Session 21 and Field Trip:
From the Ohio Valley to the ‘Promised Land’: Remembering Slavery and the Underground Railroad
A. Glenn Crothers, The Filson Historical Society
Dr. Blaine Hudson, University of Louisville, Kentucky
Dr. Keith Griffler, University of Buffalo State University of New York, New York
Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, Archaeology Resource Centre, Toronto, Canada
Ms. Pam Peters, Independent Scholar, Indiana
Ms. Alicestyne Adams, Georgetown College, Kentucky
Ms. Sally Newkirk, Director of Carnegie Center for Art & History, New Albany, Indiana
This was a roundtable and tour was held offsite in New Albany, Indiana, at the Carnegie Center for Art and History, where we had an in-depth discussion about various issues surrounding the Underground Railroad history, scholarship, and interpretation. In addition, we toured the permanent exhibit and saw sections of the DVD, “Ordinary People. Extraordinary Courage: Men and Women of the Underground Railroad in the Indiana and Kentucky Borderland”. This session was held off site across the river at the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Indiana. While the entire panel and presentation was interesting and informative, as most panels tend to evolve, the discussion really got exciting towards the end, after we viewed segments of the DVD, and the panel was taking questions from the audience. The two questions that all interpreters of history face are: What is remembered or selected to be remembered and secondly, Why? As many of the panelists stated, the why is slighting easier to understand: the Underground Railroad Narrative is one that is an easier way to bring the discussion of slavery to the table, for it offers the ‘illusion’ of escape. In many ways it makes a horrific time of American History palatable to much of the public, and slavery is a subject that must be discussed. But as the discussion continued, the what to tell and I would also add, how to tell it, are more difficult questions to answer, for there really is no one answer. The DVD we watched, was quite a well done, multi-media production, and all locally created, which was really nice to see. However, the story that was told, in many ways to me, perpetuated some of the myths that we discussed in the session and are trying to get away from, in particular, the one that shows white people as the main aids to enslaved people throughout the Underground Railroad movement. However, I cannot fully comment on this-since we did not see the whole video and interactive activities that may address these issues and give another perspective.
The interesting part for me was the discussion on the bus on the way back to the hotel that I had with friend and colleague Cheryl La Roche. It really carried on the questions that were posed earlier of what is remembered and why—but to a different level. The topic of memory and forgetting was already on the floor after many audience members and panelists brought up the fact that as students themselves were never taught or rarely taught about African American history and the Underground Railroad. Cheryl pointed out that we have focused on the idea of remembering and forgetting, but there is another important force here to-and that is erasing. How do we begin to remember a past or parts of a past that has been purposefully erased?