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Underground Railroad Free Press is the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Visit our website for more.

Volume XVI, no. 88 


Free Press Prize Nominations Now Open

The annually awarded Free Press Prizes are regarded as the most esteemed honor bestowed in the international Underground Railroad community. The three prizes recognize and honor the most outstanding contributions to contemporary Underground Railroad work in leadership, preservation, and advancement of knowledge. 

By publicizing prizes and winners, the prizes promote awareness and appreciation of Underground Railroad work to the general public, elected and other officials, governments and key decision-makers. As the Underground Railroad was an international enterprise, prize eligibility is extended to individual and organizational nominees from any nation.

Visit http://urrfreepress.com/#Prizes for more on the prizes, past winners, and how to nominate.


It's Official

We reported in our last issue that the long-simmering struggle to have a Brooklyn, New York, Underground Railroad safehouse protected appeared to be on the verge of approval after 17 years of a developer's demolition threats, bureaucratic wrangling, and official indifference at first. Finally on February 2, the City of New York declared 227 Duffield Street a protected historic landmark immune to demolition. Abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell lived there in the mid-1800s and used their home to shelter freedom seekers. Says historian Raul Rothblatt of the local preservationist group, the next step is to build a cultural destination incorporating the building. The project will also honor prominent local abolitionists of the Underground Railroad era. In 2019, the city renamed an adjoining street Abolitionist Place.

Bonus

Have a look at the brief video petition by the neighborhood's  Girl Scout Troop 2663 to honor New York City's Black women suffragists.


Tubman Center Taps Young as New CEO

On January 21, 2021, the board of trustees of the Tubman African American Museum of Macon, Georgia, appointed Harold Young as Executive Director succeeding Dr. Andy Ambrose who served from 2005 through 2019.

Mr. Young came to Macon in 2008 from Los Angeles where he worked in marketing and promotions. He came to the museum in 2015 as Director of Special Projects and Community Services responsible for generating revenue through facility rentals and the Museumʼs largest annual fundraiser. He also directed the Museumʼs largest community outreach program, the annual Pan-African Festival of Georgia. When Dr. Ambrose retired in 2019, the board selected Young to serve in the role of Interim Executive Director. 

The museum bills itself as the largest museum in the nation dedicated to educating people about the art, history and culture of African Americans other than the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The Tubman African American Museum was founded in 1981.


Modest Home Rich in History

By Mark J. Price 

  • The following article appeared in the January 18, 2021 issue of the Akron Beacon Journal of Akron, Ohio. Reprinted with gratitude. Thanks to Free Press reader Fergus Bordewich who alerted us to the article.

It's a little house with a lot of history. 

Motorists traveling along state Route 303 might not notice the modest white home at West Streetsboro and Oviatt Roads in Richfield near the Summit-Medina line. Until recently, it was easy for Richfield residents to overlook, too. Built in 1836 by pioneers from New England, the two-story frame building is one of the oldest residences in town and has ties to the Underground Railroad. 

Just a year ago, Oviatt House's destruction seemed imminent, but thanks to a grassroots effort and a groundswell of public support, it continues to stand. Preservationists are cautiously optimistic that the 185-year-old building can be saved. "At this point, it would be utter madness to tear the thing down," Richfield historian Jim Fry said. "We have raised over $100,000 without asking anyone for a donation," said Judy Bowman, chair of the group Save the Oviatt House. "If the National Park Service decides the evidence we have collected is verifiable, I think one can safely say the house is historically significant on a higher level than most currently believe," said Serena Juchnowski, a member of the Richfield Historical Society. 

The Oviatt name has been associated with the Western Reserve since its early days. In 1811, Connecticut native Heman Oviatt (1775-1854), an early settler of Hudson, bought 4,000 acres in the northwest corner of Richfield, a full quarter of the township. Nephew Mason Oviatt built the farmhouse in 1836 with his brother Erastus. They milled the wood from trees on the property and supplied lumber to the surrounding community as Richfield transitioned from log cabins to board homes. 

