Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Walk Through the Past

An Evening on the Underground Railroad

On Monday April 26, the History Society hosted its first ever "An Evening on the Underground Railroad." Despite the rain, over 115 people attended the guest lecture by historian Dennis Frye and over 60 remained for the outdoor living history tour and program. Some noted that the rain actually added to the event, giving it a realistic feel. The lantern-led tour was led by Harriet Tubman (Penn State's own Harriett Gaston). With about ten different stops or "stations" visited, students and local citizens were offered a colorful and diverse perspective of slavery in America as told by those who lived in the 1800s.

Historian Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, presented a fantastic lecture on abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He argued that the raid was the definitive event of the year 1859 just as 9/11 was the definitive event of the year 2001. It sent a shock wave throughout the nation and was the spark which ignited the Civil War. If it were not for Brown and his actions, Frye argued, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln would have been less likely. Drawing many historical parallels to the present, Frye offered an enthusiastic and informative discussion which was revealing and entertaining to students. Photo courtesy of Kathy Scileny.

Following Frye's lecture, the group of about 60 ventured out into the rain. At our first stop, we were greeted by author, abolitionist, and friend of John Brown - Henry David Thoreau (portrayed by Thoreau scholar and professor Ian Marshall of Penn State Altoona). There, he read Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown," which stated: "I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life, but for his character,--his immortal life; and so it becomes your cause wholly, and is not his in the least. Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."

Dr. Marc Harris, head of the Penn State Altoona History Department, told the group of riots and legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, which gave slave owners the power to pursue their escaped chattel property into free states of the North. Freedom-seeking slaves were not truly free until they reached Canada. This largely remained the situation until the commencement of the Civil War.

Portraying a southern bounty hunter, Petrulionis offered the crowd the pro-slavery perspective, which claimed that slavery was endorsed in the New Testament and that it was an institution divinely created for service to the white man.

...But before he and his fellow hunters could apprehend our group, Harriet Tubman snatched his shotgun and freed us, continuing to lead us to "the promised land."

Dr. Robert McLaughlin interprets the words of William Lloyd Garrison, famed abolitionist and publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator.

History Instructor Heather Jo Eckels recites the words of Sojurner Truth to the audience (with her period correct red umbrella and glasses of course).

Student Chuck Lynch reads the words of Marine Lieutenant Israel Green, the officer who captured John Brown during his raid on Harpers Ferry.

Professor of History and Environmental Studies Brian Black reads the words of reporter James Redpath, a correspondent who covered John Brown's trial for treason. Following Brown's hanging on December 2, 1859, Redpath wrote: "The soul of John Brown stood at the right hand of the Eternal. He had fought the good fight, and now wore the crown of victory." At this same stop, Dr. Doug Page read the words of W.E.B. DuBois and described the aftermath and legacy of John Brown's raid.

Dr. Steven C. Andrews as John Brown. Some of Brown's final words at his trial were: "Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. -- I submit; so let it be done! I feel no consciousness of my guilt. Now I have done. I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood."
Civil War Living Historian Bob Myers and fellow musicians of the 46th PA Logan Guard performed some period music at the program's conclusion at the Laurel Pavilion.

And of course, what is the end of a program without desserts? Students dig into a tray of the cookies which quickly disappeared.

A group shot of many of the evening's participants. A big thanks to all those who donated their time, assistance, and expertise to make this a unique and worthwhile event!

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