Building Ubuntu Bridges in Storytelling, Art of Framing Freedom Road Voices, and Directing an Underground Railroad Narrative, Tour and Movie (BAD)
By Roland Barksdale-Hall
Raccoon faced engines draws Americana;
Inside separate but equal etch slumber:
Black face porters mime errand boys;
Belly-heavy conductors haunt corridors.
At another time, the hmmmmmmm…
Of the Dixie Flyer carried;
Coffee people, shoebox lunches;
Chickens (both alive and fried);
Packed in Jim Crow cars,
Bushes blot their shame.
Movin’ toilets, ain’t easy, you know.
A vintage Barksdale-Hall family image "Dixie Flyer"
Pictured (l-r) Luther Will Steverson, Ernest Flieder, Jr. and Dorothy Steverson.
Introduction and background
“Muchas gracias to Max Macias and other sojourners on the Ubuntu path for your love and support,” I am humbled by those who read my first blog, “Making Ubuntu Spaces, Addressing Insecurities and Peopling Our Commons (MAP) and pleasantly surprised by the number of readers. Max, my activist muse, requested me to write my latest blog about tours of the Underground Railroad I conducted. I have spoken at national conferences, met several descendants of Solomon Northup, author of the narrative Twelve Years a Slave, realized that the context of framing, “mental images,” as related to discussions about slavery, its resistance, and Underground Railroad conductors provides an opportunity for building Ubuntu bridges to “spaces for new thinking” about history and how it relates to current historically marginalized groups (p. 98, Fairhurst and Starr, 1996).
My creative work as historian, conductor on the Underground Railroad and director of the movie, “Juneteenth Freedom Road Voices,” intersects art, history and the current, and builds dialogic Ubuntu bridges in storytelling about the long and enduring shadow of race in America. In 2019, Angela Jaillet-Wentling, an archeologist, who worked at the Pandenarium site in fulfillment of graduate studies, completed an application for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Marker for underrepresented groups, referenced my research and “storytelling ability”, evidenced in my book, and extended warm invitation for me to be keynote speaker. I knew if I did not speak, and paint a mental framework that the visceral presence of an antebellum African American community would possibly be misinterpreted, misunderstood if not ignored not out of malice but out of common practice.
I was recovering from an accident, still in pain and pressed my way. I hobbled up the stairs through the red doors of what had been an Episcopalian Church and found a seat on a wooden assigned pew. I reflected how it was a decade earlier the publication of my book, African Americans in Mercer County, turned shadows into substance. To the podium I struggled and evoked through the counter narrative, “Turning Shadows into Substance: The House That Love Built,” I told the story of an ordeal and triumph of a household headed by a formerly enslaved person and free person of color.
I was surprised by the invitation to provide the keynote address at the Pandenarium marker dedication, held at the Mercer County Historical Society’s Helen Black Memorial Chapel. I held onto the podium and rocked back and forth in the delivery. It was a momentous message that invoked shadows of nineteenth-century free persons of color whose lives were to be turned into substance. That day I received an ancestral call to serve as a messenger of freedom road voices, which later took form as an Underground Railroad conductor.
The Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad rather a network of stops and passages operated by formal and informal conductors, who participated in a clandestine later illegal activity that secreted enslaved persons to freedom. Enslaved persons faced severe punishment, and risked their lives in the pursuit of freedom.
During 2023 Black History Month Observance a former member of the COVID Equity team recommended me to serve as a conductor for the Underground Railroad Tour in our county. Through this collaboration COVID-19 test kits, N-95 masks and bracelets were made available at public library. She was a parishioner at a local Episcopal church, who joined in a local Becoming Beloved study group—taking its name from Dr. Martin Luther King. With some dioceses pursuing reparations the general convention realized a need for dialogue about racial justice and formation of study groups across the country. Here is a link to their work: As dioceses pursue reparations, General Convention poised for churchwide racial justice discussion.
Narrative on the Underground Railroad
What would an Underground Railroad Tour look like? The visitor center director Peggy and I collaborated on a timeline for the URR Tour. Lively discussion about logistics, including the feasibility of planning a trip in a climate where snow was a possibility in February, occurred. We debated where the inclusion of sites from the Underground Railroad period occurred, planned for a paltry meal that reflected an enslaved person’s cuisine. She and the county historical society liaison Bob Lark came up with the Underground Railroad period settings. For example, the Rasich Log House, which was not an Underground Railroad site, was included in the itinerary.
