Wednesday afternoon, two professors at SUNY Fredonia, Dr. Saundra Liggins of the department of English and Dr. Jennifer Hildebrand of the history department, were presenters for the "Brown Bag Lecture Series." These lectures consist of short informal presentations by faculty members followed by dessert and conversation. The lectures are open to both campus and community members.
The two faculty members spoke about a course they are offering this semester called "The Underground Railroad in the Niagara Region." The presentation dealt with the development of the course as well as course objectives and content.
Liggins and Hildebrand received support for development of the course from a Faculty Enrichment Program grant from the Government of Canada. This was possible because the story of the Underground Railroad has a connection with Canada. Many fugitive slaves as well as African Americans who were "freemen" decided to settle in Canada.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
Dr. Saundra Liggins (left), department of English, and Jennifer Hildebrand, department of history explain their course, “The Underground Railroad in the Niagara Region.”
The first time the two applied for the grant they were not successful. Hildebrand said, "We worked on the proposal in 2007 and submitted it in 2008. Our first proposal was rejected. We worked on it some more; ... it was accepted. This semester we are teaching the course. Under the requirements of the grant, we need to teach the course twice. So the semester next spring will be the second time."
The course is interdisciplinary, combining history and English. In addition, there is a focus on local history. Wendy Straight, who has researched Eber Pettit, a local historical figure connected with the Underground Railroad who wrote "Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad" contributes to the class.
In May, a one-week course will allow students to travel to some of the locations and landmarks in Western New York and Ontario, Canada associated with the Underground Railroad Community members are welcome to in this class. For further information or questions contact Saundra Liggins at Saundra.email@example.com or Jennifer Hildebrand at Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The lecture attracted students, staff, and community members from younger children to senior citizens who had interest in this piece of local history. Members of the audience asked many questions such as "How many slaves tried to escape but never succeeded?" (There is no firm answer on this) "Did only slaves go to Canada?" (No, when the Fugitive Slave law was passed in 1850, many "slave catchers" saw any African American as a fugitive. Therefore, many freemen no longer felt safe in the North and decided to go to Canada.) During what period did the Underground Railroad operate? (It depends how you interpret the Underground Railroad.)
The Underground Railroad is a difficult topic to research. Since aiding fugitive slaves was illegal, many of the accounts were written after the Civil War. These accounts have to be evaluated since some people often operated as story tellers rather than historians. In addition, many myths have grown up around this period of history. Yet both professors felt that its study was worthwhile in the consideration of borders - not only the border between Canada and the United States, but also the borders between English and history.
As Wendy Straight said, "People in Western New York are often ignorant of this aspect of local history. We have just scratched the surface of information on the Underground Railroad."
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