. The visit of the Three Kings to the Christ Child, the Nativity, Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision, the Epiphany and the Twelfth Night all proclaim the same time period that the North Star shone so bright in the night sky.
Another very important aspect of the North Star for African Americans is the indication of freedom. When enslaved people in the southern United States sought freedom from those who held them as captives, they devised ways to escape.
As they fled from bondage, they looked in the night sky to give them direction of where to connect to the Underground Railroad headed to northern United States and Canada. It was the constant guidance of the North Star that gave them the starting point and continuous connections on the journey northward.
The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, various forms of transportation and safe houses along the way. Escaped slaves were assisted along numerous paths by free blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, Native Americans, certain church clergy and church members all played a role in helping African-American men, women and children escape.
One of the most famous and successful guides and conductors of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Once enslaved, she mastered the navigation skills of following the North Star, the God given glowing light that had enabled her to help others seek freedom in the north.
The North Star was as well the name of an anti-slavery newspaper. It was started by Frederick Douglass, also a former slave who understood the depth of the importance of light and guidance.
The name of the newspaper was quite befitting, as the publications gave references to the directions given to runaway slaves trying to reach the northern states and Canada. It focused on concerting the abolitionists’ movement and the fight to end slavery in America.
The North Star newspaper was four pages long and sold by subscription at the cost of two dollars a year to more than 4,000 readers in the United States, Europe and the West Indies. It had a most provocative slogan: “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
Finally, the North Star has a very symbolic meaning for African Americans to embrace. Our historical leaders of the past have imparted such profound wisdom in the meaning of the North Star as a concept.
As we look within ourselves, we can seek our own internal compass that can guide us. We can discover and develop the gifts that we already have that can help us move forward as individuals and as a community.
Let’s look forward with purposeful hope and inspiration for a great 2019!
Jennifer Gamble-Theard, M.Ed. is a retired Pinellas County educator in the study of history and language. She is also the historian for the St. Petersburg Branch of ASALH.