Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Underground Railroad Conference

I attended day 1 of a 2-day conference on "The Underground Railroad in Michigan: A Decade of Discoveries." The 1st panel included a series of court cases having to do with the Fugitive Slave Act vs. abolitionists who resisted slavecatchers. The next speaker was Karolyn Smardz Frost, an archeologist who wrote I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, delineating the story of Thornton and Lucy Blackburn. They escaped from Kentucky and got to Detroit, where slavecatchers eventually caught up with them. During the trial, the African-American community protested, allowing the Blackburns to escape to Windsor. This sparked the first international court case between Canada & the U.S. over fugitive slaves, Canada refusing to extradite escapees to certain re-enslavement. The Blackburns moved to Toronto and started a successful cab (originally horse-drawn) business, and are buried there.

Allen Guelzo spoke on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, apropo to the current debates. Veta Tucker spoke briefly about Cass Co.'s history and the gift of documents to GVSU's Libraries collected by a local historian on the URR, Sondra Mose-Ursery. Mary Edmond from Grand Rapids told the story of Isaac Edward Bailey, a runaway from Virginia who was sent to Quebec but returned to Michigan to live (to the age of 105!).

David Boers told about his research on Carolyn Quarlls, the first identified fugitive slave to go through Wisconsin (she escaped from St. Louis to the Sandwich neighborhood of Windsor). Quarll's great-great-great-granddaughter, Kimberly Simmons, emphasized the necessity of integrity in relating these histories, as they are the stories of living descendents' families. As such, they don't need to be changed or embellished, but told as correctly as possible.

The conference was engaging and at some deep level, enraging. That slavery happened; that humans treat each other as animals; that these horrific abuses still happen in the world. Made knots in my gut.

p.s., here's an interesting book which describes how historians piece together their narratives from various types of documents:
Freedom roads: searching for the Underground Railroad by Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan. Chicago: Cricket Books, 2003.

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