By Samuel Weisman, Contributing Writer
OSWEGO, NY- The Port City celebrated its prominent role in the Underground Railroad Saturday with the unveiling of a panel outside of the Oswego Public Library.
The unveiling was followed by a powerful performance delivered by storyteller Vanessa Johnson at a luncheon hosted by Bridie Manor. The event was sponsored by Pathfinder Bank.
Dr. Judith Wellman, historian and former professor at SUNY Oswego, did much of the research for the event.
She said, “Oswego was an extremely important stop on the Underground Railroad. It was maybe the largest border trade port with Canada in the country at the time.”
Wellman also noted that she was very proud to be a part of the community.
She said, “The Underground Railroad is one of Oswego’s greatest contributions to democracy and respect for all people in America and the world. Democracy is a living entity and we have to make sure to keep it going.”
Oswego County has more Underground Railroad sites than any other county in the country, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
The library is one, as is the Starr Clark Tin Shop in Mexico and the Bristol Hill Church in Volney, all of which have received funding for restoration.
Wellman also said not all the runaway slaves made their way to Canada either.
Many stayed in upstate New York with more than 300 African-Americans living in Oswego County in 1855, half of them in the city of Oswego.
She said, “All of these sites challenge popular beliefs that the Underground Railroad was a secret movement. Here in Oswego, it was very open, and its supporters were well known.”
Among these supporters was Gerrit Smith who owned land on the east side and donated $25,000 in the 1850s to help build the library.
He was also a prominent abolitionist and a woman’s rights activist. He believed that everyone, regardless of race or sex should be able to use the library.
The names of African-Americans, including escaped slaves, who used the library in the 1850s can be found in the subscription books kept on site.
Charlie Young, member of the board of trustees for the Oswego Public Library, opened the unveiling ceremony with a speech about memories.
He said, “We associate memory with events. As time goes on memories fade. This is a way to introduce people to our historic past.”
After the panel was unveiled, the group made its way to Bridie Manor where Johnson delivered re-enactments of testimonials from runaway slaves, freed African-Americans and people who helped with the Railroad movement.
Johnson, a griot (storyteller) of western and northern African oral traditions, drew laughs and tears, gasps and unsettling moments of silence with her use of song, poetry, and art.
She told stories that depicted the hardships of runaway slaves, the atrocities and abuse that the slaves endured and the risks citizens took to stand up for what they believed in to help the slaves gain their freedom.
Johnson opened her performance with words from Harriet Tubman in the form of song.
Her voice reverberated and filled the room as the crowd grew ever quieter and somber.
She continued her act with a horrifyingly violent testimonial of a young lady who had her face crushed by a rocking chair for taking a piece of candy. After which she had to remind the audience that, “it’s OK to clap.”
Upon finishing her performance Johnson received a standing ovation from the more than 130 patrons that filled the room.
Afterwards there was a brief ceremony to thank Wellman and Johnson for their contributions to the event.
Johnson, who is very active in the Syracuse community promoting art and education, found Africa Bound! This program lets teens in the area travel to Ghana to experience African culture.
She said, “I don’t push my politics on them, but they see what I want them to and that is that not everywhere in the world is there universal education or a chance to go to college. They should be thankful for what they have.”
Her group helps schools and hospitals in Africa by supplying funds and medical supplies.
These include diabetes test kits, stethoscopes, and inhalers for people who suffer from asthma.
To learn more about the Underground Railroad in Oswego visit the library, which now has an original first edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on display as Oswego continues its celebration of the city’s rich history.