[Details on a live performance of “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” 0n June 27 are below. Spread the word!]
During much of the 1850s, Harriet Tubman, felt almost like a prisoner. She lived in Canada, just a few miles west of the U. S. border at Niagara Falls. She was safe there, but itchy to help more enslaved people to escape.
And today, Diane Faison of Winston-Salem, NC, knows something of how Harriet felt.
Tubman, the Ace of the Underground Railroad, was a hunted woman. Southern slavecatchers wanted her dead or alive. She had secretly returned to the state to aid others several more times.
So– the City of Charleston South Carolina wasted no time. After the City Council voted unanimously on June 23, 2020 to take down its landmark monument to John C. Calhoun, a crew swung into action, starting at near midnight.
It was no small task to pluck the figure from its 100-foot pedestal. It took the workers until late the next day to bring Calhoun floating back down to earth, and ship him off to a future of obscurity.
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.
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.)
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:
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.
It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina — as the Canada 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.
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 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?
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.
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:
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: email@example.com
The “curtain” will rise at 8 PM, for “The Sword of Peace.” This gripping outdoor dramais based on actual events related to the American Revolution, in which many Quakers were involved. Convictions of patriotism, Quaker religious devotion to peace, courage, suffering and mercy all clashed in the historic Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781. This will be its 44th season. Continue reading “The Sword of Peace” — 44th Season Opens Thursday→
On June 27, 2017, Mark Sumner’s friends and family buried him in a quiet North Carolina cemetery.
But tonight, in a wooded grove some miles away, Keisha Little Eagle will resurrect Sumner. And she’ll do it by running away.
The fabulous unique outdoor drama about Quakers & others joining enslaved people in their efforts to escape bondage in pre-Civil War North Carolina takes the stage for the premiere performance of its 22nd season tonight, July 7. Showtime is at 8 PM at the Snow Camp Drama ampitheatre in historic Snow Camp NC.
(If you can’t get there tonight, there are performances Friday and Saturday, then again on July 14-16, and six more after that before the limited run concludes on Saturday August 6.)
Spilling The Two Secrets I Know About Garrison Keillor
About now, I figure, Garrison Keillor has about wrapped up his last PHC show, at the Hollywood Bowl, the one the rest of us get to hear and blubber over tomorrow evening.
A friend of mine was at last week’s Tanglewood show, and texted that half an hour after it was off the air, the place was still going nuts and he was doing curtain calls & encores. Of course the rest of us didn’t get to hear that. I bet the same thing is going on now at the H-Bowl; wonder if it will make it to the website later.
The thought of all those encores just rubs in the separation anxiety. Makes me wonder if he’s letting it all hang out on this very last time. Maybe if he’s even telling those two secrets I know about him.
Well, to heck with wondering: I’ll tell them here, to all three of you who might pause to read them . . . .