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Underground Railroad Conference convenes in Troy


TROY–Russell Sage College will host the 9th annual Underground Railroad Conference February 26 to 28 in collaboration with the Rensselaer County Historical Society and the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region.

The history project was formed to conduct research and to preserve and celebrate the history of the Underground Railroad in New York, a movement that helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom before the Civil War. The project studies the role of African-American freedom seekers and abolitionists.

Conference events are open to all who are interested and will appeal to adults and children, said Kate Storm, an Underground Railroad Conference (UGRC) spokeswoman.

Events, including addresses by two keynote speakers, a Saturday night book signing and art exhibit and workshops that use music, dance and art to explore the Underground Railroad will take place in Albany, Troy and the surrounding area. On Sunday, participants will have the opportunity to visit some of the region’s historic Underground Railroad sites.

While Columbia County is not the focus of this conference, evidence suggests that Hudson and other communities here, including Claverack, Ghent and Chatham, were on the route. Those involved in harboring and otherwise assisting fugitive slaves were necessarily secretive because those activities were against the law, but slaves did travel up the Hudson Valley, and Quakers founded the City of Hudson and comprised a large part of its population in the early and mid-19th century. Quakers were among the early leaders of the Abolitionist movement.

Dr. Rhonda Williams will speak Friday night at the conference. A noted lecturer and the author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality, Dr. Williams is currently working on a book about the culture of drugs in post 1940s America. Her lecture topic Friday is Railroads, Streets & Bridges: Black Women & Freedom Journeys, an exploration of the recent struggles of African American women and the legacy of the Underground Railroad  and will be followed by a public reception.

Rosemary Sadlier, President of the Ontario Black History Society, will speak Saturday afternoon about her ancestor, Mary Ann Shadd, publisher, editor, teacher, lawyer and suffragette, and the subject of Ms. Sadlier ‘s 1994 biography. Ms. Sadlier persuaded the Canadian government to establish Black History Month in Canada. Her other books include The Kids Book of Black Canadian History and Harriet Tubman, and the Underground Railroad, Her Life in the United States and Canada.

Saturday evening, a book signing and art exhibit will be held to celebrate the new book by Rensselaer County resident, author, investigative reporter and activist Scott Christianson along with African American painter Mark Priest, whose painting appears on the cover of Mr. Christianson’s book, Freeing Charles: The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War.

Mr. Christianson’s book reconstructs the dramatic rescue of escaped Virginia slave Charles Nalle by Harriet Tubman and an angry, mixed-race mob of abolitionists, who prevailed over pro-slavery forces. Mr. Priest’s passionate, large-scale paintings tell the story in pictures. His paintings will be on exhibit at the Rensselaer County Historical Society and Russell Sage College in February and March.

Mr. Christianson’s exhibit Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House was shown in 2000 at Time & Space Limited in Hudson. The exhibit, which debuted at John Jay College in New York, was based on the author’s book of the same title, published by the New York University Press. In numerous books and articles Mr. Christianson has focused on the injustices of incarceration in America and around the world, and on slavery.

Mr. Priest, a graduate of Yale University’s MFA program and an art professor at the University of Louisville said in a phone interview this week that he had been working on a series of pictures depicting the construction of the transcontinental railroad inspired by his own experience as a laborer on a railroad track-laying gang, when a paper his son, a fourth grader, wrote on the Underground Railroad inspired him to paint scenes from the life of Harriet Tubman. Listening to his son got him started “thinking about how much black history is untold in America.”

“I followed the track of Harriet Tubman. That led me up to Troy, and I learned how she helped free Nalle with the help of the city of Troy,” said Mr. Priest, who often travels to the historic sites he depicts in his paintings. “I contacted Scot Christianson to see if he knew more about him than what I knew.”

Mr. Christianson shared his manuscript with the artist and that inspired more paintings, one of which is the one on the cover of the book.

“He helped me get the story clearer,” said Mr. Priest, who is still working on a series of paintings based on the life of Harriet Tubman.

The annual conference was the idea of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region. According to Ms. Storm, the project began when Mary Liz Stewart, a fifth grade teacher, sent her students out in search of primary sources. When they had trouble finding any, “she got started looking, and discovered a lot of lore about the Underground Railroad that didn’t make sense or couldn’t be documented. A lot of people say their house was in Underground Railroad and it was built in 1890s… that’s how it got started.” Only homes built prior to 1861 could have been stops on the secret route slaves took to freedom.

“Documents may disappear, but all the time some are coming to light. We want to get information when we can and present opportunities for people to learn,” said Ms. Storm.

“It will stretch their understanding of the story, it’s not as simple as it has sometimes been portrayed in the past,” said Paul Stewart, the chairman of the conference. “It has a lot to say to us about how change happens in our country, how people can participate in change and make it happen.”

“The story of the local Underground Railroad is compelling… and can help us in the present day as we struggle with issues that arose then and are still with us today,” says the group’s website.

For more information or to register online, see the conference website at Information and registration forms are also available by calling (518) 432-4432.

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