Peggy and I did a test run in the visitor’s center van to estimate travel time between sites. It was over thirty minutes between the Liberia fugitive slave settlement and the Mark Twain Manor. I was to provide commentary while we traversed the countryside from stop to stop in a yellow school bus. I developed an extensive narrative on the relocation of enslaved persons to freedom. Participants in the Underground Railroad tour received a copy of People in Search of Opportunity the African American Experience in Mercer County, Pennsylvania: A History and Guide as a resource book. I wrote the publication when I served as Head Librarian at the Penn State Shenango, taught an undergraduate course about the African American history, developed a three-part community-based African-American Experience program and wrote the guide as a companion text to an exhibit (Abston, D. 1995 https://crln.acrl.org/index.php/crlnews/article/view/24134/31924 ).
Flier for the Underground Railroad Tour!
All 40 seats sold out in the first hour. There were 70 on a waiting list for the next tour.
Barksdale-Hall holds a vintage photo of Caroline Lewis, a nineteenth-century resident of Pandenarium, during his featured presentsation at Pandenarium Marker Dedication
The opening program set the atmosphere, transported the attendees to another space and time, and included a combination of musical rendition of spirituals, poetry and monologue by Ms. Monica and Mr. Leon. Poet, and academic, Claudia Rankine recognized for her work at the intersectionality of “historical, current moment and emotional landscape of the speaker”, addresses “neutrality” and “politeness” as a rationale to avoid “engagement” about race (2020). I employed poetry, discussed the intersectionality of COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death and Kwanzaa commemoration with the backdrop of library book shelves to prod reflection (Roknick, 2020, December 29 posted). Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd, which was a song that “counseled” travelers on the Underground Railroad to “follow Ursa Major, which has the form of a gourd” (pp. 125, 2003, Chenu). Our library developed an Underground Railroad scavenger hunt and gourd art. We grew gourds in the community garden for our programming. Comments about spiritual music ranged from “enjoyable day, starting with singing” to “bring tears.”
I provided a narrative of slavery in colonial America. People expressed surprise to learn slavery existed in places like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Comments include “I did not know there ever was slavery here.” Yet, slavery did exist in northern colonies. I researched the variation in regional patterns during this period of slavery, and published an essay, “Inheritance and Slave Status,” in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 16719-1895: From the Colonial Period to the age of Frederick Douglass, published by Oxford University Press, edited by Paul Finkelman.
At the White Chapel Cemetery I pointed out the tombstones of George and Caroline Lewis. In 2019 I participated as the keynote presenter at the dedication ceremony for the Pandenarium marker held at the Mercer County Historical Society’s Black Memorial Chapel.
Roland Barksdale-Hall, following performance by Ms. Monica and Mr. Leon (pictured in background) at opening ceremony during the Juneteenth Underground Railroad Tour at opening ceremony speaks of elusive, Pictured to the side are volunteer digital media Filomena Cornellio and Peggy Mazyck, CEO of VisitMercer CountyPA
10:00 am – 10:20 am VisitMercerCountyPA Office - Program with Monica Jefferson/Leon Avery
10:40 am – 11:00 am Raisch Log Cabin & Erie Canal lock; Drive by Sharpsville Historical Society
11:30 am -12 Noon Pandenarium and Safe Houses in Mercer
12 Noon – 1:00 pm Lunch and Mercer County Historical Society
1:30 pm – 1:50 pm Former Liberia Site
2:30 pm – 3:15 pm Gibson House
4:00 pm Return to Visit Mercer County PA
Programming in February
A Kiss and A Half Book Signing
Wednesday, February 8, @ 3:30 PM.
Meet the local author, G.M. Latimer, of the young adult romance.
Make-and Take-Tuesday: Making Adinkra Symbols
Tuesday, Feb. 7 @ 4:00 PM.
Using supplied crafts, teens make an Adinkra symbol and learn about iconic African symbols.
Black History Bingo
Thursdays, February 9th, 23rd @ 3:30 PM.