Married in 1831, Mason and Fanny Oviatt had eleven children. Mason Oviatt was associated with abolitionist John Brown, who moved to Richfield in 1840 to raise sheep for Heman Oviatt. Their families were friends in Hudson and shared an abhorrence of slavery in the South. "We have this really, really strong history of the Underground Railroad," Fry said. "We were a major stop." 

By night, Brown, Oviatt and other villagers helped escaped slaves find a safe passage to Canada. Unfortunately, much of that history is lost because no one dared keep records for fear of leaving a paper trail. "One also has to remember that the Underground Railroad was a secretive venture - people were not likely to keep lists noting the names of the slaves they helped move or anything that could incriminate them," Juchnowski said. 

Late in life, Fanny Oviatt shared a story with a granddaughter, confiding that Mason owned a wagon with a false bottom that he used to transport slaves. On a moonless night in the 1840s, Mason Oviatt left home around midnight and took the wagon to Brown's house, according to Fanny. "John Brown was sitting in a chair in front of the fire, all kind of hunched over with a blanket over his shoulders and he looked up with blazing eyes and he asked Mason: 'Do you understand your instructions?' and Mason said, 'Yes,' " Fry said. "And then John Brown said: 'May God go with you and those you take on your journey.' " Five men climbed into the wagon and hid in a cramped compartment four feet wide and six feet long. They breathed through holes that had been drilled in the wood. Oviatt and John Brown, Jr. shut the lid and threw hay over the floor to disguise it. 

Oviatt drove the wagon past his house, where he saw Fanny waving goodbye, silhouetted by lamplight in the doorway, unsure if her husband would return. The horses strained to climb Hinckley Hill. "The hill was so steep and the wagon was so overloaded, he had to stop three times going up the hill to rest the horses," Fry said. Deep in the woods, Oviatt opened the lid and let the men climb out to stretch their legs before continuing to Oberlin and eventually freedom. 

This story "is one of the best stories about the Underground Railroad that exists in the entire country today, and it's all connected to the Oviatt House," Fry said. 

Mason Oviatt was only 41 when he died July 10, 1850, in California. He and three cousins had sought their fortune during the gold rush, but two drowned, one died of illness and Oviatt succumbed to "coup de soleil," apparently sunstroke. He was buried in West Richfield Cemetery, where his wife, Fanny, joined him in 1886 at age 76. 

The Oviatt family owned the property until 1919 when Cleveland inventor Jim Kirby (1884-1971), famous for inventing the Kirby vacuum cleaner, purchased 336 acres for an estate. In 1937, the Cleveland Girl Scout Council bought the land and transformed it into Camp Crowell Hilaka. The Oviatt House served as the caretaker's residence. Generations of Girl Scouts camped in the woods before Richfield bought the property in 2014 for use as a public park. Today, it's called the Richfield Heritage Preserve, and Oviatt House stands at its southwest corner. 

In November 2019, the Richfield Joint Recreation District board voted 6-1 to raze the house, citing its deteriorating condition and a lack of money to repair or maintain it. Before demolition began, residents rallied around the building. "So we pulled the excavators away and we got rid of the dumpsters," said Bob Becker, chairman of the park board. Ken Bowman, a historic preservation carpenter for the National Park Service, and Larry Brichacek, a historic preservation contractor, offered to oversee the repairs. Volunteers secured the building, covered the leaky roof, painted the exterior and removed carpeting, drywall and cabinets to eliminate a mold hazard. 

The board has not rescinded the motion to raze the house, Becker said, but will wait to see if an organization can develop a business plan, determine a use for Oviatt House, sign a legal contract, perform the necessary work and a create an endowment fund to pay for the maintenance in perpetuity. "If they can get all that done and it costs nothing to the taxpayers, in my opinion, give them a shot," Becker said. "If they succeed, fantastic. If they don't, then part of the memorandum of understanding would be to go forward with the demolition." But nothing is imminent. "Our ears are open," Becker said. 

