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Taking New Passengers

As organizers of The Underground Railroad: Quests for Freedom prepared to begin their daylong conference at the College of the Saint Rose on Saturday, it was obvious they had underestimated the size of the crowd that would attend. Three years ago, the conference, whose purpose is to raise awareness and stimulate interest in the Underground Railroad movement in the Capital Region, had been held at Trinity United Methodist Church in Albany, and only a few dozen people were present. This year, attendance grew to more than 200. The sight of bare refreshments tables and huddles of people standing around with no place to sit made it apparent.

“It’s a wonderful thing to outgrow your space, because that means there’s growing interest in the project,” said Mary Liz Stewart, cofounder of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region. She and husband Paul Stewart began the project to research and stimulate interest in what they consider the often-overlooked Underground Railroad activity in the area. After searching for local incidents that Stewart, an elementary school teacher, could bring back to her classroom, both were surprised at the amount of information available and wanted to share it with the public.

The conference crowd was made up of teachers, students, historians, and interested community members. The play Passage to Freedom: A Spiritual Journey, performed by the Underground Railroad players, and the keynote speech, African American Freedom Seekers and the Quest for Liberty, given by Saint Rose assistant professor Risa Faussette, seemed geared toward appealing to a diverse crowd. The bulk of historical information was reserved for the workshops, which focused on local connections to the movement, and resources that teachers could use to enrich classroom lessons.

Charity Petti and Loretta Rufa, teachers at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Elementary School, agreed the conference had provided them with new information they could teach their students. “When she [Faussette] was talking about Native Americans and that they had such a part in harboring slaves—that was news to me—I was surprised,” Rufa said.

Others were not as impressed. Sandra Spaulding saw a flyer at the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward, where she works, and wanted to bring back specific historical information she could use in her work. After the keynote speech, she said, “My purpose was to learn about the Underground Railroad network, and I didn’t get a whole lot of real information.”

Odell Winfield, a book vendor at the conference, who also attended two years ago, said he’s seen a real change in the number of people interested in the project, and attributes a change in community to it. “Two years ago the conversation was, ‘So what, slavery’s over, the apologies are over,’ ” he said. “Now people are digging at the cause of slavery and steps are taken in educating the public about it.”

—Liz Healy

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