Peter H. Cisco was born into slavery in 1855, on Shirley Plantation, in Charles City County, Virginia. Peter’s mother was a domestic servant for the plantation owners, and his father worked the tobacco fields. Peter lived the first seven years of his life in slavery, but early one morning in April 1862, everything changed. The Civil War had been raging on for a year, and Peter’s parents, living so tantalizingly close to the border with the free North, decided to plan an escape, in an effort to guarantee a better future for Peter.
On that fateful morning, Peter’s mother woke him up and hurriedly wrapped him in several layers of clothing, handing him a rucksack filled with bits of bread and meat she’d been saving from the kitchen scraps. And at midnight, they left. Peter and his mother walked off the plantation and just kept walking. They stopped at the homes of northern sympathizers and of those involved with the Underground Railroad, and sometimes they slept in fields for only a few hours at night. During their harrowing, stressful journey, they moved from house to house and from field to field in the early morning hours, when no one would be awake and looking for them.
Eventually, after about a month, they reached the free north, West Virginia, and continued on through Pennsylvania and up to New York. Peter’s mother managed to find a position as a servant with a wealthy family living in a mansion on the Hudson river, and Peter spent the next ten years of his life in Nyack, NY. Unfortunately, Peter’s mother fell ill in the summer of 1871, and she died tragically of tuberculosis at the end of that year. Peter, not knowing what else to do, desperate for an escape to the city but not having enough money to get by on his own, took several pieces of jewelry and a valuable painting from the family his mother worked for and made a run for it. Unfortunately, he was caught by the police in Rockland County, and he was sentence to one year four months in Sing Sing Prison for grand larceny