Freedom seekers speak out on the Underground Railroad website

“When the night of our escape came, I lay on the floor next to my wide awake sister, waiting to hear the seven knocks that would signal our time to leave. I lay there and prayed. I prayed that my sister and I would finally be free, together, as my mother wished for us.

So begins the story of Gloria Jones, a fictional freedom seeker whose story is one of many to be heard on the new “Voices on the Underground Railroad” websitea collaborative effort among graduate students, undergraduate students, students in the Milstein Technology and Humanities program, and members of the community.

The website focuses on nine documented or supposed stops on the Underground Railroad in central and western New York. Students from the Africana Center’s Underground Railroad Seminar and last semester’s Rural Humanities Seminar spent months researching slave accounts, the history of the railroad, and each specific site before creating their plays, which speak from the perspective of a freedom seeker traveling the road.

“There are so few stories about what it was like to be a freedom seeker on the Underground Railroad, so I felt this deep sense of responsibility,” said Jehan Roberson, PhD student in English Literature. , who said he chose to focus. story far from the violence typical of the slave narrative genre.

Roberson tried to travel to visit the house she was writing about, but it has since been demolished and replaced by new construction, so she relied on accounts that described it as having carvings in a mantle, prompting her to focus on the symbols, and possibly to sting, in its story.

“It was so overwhelming and impossible to put ourselves in these people’s shoes, but we wanted to make their experiences visible,” she said. “This project is a call for empathy, as well as understanding what the ongoing impacts of these experiences are for descendants of slaves and for other marginalized people.”

The website also includes photographs, maps and videos of each location and a list of resources to learn more. The site is part of the Gerard Aching Underground Railroad Research Project, supported by an A&S New Frontier grant, which includes an archaeological dig at St. James AME Zion Church and other components.

“Even though the pandemic hit our communities hard in 2020, it was also during this time that new collaborations emerged between campus partners, such as the Milstein program, research and experiential learning projects in Underground Railroad course, and our community partners,” said Aching, professor of African and Romance Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences. “The website would have taken longer to create without the opportunity and commitment that presented itself at that time.”

As the site was envisioned, undergraduate students in the Milstein Program worked with voice actors from the Ithaca Civic Ensemble to record the stories, then added music and sound effects and edited these. rooms. They also helped create initial design ideas for the overall look of the website, contributed graphics, and uploaded all content to a shared folder for the web designer.

“I came into this project with only basic railroad knowledge, so it was a great opportunity to learn more while applying technical skills to the project,” said Andres Murillo ’24, a student. in economics who helped with cartography and photography. design and editing. “I hope the website can continue to grow and expand the list of railroad locations.”

Julia Beitel ’24, a major in information science and environmental and sustainability studies, was part of the audio team.

“I had never worked so much on audio editing, so it was a great learning experience for me,” she said. “Each person in our group took their audio tracks in a different direction and being able to collaborate and share ideas with other members was helpful as everyone brought something new to the table.”

Design firms Ithaca Iron Design and AWP worked with the students to create the final website design. Bert Odom-Reed of Cornell Broadcast Studios helped refine and produce one of the more complicated recordings. Shira Evergreen ’02, owner and founder of Uplifted Ithaca, provided drone photography and video for the site.

“Some of these houses have historical markers, possibly related to the Underground Railroad, but some are just houses on a street,” Evergreen said. “We walk our streets and we don’t realize the history there.”

Researching the locations before each shot, Evergreen said she approached each location in a cinematic fashion. “At Griffith Cooper House, I filmed slowly towards the back door, giving a sense of what it would have been like to inhabit this space or approach this space from the woods.”

Aching said the website will continue to grow. “Now that our collaborations have made the website a reality, we want to continue to provide students with a platform to engage with this important phenomenon in American history through informed reflection and storytelling,” said said Aching.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sherry J. Basler