Film documents history of Underground Railroad in South Texas

Dramatic story of “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom” produced by UT-RGV

EDINBURG, Texas – A little known chapter of Civil War history makes for a dramatic story told in “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom,” a documentary produced by the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The film is based on the choice made by runaway slaves prior to the Civil War, to head south instead of north, to Mexico using another Underground Railroad.

The route to freedom would be longer over treacherous terrain between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers.

But similar to the one started by Harriet Tubman for those fleeing to the north, heroic mixed race families in South Texas were part of a secret network, helping enslaved men, women and children escape on boats that could easily cross the Rio Grande.

“It was just amazing to hear that piece of history happened right here,” said Nick Maddox, the film’s host.

A local pastor and an African-American who moved to the Valley over a decade ago from Washington, D.C., Maddox was approached by Rosann Bacha-Garza, a historian and an anthropologist and lecturer at UT-RGV.

She said the film was borne out of another project, the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, begun in 2015 by the university’s CHAPS program, or the Community History Archaeology Project with Schools.

“Our Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail project has really taken off in the multiple directions,” she said, including a 200-mile travel guide, an anthology of research into its history, a traveling exhibit, and the documentary, “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom.”

Bacha-Garza said she’d already done more than a decade of research that proved to be more of a “treasure hunt.”

Being that the activity was a closely-guarded secret, Bacha-Garza said there were no records.

Instead, she relied on oral histories with the descendants of those who helped or decided to stay in South Texas, many of whom are now buried in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The most surprising to me was the racial aspect and the racial makeup of the people down here,” she said.

Maddox said he was impressed by the courage and integrity of families like the Jacksons and the Webbers, who also had a choice to make.

He said they could have said, “Listen, we’re just going to play it safe, but they didn’t do that.”

“They did what was right,” he said. “They looked out for other families. They helped other people.”

Both he and Bacha-Garza said the people of the Rio Grande Valley should be proud of its history.

She said, “We want people to take away the knowledge, after watching this documentary film, that the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a very interesting and intriguing and historically significant region.”

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About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.