One hundred and fifty years ago, few knew about Lavinia Bell, a fugitive from slavery who trekked from a Texas plantation to Rouses Point, New York, in search of freedom in Canada. Now, for the first time, her experiences will be presented to the public in “Never Give Up: The Story of Lavinia Bell,” reenacted by Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux at Plattsburgh State University’s Krinovitz Recital Hall. The presentation will begin at 7:00 PM on February 11, 2011. The event is free and open to the public.
Ms. Thibodeaux’s visit to Plattsburgh in February will be her first to the North Country. She has already earned national acclaim for her sensitive depictions of Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. The North Country location of the premiere of Mrs. Bell’s story, in the region where her vision was at last realized, is as fitting as are the sponsoring organizations: the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, Plattsburgh State University, and Clinton Community College. Ms. Thibodeaux will also offer performance workshops for university and college students during her stay in Plattsburgh. On February 12, she will cross into Canada where, under the sponsorship of the Negro Community Center in Montreal, she will introduce Mrs. Bell to a waiting audience.
To see Ms. Thibodeaux portray Harriet Tubman visit You Tube.
To learn more about this event, contact Don Papson at NCUGRHA@aol.com or (518) 561-0277.
One hundred and sixty-six summers ago– one year after fugitive slave Frederick Douglass lectured in Keeseville–Albany Underground Railroad agent Abel Brown “took” the Burlington steamboat on Lake Champlain and reported, “Many a slave has enjoyed the indescribable pleasure of leaping from the liberty-loving Burlington.”
Hundreds of fugitives from slavery escaped every year to New York City. They were forwarded to Albany and onto Champlain Canal packet boats. At Whitehall they boarded the Burlington. From Port Kent, they could make their way to Keeseville and Stephen Keese Smith’s farm in Peru. Smith hid fugitives from slavery in his barns and drove them in his uncle’s wagon to Champlain. Then Noadiah Moore took them across the border to Lacolle, Canada, and helped them find work. They were free, at last.
People opposed the abolitionists. Friends and neighbors turned against them. Brethren left their churches. On August 14th, North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association’s President, Don Papson, will lead a guided tour, “Villages and Churches Divided.” The tour will begin with a 10 am orientation in Keeseville’s Ausable Valley Grange at 1749 Main Street. Stops will be made at abolition and UGRR sites where participants will read passages from historic documents. The trial of Rev. Andrew Witherspoon and the stirring words of Frederick Douglass will be relived. The last stop at 3 pm will be at a hidden room. Participants must apply early as the tour is limited to 20 people. The cost is $30 for members of NCUGRHA- $40 for non members. Each participant is asked to pack a lunch, wear walking shoes and bring an umbrella. To register, please contact Helen Nerska at 518-643-0938 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
“Villages and Churches Divided” is a 5th Annual Canal Splash! event. Canal Splash! celebates the history and culture of New York’s Canals.
Last week student volunteers from SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Potsdam took part in exploratory archaeological excavations at the former Stephen Keese Smith farm on Union Road, midway between Keeseville. The Smith farm (also known as “the old Stafford place”) is a historic Underground Railroad site where refugees from slavery were hidden in the 1850s and 1860s. Although several of the buildings on the farm are believed to have housed runaway slaves, one barn in particular that includes a “hidden room” was the target of the weekend’s excavations.
Archeologists and volunteers organized by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association (NCUGRHA) worked last weekend to conduct an archeological survey in advance of restoration work on the barn. The dig was organized by Andrew Black of Black Drake Consulting and SUNY Plattsburgh, assisted by members of the NCUGRHA, and with the permission and assistance of the of the property owners, Frank and Jackie Perusse.
I first became acquainted with the “Under Ground Rail Road” twenty years or more before the [Civil] War …- Samuel Keese was the head of the [Underground RR] depot in Peru. His son, John Keese – myself, and Wendell Lansing at Keeseville [publisher of the Essex County Republican] were actors. I had large buildings and concealed the Negroes in them. I kept them, fed them, often gave them shoes and clothing. I presume I have spent a thousand dollars for them in one-way and another. There were stations at Albany, Troy, Glens Falls and then here in Peru. The Negroes would come through the woods and be nearly famished. We kept them and fed them for one or two days and then ran them along to Noadiah Moore’s in Champlain…- He went with the Negroes to Canada and looked out places for them to work.
The archeological teams excavated three places along the exterior foundation walls of the barn in search for artifacts. Aside from some scattered 20th century trash and earlier barn construction debris (nails, hardware, window glass), they found nothing of significance, meaning that some restoration work can begin without harming historically significant remains.
The stone-walled room built into the barn’s lower level, believed to be one of the places Smith hid runaways, was too flooded to excavate. The team had hoped to establish the original floor level in the “hidden room” and see if there are deposits directly related to the room’s occupation by refugees. Unfortunately those investigations will have to wait until the groundwater level subsides, when archeologists will return to the barn to explore this hidden gem of North Country Underground Railroad History.
Photos: Above – Archaeologists and volunteers gather for a photo during the Smith barn excavation in Peru, Clinton County, NY (Courtesy Helen Allen Nerska). Below – The hidden room in the lower level of the Smith barn (Courtesy Don Papson).
In celebration of Women’s History Month (March), the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association will host a celebration of the role of women in humanity’s great moments, from Miriam at the Red Sea to Catherine Keese who hid fugitives from slavery in Peru, New York, during the Underground Railroad era. The event will be held March 19, 2010 at 7 pm, at the Peru Community Church, 13 Elm Street, in Clinton County.
The evening will include short presentations on women prominent in the success of the underground railroad and a photo journal of the Keese-Smith barn project narrated by the local restoration, history and archeological specialists who are donating their time and skills to the stabilization. Music and song will be provided by Sounds of the Northway, a trio of local women: Ann Ruzow Holland, Cathie Davenport and Jennifer Van Benschoten who sing and play guitar, piano, flute and violin.
The cost will be $10 for adults, $8 for children and seniors. Proceeds will provide the materials necessary for the stabilization of Peru’s most recognized Underground Railroad hiding place, the Stephen Keese-Smith barn, located at the former Stafford property on Union Road. All labor is being donated for this project.
Illustration: Catherine Keese, Peru NY Abolitionist.