Judy Bowman, chair of Save the Oviatt House, said her group understands the park board has limited finances. Without any solicitation, two donors have stepped forward with offers. "We've already raised $53,000 in pledges to help restore the house," she said. "And $50,000 - that's $5,000 a year for 10 years from a donor - for maintenance." 

Last week, the group decided to reach out to the community. Bowman said the house is in surprisingly good condition. Ultimately, she would like to see it become a visitors center for the park. "I'm just going to plug away and assume that it's going to be saved," she said. "That's been my attitude." 

Meanwhile, historical society members Linda Fleming, Juanita Taylor and Serena Juchnowski have researched the house's ties to the Underground Railroad. Juchnowski, a 2020 graduate of Case Western Reserve University, is working on an application to have Oviatt House included on the National Park Service's Network to Freedom, which identifies sites on the Underground Railroad and offers grants that can be used for preservation and restoration of buildings. She contacted National Park Service regional coordinator Deanda Johnson in Nebraska and was surprised to learn that she already knew about Oviatt House. "She was extremely interested in the status of the house and the history behind it," Juchnowski said. "While nothing is for certain until the application is filed and evaluated, it appears that the Mason Oviatt house is a perfect and very valuable site to be listed on the network because of Mason's direct role in the Underground Railroad and abolitionist background." 

Such national recognition would not only be important to Richfield, but would "honor our history while showing that we continue to support freedom from oppression," she said. The Richfield park board this month approved a motion for director David Green to sign a letter to apply for the historic site's inclusion on the Network to Freedom Trail. 

Only time will tell if the Oviatt House stands or falls. "It has been standing there for so long a little more time won't hurt," Juchnowski said. "This house is so important," Fry said. "It means so much. We are really determined to save it," said Bowman.


The Iowa Architect Documenting Every Slave House Still Standing

  • This post by Sabrina Imbler was featured February 26, 2020, on atlasobscura.com and appears here lightly edited for space. Reprinted with thanks. Jobie Hill is a licensed preservation architect with degrees in historic preservation, art history, and anthropology, whose research and professional work since 2011 have focused exclusively on domestic slave buildings.

The current residents of the historic Mount Zion home in Warren County, Virginia, were rifling through the attic of their garage when they found a yellowed fragment of paper. It was the corner of a larger document, soiled by mold, water, and time. But the snaking cursive writing on it was still legible. It was the bill of sale for an enslaved girl named Chalotte (more likely Charlotte, with the letter “r” long faded away).

The discovery of the bill was both extraordinary and unsurprising because long before the building was a garage, it was the home of enslaved African Americans.

In 2017, the residents shared Charlotte’s bill of sale and one other—denoting an unnamed man who was sold for $650—with Jobie Hill, a preservation architect from Iowa City, Iowa. Hill had come to Mount Zion to do fieldwork for her project Saving Slave Houses, hoping to document the condition of the Mount Zion garage to see how much of the building’s history has been preserved.

Since 2012, Hill has surveyed hundreds of structures that she believes once served as a home to enslaved African Americans. More often than not, the buildings bear no visible trace of their past; many have been converted into garages, offices, or sometimes—unnervingly—bed-and-breakfast inns. In some cases the structures have fallen into ruin or vanished entirely, leaving behind a depression in the ground.

Hill is determined to build a first-of-its-kind database that honors and preserves these spaces in more than memory, and to unites houses with the stories of people who once inhabited them. As she sees it, such a repository is long overdue. “There has never been a national survey of slave houses, except for the one I’m trying to do,” Hill says.

A slave house at Ivy Cliff in Bedford County, Virginia, documented by the Virginia Slave House Project, which chronicles the architecture of slavery in Virginia.

Scholars who study the horrors of American slavery agree. “Slavery is largely invisible in the [current] Southern landscape, and therefore easy to ignore or forget,” Damian Pargas, a historian from Leiden University who specializes in slavery, writes in an email.

