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North Carolina Women Find Freedom via the Underground Railroad

Elizabeth City

The Underground Railroad is often imagined as a trail of briar infested backroads and secret cellars traveled by bondsmen at night seeking freedom from slavery. That was not the only route to escape. The North Carolina Women of the Underground Railroad Symposium, Oct. 5 -7, will examine two courageous Tar Heel women who traveled by land or sea on the freedom road. Registration is required and free; availability is limited.

The Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City hosts the symposium a part of its 50th year anniversary celebration. It focuses on Harriet Jacobs, who escaped from slavery in Edenton by boat to Philadelphia, and Hannah Crafts, who escaped from Murfreesboro and traveled overland while disguised as a boy. The symposium will also examine the work of Harriet Tubman, the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad (UGRR), who escaped from Maryland.

Jacobs and Crafts each wrote of their life experiences. Jacobs penned the semi-autobiographical “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself” which was published in 1861. Hannah Bond took the name Hannah Crafts and wrote possibly the first novel by an African American woman, “The Bondswoman’s Narrative,” published in 2002 after discovery by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

Harriet Tubman scholar and author of a biography of Tubman, historian Kate Clifford Larson, will speak on Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The research of Greg Hecimovich was pivotal in validating the written account of Hannah Crafts and he will speak on her life and experiences. Documentary editor Mary Maillard has published an edition of letters written by Harriet Jacobs’ daughter, Louisa Jacobs. Maillard will speak on Jacobs and the Underground Railroad.

Those morning sessions on day one will be followed in the afternoon with a roundtable discussion of the dominant role of freedom-seeking women in the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will speak on the Underground Railroad from a national perspective at the evening session.

Day two of the symposium will examine maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp. Runaways would often seek refuge in this virtually impenetrable environment, some staying for a lifetime. Mississippi State University graduate student Christy Davenport will address this element of the Underground Railroad. A roundtable discussion will follow to consider this and other aspects of new scholarship around the Underground Railroad, and work yet to be done on the subject.

The final day of the symposium will conclude with morning tours of venues related to the UGRR, including the Great Dismal Swamp, Historic Murfreesboro, Edenton, Elizabeth City and other locations.

Register and view the schedule here for the free symposium. Teachers receive one CEU credit for attending the entire symposium. The N.C. General Assembly, N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle, and the Fairfield Inn and Suites, have provided support necessary for this program.

This symposium is the last in a series of year-long events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Museum of the Albemarle. As a center for local research, the museum is pleased to support new findings about the Underground Railroad in northeastern North Carolina. The museum staff welcomes scholars to use its artifact collection and research library.

For additional information on the symposium, please call Bill McCrae at (919) 807-7889. For more information on the museum please call (252) 335-1453. The Museum of the Albemarle is part of the Division of State History Museums within the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. It is located at 501 S. Water St., Elizabeth City, and serves 13 counties in northeastern North Carolina.