Jan 16, 2013

Alex Haley plus the Underground Railroad

Alex Haley’s book “Roots” had a profound impact on Americans when it was published in 1976. It caused many of us to research our “roots.” When the book became a miniseries in 1977 it was before VCR and DVD players.  Meetings and other commitments were scheduled so that people would be home to watch the program. 

Haley was born in Ithaca and for a short time was a “writer in residence” at Hamilton College. He said that when he stood on the site in Annapolis where his ancestor arrived from Africa it was the most emotional moment of his life. Today, on that site, there is a statue of Alex Haley reading to youngsters gathered at his feet. The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial is the only memorial in the country that commemorates the actual name and place of arrival of an enslaved African. The Memorial consists of three distinct areas: the Alex Haley sculpture group, Compass Rose, and Story Wall.

John and I also visited the Banneker-Douglass Museum while in Annapolis, named for Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American scientist born in Baltimore; and Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery by running away to the North and spoke extensively about the evils of slavery. The Museum preserves Maryland’s African-American heritage. Their exhibit, “Deep Roots, Rising Waters” chronicles the slave experiences from 1633 to the present.  I was familiar with Douglass who resided in Rochester and spoke in Syracuse, Mexico and many other locations in the New York, and Harriett Tubman, “The Moses of her People,” who led many slaves to freedom lived in Auburn. New York. But, I had never heard of Suleiman Diallo, a learned African, who was sold into slavery “by mistake.” While on a Maryland plantation he eloquently presented his case impressing colonial officials who freed him and sent him back to Africa via England where he met King George II.

Perhaps the least appreciated aspect of slave flight, and the single-most unique feature of the Southern Underground Railroad in comparison to the Northern Underground Railroad was the assistance that Southern blacks could be to one another. Free blacks often helped their enslaved loved ones to flee. There are so many poignant personal stories including the one of 18-year-old Lear Green. William Adams, a free black barber in Baltimore City, fell in love with a slave girl, Leer Green. Adams convinced his mother to help his sweetheart to escape from Maryland to freedom in the North. Lear Green packed herself, along with provisions, inside a wooden chest.  It was decided that Adams’ mother would travel to Philadelphia aboard a boat as a passenger with Lear hidden in the chest as her cargo.  Risking her own freedom, Mrs. Adams and her “cargo” arrived in Philadelphia after the eighteen-hour trek. Lear and Adams continued on to Elmira.
The Underground Railroad was comprised of people in the North and South, Black and White, who were willing to put themselves in peril to help enslaved people to freedom. Because it was a clandestine operation many of the people and places never received recognition. Central New York was a “hotbed of abolitionists” and recently a new museum, The Starr Clark Tin Shop and Underground Railroad” museum opened in Mexico, NY. The Tin Shop was an important station on the Underground Railroad and where plans were made in the effort to get slaves safely to freedom in Canada.