Underground Railroad Free Press
News & views on the Underground Railroad • Volume XVI, no. 91, September 2021
Published bimonthly since 2006, we bring together organizations and people interested in the historical and the contemporary 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. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more.
This is our annual September issue announcing the 2021 winners of the three Underground Railroad Free Press Prizes. The prizes have been awarded since 2008 for leadership, preservation, and advancement of knowledge in the international Underground Railroad community, and are generally regarded as the most esteemed honor bestowed in the Underground Railroad community. The purpose of the Underground Railroad Free Press prizes is to recognize and honor the most outstanding contributions to contemporary Underground Railroad work in leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge. The prizes also promote awareness and appreciation of contemporary Underground Railroad work to the general public, elected and other officials, governments and key decision-makers by publicizing prizes and winners. As the prizes recognize that the Underground Railroad was an international enterprise, prize eligibility is extended to individual and organizational nominees from any nation.
||| The 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Leadership
The 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Leadership is awarded to Historic Sotterley for its exemplary Common Ground Initiative that has brought together Black and White descendants of people who lived at Sotterley Plantation in the era of slavery. While Sotterley has no known record of having been involved in the Underground Railroad, and indeed was a place of enslavement, Historic Sotterley has become an American trailblazer in racial healing and understanding, which has more than earned it the 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Leadership.
To date more than 200 Sotterley descendants of both races living in thirty states and four countries have been identified. Several, both Black and White, hold leadership positions on Historic Sotterley's governing board of trustees. A full calendar of public events closely involves the descendants.
Historic Sotterley long had descendants involved with its museum, but knew that there were others looking for their Sotterley roots. In April 2017, Sotterley dedicated its 1830s slave cabin exhibit to the late Agnes Kane Callum, a Sotterley descendant and board member emerita. Ms. Callum descended from an enslaved person at Sotterley. The wonderful gathering of community and descendants with speakers and storytelling that day was the kickoff for Sotterley announcing the launching of its Descendants Project.
Sotterley was once the home of George Plater (1735–1792), the sixth state Governor of Maryland. In recent years, Sotterley has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO Site, and honored with a Maryland Sustainable Growth Award and two Maryland Preservation Awards. Guided tours are available at https://www.sotterley.org/visitus/.
Dating from 1699, Sotterley passed through several family ownerships culminating with Mabel Satterlee Ingalls who in the 1960s turned Sotterley into a non-profit museum. Shortly after this, the Briscoe family, prominent in local affairs since colonial times and previous owners of Sotterley, became closely involved in the restoration and preservation of the site. For many years, John Hanson Briscoe, Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1973 to 1979, led this effort. Briscoe served on many commissions and boards, championing environmental and historical causes, including the historical St. Mary's City Commission, the St. Mary's County Historical Society, and the Historic Sotterley Foundation. In recent years, his daughter Jan, a local attorney, has chaired the board of Historic Sotterley and spearheaded development the organization's Common Ground Initiative and Descendants Project.
A prized element of the 95-acre site is the fully restored 1830s slave cabin shown here.
||| The 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Hortense Simmons Prize for the Advancement of Knowledge
The 2021 Hortense Simmons Prize for the Advancement of Knowledge is awarded to Jobie Hill for her exemplary work on the project “Saving Slave Houses” which Ms. Hill founded ten years ago. The Saving Slave Houses project has five components that contribute to the preservation and education of the history of enslaved people: the slave house database, interpretation, education, community outreach and genealogy.
Says Hill, "Saving Slave Houses facilitates projects committed to the preservation and education of the history of enslaved people. I hope to change the way we think, talk, research, document, interpret, preserve, restore, teach about, and learn from slave houses."
Hill has now visited more than 700 former slave quarters. She conceived of the idea of Saving Slave Houses in 2012 from research that she did for her master’s thesis in preservation architecture. At the time, she served as a summer intern for the Historic American Buildings Survey, a federal program that documents architectural features of historically significant buildings. The surveys require sites to be documented by photos, floor plans and past use but this hadn't been done for the 485 identified slave houses that remained standing.
Thanks to Ms. Hill there is now a national database of identified former slave dwellings being added to as new ones are discovered. Hill is in the process of visiting every one of them to see if they are still standing and, if so, how well they are being preserved. Currently, Hill is working on gathering funding to make the database publicly accessible. Be sure to let her know if you have funding suggestions for making the slave house database publicly available. Also, if you know of or suspect that a building may have been a slave house, be sure to let Ms. Hill know by using the form on her website, savingslavehouses.org.
Ms. Hill, a registered architect, has bachelor's degrees in architecture and anthropology and master's degrees in art history and historic preservation. She is the recipient of multiple awards and grants.
The annual Free Press Prize for the Advancement of Knowledge is named in honor of Dr. Hortense Simmons who was Professor Emerita of English Literature at California State University at Sacramento before dying in 2010 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. Hortense Simmons rose from migrant child-laborer field hand to multiple Fulbright Scholar, and was a founding judge of the international Panel of Judges who at that time selected annual winners of the Free Press prizes.
||| The 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Preservation
The 2021 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Preservation is awarded to Stuart McMillan, Detroit's veteran local tour guide who for more than a half century has specialized in Underground Railroad tours. Mr. McMillan, now in his 80s, says that after 55 years of giving tours, 2022 will be his last. We present the Free Press Prize for Preservation as a well deserved lifetime achievement award recognizing the contributions of one dedicated person who has worked tirelessly to preserve the memory of the Underground Railroad in his part of America .
It is not too late before he retires to sign on to what sounds to be his last Underground Railroad tour next spring to Maryland 's Harriet Tubman National Historic Center in Cambridge, Maryland, and then on to the nearby National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington D.C.
Mr. McMillan is planning 22 tours for 2022 including the east coast Underground Railroad tour. About half of his 2022 tours are walking or bus day trips to sites around Detroit where the tour company is located. The other half are overnight tours of various durations to sites Michigan, the upper Midwest and Canada. Visit mcmillintours.com for more.
Stuart McMillan taught social studies at East Detroit High School for 30 years and then humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit for another seven, retiring in 2001. From the 1950s on, he has been an inveterate traveller having been to all 50 states and 142 countries.