Symposium to focus on 'Women of Courage'

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Ben Speller

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By Ben Speller
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Museum of the Albemarle is approaching the end of a year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of its founding. Three African American women, because of their importance in slavery and advocacy for freedom, are the focus of a three-day symposium, "North Carolina Women of the Underground Railroad” on Oct. 5 to Oct. 7.

Three nationally recognized scholars have been invited as keynote speakers on topics that will serve as a contextual basis for a discussion of the dominant role of women in the Underground Railroad.

· The first topic is "The Geographies of Harriet Tubman," Tubman was a runaway slave from Maryland who at great personal risk, led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. The presenter is Kate Clifford Larson, an American historian and Tubman Scholar. She is also the consultant for the Harriet Tubman Special Resources Study for the National Park Service.

· "The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts," is the second topic. Hannah Bond, pen name Hannah Crafts and born about 1830, was an African-American writer who escaped from slavery in North Carolina about 1857 and went to the North. Bond settled in New Jersey where she became a teacher. She wrote “The Bondwoman's Narrative” by Hannah Crafts after gaining freedom, which may be the first novel by an African-American woman. It is the only known one by a fugitive slave woman. Apparently written in the late 1850s, the novel was published in 2002 for the first time after Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor of African-American literature and history, purchased the manuscript and had it authenticated. It rapidly became a bestseller. Bond's identity was documented in 2013 by Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University, who found that she had been held by John Hill Wheeler of Murfreesboro.

· The third topic is "Conductors and Passengers: Harriet Jacobs' Underground Railroad." Harriet Ann Jacobs, born a slave in Edenton in 1813, gives insight into the horrors faced by the enslaved, their desire for freedom and their struggle to achieve freedom. Harriet shared her story with the world through her autobiography “Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl,” published anonymously in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Her story of resistance and escape added to the growing body of anti-slavery, abolitionist literature. The presenter of this topic is Mary Maillard. She received a 2013 Albert M. Greenfield Fellowship in African American History from the Library Company of Philadelphia for research on "Letters of Lousia Jacobs to Eugenie Webb, 1879-1911."

The capstone event of the symposium is the after-dinner presentation, "Interpreting the Underground Railroad from a National Perspective," by Rex M. Ellis, associate director for Curatorial Affairs, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ellis was vice president of the Historic Area for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where he oversaw all programs and operations. His presentations, lectures, workshops and consultancies focus on: public programming, diversity, interpretation, and African American History and culture. His disciplinary interests also include the spoken word, and early American History, with special emphasis on slavery.

More than a century before wealthy Virginia slave owners begin to debate the philosophical and contextual meaning of freedom, the Dismal Swamp area in the Albemarle sheltered the most free and open society in the European purview. Every time their independence was challenged, these settlers presented arms to protect it. They also were willing to cross racial lines to build a coalition for this freedom. One Virginia Governor called them a "very mutinous people."

The Edenton Historical Commission is offering its annual lecture-discussion program, "Women of Courage and Distinction" on Saturday, Oct. 21, at the First Presbyterian Church in Edenton. The lecture, “Mutinous Women of the Albemarle,” will be presented by Noeleen McLlvenna, Ph.D. McLlvenna is professor of History and Director of Social Science Education at Wright State University in Dayton Ohio. Her doctoral studies at Duke University led to the publication of her book, "A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle of North Carolina, 1660-1713." This discussion will focus on how the more egalitarian culture of the early settlers allowed Albemarle women greater freedom to participate in public affairs and to control their own destiny, in contrast to women in Virginia and England. This presentation is a perfect prelude to the 350th Anniversary Celebration of the Albemarle in 2018 which will take place in the 14 counties of northeastern North Carolina.

Ben Speller is President of the Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle. He is a member and Secretary of the Edenton Historical Commission where he is also Chair of the History and Legends Committee. He was Professor in the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences from 1976-2004 where he served as Dean from 1983-2003.