“What Jobie is doing is great, and certainly necessary,” says Joe McGill, the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, which hosts overnight stays in former slave cabins. “These are buildings history has long overlooked, because they do not make the white male a hero.”

Hill came up with the idea for Saving Slave Houses in 2012, while researching her master’s thesis in preservation architecture. She was a summer intern at the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a federal program established in 1933 to employ architects and draftsmen who had been laid off during the Great Depression.

The survey’s stated purpose was to document the architectural features of historically significant buildings in the United States. But it also recorded 485 slave houses that remained standing across the antebellum South in the 1930s and ’40s. “It’s the closest thing to a national survey of slave houses that we have,” Hill says.

The HABS survey required that each site be documented with a combination of interior and exterior photographs, precise floor plans and blueprints, and any relevant history of how the building was used in the past.

Hill soon realized that this high level of documentation was a prerequisite only for the main houses on plantations, but was rarely present for slave houses. Those structures were often included in the survey unintentionally. “I would see [a slave house] in the background of the picture [of the main house,] because they couldn’t crop it out,” Hill says.

Slave houses were rarely labeled as such, but Hill has found it easy to pick them out from the surveys by observing their small size and location. “And if the building has a fireplace or a chimney, that meant it was used as a living space,” she says, adding that enslaved people often lived in the kitchens where they worked.

The architecture of these buildings varies, from one-room cabins to dormitory-style housing. But the majority of the slave houses documented by HABS were built as notched log cabins, with gaps patched with mud or left open to the air.

To match the slave houses identified in HABS with the people who once lived in them, Hill cross-references the HABS survey with the largest, best-known collection of interviews from formerly enslaved people, the 1936-1938 WPA Slave Narrative Collection, a project that gathered 3,500 narratives from people, 1,010 of whom described their homes.

The interviews paint a grim picture of the cruel and cramped quarters enslaved people were forced to live in. The inside of a slave house was as structurally bleak as the outside, with crude beds made of hay and cord. Conditions were often dangerous: chimneys, for instance, built of sticks and mud, would fill the unventilated room with smoke, and sometimes catch fire. And the owners of certain plantations, such as Beatrice Manor in the border state of Kentucky, would lock enslaved people inside their houses at night.

But Hill recognizes these sites as sacred spaces. “It was in domestic life—away from the eyes and whip of the overseer—that captive Africans could attempt to assert the modicum of freedom they still retained,” writes the archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste, referencing an article by the activist, scholar, and writer Angela Davis, in a chapter of Archaeology and Preservation of Gendered Landscapes.

Hill often finds herself fixating on the few deeply human details present in the narratives, such as how enslaved people personalized their homes. Cordelia Thomas, who was enslaved on Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Oconee County, Georgia, described how thin sliding blocks of wood disguised bored-out peepholes, to allow the people inside the house to see visitors without opening the door. Nelson Cameron, who was enslaved on Sam Brice’s plantation in Alabama, remembered how morning glory vines would climb the porch outside his log house and bloom, surrounded by buzzing bees.

Despite the historical gaps of these two chief sources—one an accidental architectural documentation, the other an inconsistent collection of oral histories—Hill says she feels confident that she’s matched five narratives to former slave houses. “It was more than I thought I would find,” she says. “I was hoping to find at least one.”

Hill’s arduous research process—identifying slave houses in archives that often mention them only in passing—is what ultimately inspired her to create the Slave House Database.

“Hill’s project is important,” Vargas says, adding that he believes that extant slave houses should be declared protected heritage sites or national monuments. “Preserving slave cabins … will help make the history of slavery visible to the general public.

Hill’s new mission is to visit every HABs-identified slave house to see if it’s still standing, and if so, how it’s been preserved. Most of the sites recorded in HABS are located on private property, so Hill always writes to the current property owner to explain why she wants to visit. People living in the homes that once belonged to slave-owners often have an idea of what the smaller structures on their property were used for, but seldom know that some enslaved people lived where they worked.

