Underground Railroad exhibition opens Sept. 30 at SU Library
An exhibition that vividly portrays Syracuse’s major role as a station along the Underground Railroad opens Sept. 30 at Syracuse University Library. The exhibition, “That laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason: Syracuse and the Underground Railroad,” includes original artifacts from the Library’s Special Collections Research Center and other institutions that document the flourishing of antislavery activism in Syracuse and surrounding communities from the 1830s through the 1850s.
The exhibition, located in the sixth floor gallery of E.S. Bird Library, is free and open to the public Monday-Friday, 9 a.m-5 p.m., except for holidays. It will remain on display through Jan. 26, 2006. Special tours and school group visits may be arranged by calling curator William La Moy at (315) 443-9752. An online version of the exhibition will soon be available from Library’s web site athttp://scrc.syr.edu.
An opening reception, also free and open to the public, will be held on Saturday, Oct. 1, from 4-6 p.m. Coinciding with the 154th anniversary of the celebrated “Jerry Rescue,” the program will include remarks by local historian Judith Wellman and a performance by senior College of Visual and Performing Arts student Stephanie O’Dea of a selection of spirituals that had special coded meanings to those involved in the Underground Railroad movement. Suzanne Thorin, newly appointed University librarian and dean of libraries at SU, will be introduced along with Miriam Grace Monfredo, author of “North Star Conspiracy” (1995, Penguin USA), a historical novel about the Underground Railroad set in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Monfredo’s book is this year’s selection for the Central New York Reads community reading initiative. Wine, cheese, hors d’oeuvres, and other refreshments will be served.
The Underground Railroad was a clandestine network that aided fugitive slaves who sought freedom in northern states or in Canada. Harriet Tubman, from nearby Auburn, New York, was perhaps the most famous organizer of the operation. She is credited with having traveled into the South more than a dozen times to help fellow African Americans escape from bondage and inspired many more to flee on their own.
“Syracuse was an important station on the Underground Railroad because of its central location on the Erie Canal and its associated waterways and travel routes,” explains exhibition curator William La Moy. “The region was also home to many of the most outspoken and defiant opponents of slavery, which is why Daniel Webster once labeled it a laboratory of abolitionism,” La Moy adds.
Reverend Jermain Loguen, himself an escaped slave, publicized the address of his home at East Genesee and Pine streets as a station on the Railroad. A centerpiece of the SU exhibition is an historic portrait of Loguen painted by African American artist William Simpson in 1854, which was donated by a descendant to the Howard University Gallery of Art in the 1930s.
A chair made by William “Jerry” Henry, the fugitive slave who was freed from a Syracuse jail in the daring rescue in 1851, is also on display. “Beyond securing their physical freedom, helping former slaves find skilled employment was an important goal of the Underground Railroad movement,” explains SU African American Studies Librarian Bonnie Ryan, who collaborated in mounting the exhibition. The chair, a reward poster for the capture of an escaped slave and other items are on loan from the Onondaga Historical Association.
Additional artifacts are on loan from the Madison County Historical Society and the Matilda Josyln Gage Foundation. Matilda Josyln Gage, daughter of abolitionist Liberty Party founder Hezekiah Joslyn, was a leading women’s rights advocate who opened her Fayetteville home to freedom seekers. The home is now registered with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and is on the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.
The exhibition also includes reproductions of period maps showing Underground Railroad sites and tracing the routes that freedom seekers followed. John Olson, geographic information systems librarian at SU, has created charts that show various population distributions using data from the 1855 state census.The exhibition is presented in conjunction with this year’s Syracuse Symposium lecture series and its theme of “borders.” It is funded by the Kaleidoscope Project, a diversity initiative between the Divisions of Undergraduate Studies and Student Affairs to broaden the understanding of diversity and promote healthy dialogue about related issues at Syracuse University. The College of Arts and Sciences and the Warren and Edith Day Fund at SU Library have provided additional funding.