Snow Camp & The Underground Railroad – Beyond Mythmaking

At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.

I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.

Salem Chapel, St. Catharines, Ontario CANADA: a terminus for successful UGRR journeys.

And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.

But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.

The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying  journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)

Harriet Tubman statue, outside the St. Catharines school named for her.

Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.

Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.

He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.

Still’s  book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:

Title page, “The Underground Rail Road,” by William Still, 1872.

Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.

So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.

The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.

These are rough reconstructions of the major eastern routes; many more went across the midwest to Detroit, at the western edge of southwest Ontario.

It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina —  as the Canadian geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted.  Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.

For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.

The big red area is our “Quaker hotbed” in the Carolina Piedmont. Snow Camp is at the tip of the yellow arrow. Greensbro, at the blue arrow, was the main “transfer point” for journeys to the north, toward Philadelphia, New York and Canada. Many escapees had to do much of the trek on foot.

This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.

In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?

The woods near Guilford College. Now, let’s see: was it THIS big tree, or maybe THAT one over there? Or the one we passed awhile back?

Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.

So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.

Characters from the abolitionist novel “UncleTom’s Cabin” were adapted to fit larger social images. Here is a playbill, featuring runaway Eliza from the story, with her baby, crossing a frozen river pursued by hounds.
Here is Eliza in another period illustration, crossing the river carefully garbed as a proper Victorian lady, and so fair of hue that who would suspect her of being “black”?

Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence.  Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.

In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation. 

Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:

http://bit.ly/2klVgpy
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349

PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on  Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: info@nullsnowcampoutdoortheatre.com

 

 

 

 

The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.

Charlottesville’s Lee, the (somewhat) hidden monument.

I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.

Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”

Late that rainy afternoon, the panel finished, and the chance came. My activist photographer friend Laura from Toronto, also a panelist, felt a similar urge, and soon we were in “Emancipation (neé Lee) Park” clicking away.  Continue reading The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

From Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

It’s Langston Hughes’s birthday (Feb. 1, 1902- May 22, 1967). Known primarily as a poet, Hughes was a versatile writer: by his mid-twenties he had published challenging essays in national periodicals, and two books of poetry. I’m now reading his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, when he was 28.

This passage evokes a domestic scene in a small Kansas city, modeled on Lawrence, where Hughes spent several boyhood years. Hughes was proud of his humble roots, and the creativity it wrung from hardship, like the largely homemade blues songs by the itinerant laborer Jimboy. Here he has returned after a long absence seeking work. In Hughes’s prose, we can hear the poetry woven through it.

Continue reading Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

Some Quick Quaker Responses to the SOTU

To respond to the State of the Union address, we’ve invited two special Friendly commentators, who are joining us via our new astral projection uplink. 

First up is our old buddy, Walter Whitman, late of Camden, New Jersey, where he settled once they named a big bridge there after him. Whitman is known as the author of the best-selling pro-marijuana polemic of all time, Leaves of Grass.

Walt — if you don’t mind me calling you that — you’ve hovered over a lot of these talkfests. So tell us: what was your reaction to what you heard tonight? Continue reading Some Quick Quaker Responses to the SOTU

Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator

Recently I read the amazing account of the Great Black Migration from the South, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

It’s a fine, fine book, and its relevance here is that, paradoxically, until it was well underway, there was no such thing as “The Great Migration”; that is, no one named or organized it, no one “joined” it.

Rather, there were individuals & families fleeing for their own survival: seeking escape from the personal costs of official southern racism, grinding poverty and unrestrained violence. Only after such private decisions were acted on by hundreds of thousands, over  decades, did scholars & writers come along to christen, study and begin to chronicle it.

Yet while “spontaneous” and unorganized, the Great Migration was indeed real and momentous, with national impact that’s still being felt.

A change equally unorganized & unheralded, potentially as momentous at least for us is, I believe, underway in the U. S. liberal Quakerism I discovered in 1965 (after ditching pre-Vatican II Catholicism). Continue reading Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator

A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.

During the past year, resistance took many forms, and cropped up in many places. It was also exhausting and resisters took many hits. And the struggle(s) are far from over.

I tried to do my share. And in an effort to keep up my own spirits, and maybe offer some tidbits of encouragement to others,  I’ve assembled this personal scrapbook. In the age of phone cameras, such documentation has become much easier. If others are moved to share theirs, I look forward to sampling them.

And it all started, of course, before the new year. After November 8, 2016, like many others, I spent many days reenacting this famous painting of “The Scream,” aloud,  silently, and in between. I don’t know if it helped or not. Denial is more than a river in Egypt. But then . . . Continue reading A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.

Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

The new double issue of Quaker Theology is titled “Quakers & Resistance.” It considers highlights (and some lowlights) of Quaker resistance to oppression, both inside and outside the Society of Friends.

For example, it recalls  what happened to Lucretia Mott when she showed up in Richmond, Indiana in 1847, at the time when Indiana Yearly Meeting was gathering. She had traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia, a bone-rattling journey which took many days. She had barely stepped down from the coach when she was confronted by a committee of elders, who told her to “Go home!”

What did Lucretia do then? You can find out more here.

Not that Philadelphia had been free of troubles. Continue reading Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

From “Quakers & Resistance” — Tom Fox Paid the Price

From the Introduction to: Tom Fox Was My Friend. Yours, Too.

Chuck Fager

I

John Stephens, Quaker House intern, computer artist. he designed our Sergeant Abe , “The Honest Recruiter” character in the summer of 2005.

            John Stephens called me with the news: Tom Fox and three other members of the Christian peacemaker Teams’ group (CPT) in Baghdad had been kidnaped. It was just after Thanksgiving, late November, 2005.

Sgt. Abe turned up nationwide, and was banned in at least one school. Many young people were helped by his carefully accurate materials. A few years later, the army put out their version, “Sgt. Star. (Not nearly as cool.)

            That summer of 2005 John had been an intern at Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was Director. When he applied for an internship, I asked him for a letter of reference; the reference came by email from Tom Fox, in Baghdad. Continue reading From “Quakers & Resistance” — Tom Fox Paid the Price