“Oftentimes they’ll write back and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any slave houses on our site. They’ve all been demolished, but we do have a kitchen,’” Hill says. “And I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m also interested in the kitchen.’”

Once on site, Hill shares all the information she has about the slave house with the property’s current owner, and asks for any artifacts they might have from the building. Then she’ll walk around the site, taking photographs and measurements, noting GPS coordinates, and sketching what she sees.

The first thing you notice when you walk inside a slave house, she says, is the size. “The ceilings are low, there are [very few] windows, and it’s stuffy, without much sunlight,” Hill says.

Many slave houses that have been converted into storage rooms or offices have modern upgrades—like plumbing or a window air-conditioning unit—that make them more bearable inside. In the ones that don’t, the air feels thick, stagnant, and trapped.

After visiting hundreds of sites, Hill has been surprised by the quality of construction she’s found: It’s better than she anticipated. “We’ve been taught and conditioned to think that these structures were poorly built,” she says.

Hill often sees slave houses referred to as shacks or huts—pejoratives contradicted by the fact that many are still standing centuries after they were built. (She does note, however, that scores of slave houses have not survived.) According to Hill, many enslaved people were skilled carpenters, responsible for building not just their own homes but also the grand mansions that housed the people who enslaved them. Though given limited tools and resources for their own dwellings, they built their houses as sturdily as possible. “It was one of the ways they were resisting slavery.”

Several former slave dwellings that Hill has visited are now bed-and-breakfast inns, which Vargas says are most prevalent along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Some of these B&Bs are up front about the history of their rooms, though often euphemistic in their presentation. In Louisa, Virginia, for instance, the owners of the Prospect Hill Plantation Inn named the rooms after former enslaved occupants. The description for “Uncle Guy’s Loft,” which goes for $165 to $215 a night, reads, “Originally the sleeping quarters for fifteen field-hands, this private upstairs room . . . is both cozy and quaint, while still feeling roomy and relaxed.”

Other B&Bs are less forthcoming. In New Orleans, B&W Courtyards offers a Barbados-style beach house in a slave house, which the B&B describes as “old servants quarters.”

“I have mixed feelings about how the buildings are used,” Hill says. But she’s quick to point out that when a building is being used—however it’s being used—it’s also being preserved. Vacant or abandoned buildings deteriorate over time—a surefire route to eventual demolition.

Many of the 485 slave houses that HABS documented in 1936 have disappeared in the years since, and Hill knows there may be many more undocumented dwellings out there. So many of the homes were replaced long ago with something unrecognizable like the plot in Macon, Georgia, that’s now the Bibb County Tax Commissioner Service Center.

Other times, the buildings disappear soon after she sees them. Hill visited the ruins of the Greenhill Plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, several times between 2014 and 2017. “Each time we went out there, one more building had disappeared, eaten up by the trees.”

Though its scope is expansive, Saving Slave Houses isn’t Hill’s full-time job. She still works in preservation architecture, and has served as the architect for the reconstruction of several slave houses that were demolished long ago at James Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

At Monticello, Hill reconstructed a 12-foot by 14-foot cabin with walls a foot thick, where the enslaved John and Priscilla Hemmings once lived. The house was furnished according to a description given by Thomas Jefferson’s great-great granddaughter, who remembered a bed, a table, and a shelf. “One comment we got [from visitors] was, ‘This wasn’t so bad,’” Hill says.

That sentiment is part of the problem. As Hill sees it, the task of reconstructing enslaved spaces often puts interpreters in a bind. Though furniture or decorations inside the houses accurately represent the small comforts enslaved people created for themselves, visitors often conflate that with a rosier experience of slavery than actually existed. “The credit should go to the enslaved community making life better for themselves,” Hill says. “Not to the institution of slavery.”

