A Unique Quaker Drama: “Pathway To Freedom”

A Unique Quaker Drama: “Pathway To Freedom”


Resistance to slavery in North Carolina is a story that has not been fully told. The compelling original play Pathway to Freedom opens the door to more awareness and better understanding of this epic history. 

Pathway to Freedom will begin its exciting 23rd season this summer at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, in historic Snow Camp, North Carolina. James Shields returns as Director of the show.

For American Quakers, the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre is a one-of-a-kind cultural gem. It was created in the early 1970s to remember and celebrate some key episodes of witness in the 300-plus years of Quaker history in North Carolina.

Pointing-to-the-sky-PTFBelieve it or not, some 50,000 North Carolinians, many of them Quakers, left the state and moved to free states such as Ohio or Indiana in protest of slavery during the thirty years before the Civil War. This exodus is also not well-remembered.

Yet it happened, and at the same time, legal struggles against slavery within the state continued for decades, and led to many court battles. Yet laws protecting slaveholders and slavery itself became steadily more and more restrictive both in North Carolina and regionally. The exodus of many antislavery whites was one result. The Underground Railroad was another.

At left is James Shields, who is also Director of “Pathway to Freedom.”

Quakers, who once were one of the largest organized religious groups in North Carolina, led Methodists, Wesleyans and others in work against slavery and for the betterment of slaves. They believed in following the law, but were also quick to take slave owning offenders to court to right wrongs done to enslaved people.

As their frustration grew with more restrictive and harsher laws regarding slaves and slave-owning, some Quakers, like Levi Coffin, began to work outside their Quaker meetings, and outside the law, to assist enslaved people to flee their captivity and head for free territory.

Many of these clandestine expeditions gathered and left from Cane Creek, Guilford Court House and other places. These were secretive and dangerous journeys. Operating mostly at night, staying away from the main roads, escapees and guides moved cautiously through the woods and across the rivers and mountains.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877) He faced down and defied many death threats from slavecatchers and opponents of abolition.

As Coffin and his family became more involved in aiding escaping slaves to head north through Virginia and Kentucky, they and others moved to Indiana, then to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, in free territory, Coffin continued to coordinate many of the long journeys that escapees were making, from Carolina to as far north  as Canada.

There were other efforts in North Carolina that were also dangerous. One attempt to start a school to teach slaves to read the Bible, using an old Quaker building and headed by Wesleyans, was located just back of the Sylvan School, only a mile and a half from the site of the Snow Camp theatre. Yet its leaders were run out of the state by pro-slavery people who gained control of most government agencies.

Another pioneering educational effort was begun by Quaker Judith Mendenhall near Greensboro, first for girls and then including boys, It was initially successful; but teaching slaves faced instant harsh opposition.

Essie_William-2Levi Coffin, who became known as the unofficial president of the Underground Railroad, was joined by many freed African Americans, as well as white Americans to help those escaping slavery.  He was visited by Frederick Douglass and other leaders of the anti-slavery movement while in Cincinnati. Many others helped, including a future president of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes offered free legal services to defend slaves in the Cincinnati courts.

The scenes woven together in Pathway to Freedom are based on actual events and the experience of real people, including love, loss, pursuit, and a final violent confrontation.

Mark Sumner, the author of “Pathway To Freedom,” which premiered at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in 1994.

One dramatic scene shows the raid by Kentucky slave owners on an anti-slavery newspaper and African Americans in Cincinnati. When this happened, students from the Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio came to the defense of the writers and the Blacks. At that time the seminary was headed by Lyman Beecher, whose daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe was to write the most devastating attack on slavery until that time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Playwright Mark Sumner blended history, faith and courage into an unforgettable, suspenseful, drama. “Pathway to Freedom” begins its season on July 7, 2016, at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre.

For more information about Pathway to Freedom, including dates, times, directions and ticket information (including attractive group rates), click on this link.

The late James Wilson, who created the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in the early 1970s, to remember and celebrate some memorable episodes in the history of the Quaker and African American communities of central North Carolina.

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