Since 2012, Hill has documented approximately 700 buildings at more than 140 sites in six states. In 2017, a new trove of slave narratives was digitized at Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana, representing 229 stories from 17 states. Hill has been poring through these narratives to identify building descriptions that will help her match slave houses with the people who might have lived in them. She’s also scheduling new site visits, with a special focus on Alabama, which has more than 100 HABS-documented houses.

Despite the painful histories behind slave houses, Hill says that visiting them is not a painful experience for her. “The slave-owners didn’t want these buildings to survive, and the fact that they do is credit to the enslaved people,” she says.

McGill agrees. “It’s important to acknowledge and save these buildings that can help tell the stories of enslaved ancestors,” he says. “It’s a story that’s been neglected for so long.”

Sometimes, standing in houses that haven’t been remodeled or repurposed, Hill can detect traces of the people who once lived there. At Roseville Plantation near Aylett, Virginia, she visited a kitchen that had a loft upstairs, where enslaved people would have lived. She saw that a hole had burned into the floorboards of the loft, perhaps from a hot ash that escaped a fire unnoticed while a family was sleeping. She marveled at the mark—at how the small, flammable structure could easily have been burned down. And the sheer luck that it was not.

You can join the conversation about this and other stories in the Atlas Obscura Community Forums.


The Green Rose: Symbol of Hope and Freedom Has Ties to the Underground Railroad

  • This article was posted at the blog of Sacramento Digs Gardening sacramentodigsgardening.blogspot.com by Debbie Arrington on January 18, 2021. Free Press thanks Free Press reader BJ Flora of Sacramento, California, for alerting us to the posting.

Horticulturists ridiculed it. Abolitionists wore it proudly. Wherever it grew, the green rose got noticed. Passed down from one generation of gardeners to the next, this unique flower has come to mean freedom, resilience, hope and friendship. And its American story continues to inspire. 

Officially named rosa chinensis viridiflora, the green rose is unlike any other. The “petals” are actually modified sepals, packed into a tight cluster about the size of a golf ball. Tinged with pink or bronze, the flowers look as green as the plant’s foliage. The original green rose most likely was a sport, a natural mutation. Truly asexual, the flowers have no pollen and never form hips or seed. The only way to propagate it is through rooted cuttings, which is how American gardeners have shared this rose for two centuries.  Classified as a China rose, viridiflora may have its origins in ancient China. Something that looks similar to a green rose can be seen in Chinese paintings but it may be a green chrysanthemum.  

Rose expert Stephen Scanniello, co-author of “A Rose by Any Name” (Algonquin Books), suggests that the American green rose may have originated in South Carolina or Georgia. Nursery records trace the green rose to Charleston in 1833 when plants were sent north to Philadelphia. In 1843, a cotton merchant planted viridiflora at his country house in Savannah where it grows to this day. 

According to legend, the green rose became popular with abolitionists, who planted it in their gardens as a sign of welcome to escaped slaves, and members of the Underground Railroad are said to have worn the distinctive flower as a signal to one another. “The Green Rose of Furley Hall,” a 1953 historical novel by Helen Corse Barney, recounts the story of her Quaker ancestor, William Corse, a Baltimore nurseryman and abolitionist, who planted viridiflora at his home. The book revived interest in what had become a horticultural curiosity. 

Beyond the Underground Railroad, viridiflora found another niche. In the language of flowers, a green rose symbolizes rejuvenation or abundance. With its unique appearance and long-lasting quality as a cut flower, viridiflora became popular with floral designers, a distinction it still holds. 

Mountain Valley Growers, which propagates the Green Rose for sale, describes it this way: “This plant only exists due to the kindness and love of gardeners who take cuttings and make more roses. It often has great sentimental value to those who grow it because it may have been a gift from a friend. Considering it is first recorded in the mid 1800s, that is a lot of love keeping a sterile rose with no real rose flower going.” 

To order a green rose, visit https://www.mountainvalleygrowers.com/rosviridiflora.htm.


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