Teens play bingo and learn of different accomplishments and achievements of Black Americans.
Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr. Service Contest Awards
Saturday, Feb. 4 @ 11:00 AM.
Recognizes the service poster contest winners. In partnership with Mercer NAACP.
African American History Day
Saturday, Feb. 25 @ 11:00 AM.
Learn about African American history through a trivia contest, scavenger hunt, and African American history bingo.
Uncovering Hidden Figures
Tuesday, Feb. 21 & 28 @ 4:00 PM.
Join discussions about local African American history and its contributors.
Roland Barksdale-Hall and Marlene Bransom, President of Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, inside Mercer County historical society's Helen Black Memorial Chapter at the dedication for the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC) Pandenarium roadside historical marker.
Our program, “Sharing Reflections: Uncovering Hidden Figures,” consisted of a shero, a female nurse healer, telling youth about southern migrant experience, their relocation, during the 1950s and racism encountered in the Shenango Valley. She encouraged youth to pursue their career goals and not to be discouraged or stopped by resistance. Enraptured youth listened to a narrative that rarely is openly discussed, asked questions and responded favorably to the conversation with the elder.
Assessment and planning
Roland Barksdale-Hall, Karen Struther, a descendant of Underground railroad Conductor Joseph Young, Jr. and Archaeologist Angela Jaillet-Wentling at White -Chapel pavilion during the Juneteenth Underground Railroad Tour
The inaugural instant Freedom Road tour received favorable evaluations, as well plenty of media coverage, including the front page newspaper coverage. https://www.sharonherald.com/news/freedom-road/article_a6ef3074-b0bb-11ed-bd4a-4f0d1e416057.html Three out of four attendees ranked the tour 9 and above with ten being excellent.
In April I got the ball rolling with a degree of opportunity sensing and innovation for the next Underground Railroad Tour, researched and submitted a list for purchase of materials about Juneteenth, the Underground Railroad and African American culture for the library into a competitive grant, implemented plans for an educational component to a cultural celebration, and coupled my passion for storytelling with a goal to rebuild the Black Studies Collection. James C. Anyike noted about what he refers to as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” and the "oldest African American holiday observance,” “commemorated by reading “freedom documents” (e,g., “Emancipation Proclamation,” “Thirteenth Amendment,” “local declaration honoring freedom from slavery”), and celebrated as a “day of fun”, “family picnic,” “games,” “laughing,” and “singing” (pp. 53, 60-61, Anyike, 1991). I and Peggy, the CEO of the county Visitors Bureau, added an archaeologist from the dig at Pandenarium, as well as descendants of Underground Railroad operators to the next tour, played leadership roles in landing a highly competitive statewide matching Juneteenth Underground Railroad grant, and brought together stakeholders the Farrell City Mayor Kim Doss, the city manager, Strategic Planning Commission, and the city Parks and Recreation commission. A generous grant from the Pennsylvania Tourism Office and Voices Underground supported the Farrell Juneteenth Underground Railroad tour and events. I appreciate the leadership and guidance of M. Alexander Parham and Greg Thompson, co-executive directors of Voices Underground and the rich collegial discussion and sharing of ideas and concepts with other grantees during Juneteenth.
Digitizing the Underground Railroad program
“Why not make available this tour in a digital form as a learning resource to promote expanded national dialogue and racial healing?” I thought. Well, I recruited a talented multimedia volunteer, Ms. Filomena Cornelio. I provided elusive as the key word for the Juneteenth Underground tour at the opening ceremony. I chose the word elusive as freedom remained elusive in an enslaved world and the enduring impact of slavery and racism contributes to racial healing being elusive in present times. In recent times, I remain confident about the power we possess, focused with hope on the message of Mathabane about lessons of Ubuntu, though I gather from political rhetoric across the country that reluctance persists in some circles to discuss contemporary race matters. Mathabane discusses the need for “compromise,” elusiveness of racial healing in America, and the current political landscape (pp. 130-131, Mathabane, 2018). Still, the interracial cooperation of the Underground Railroad and their fight for freedom offers a counterpoint to divineness and a model.
My creative movie work was building Ubuntu bridges in restorative storytelling. Attendees on the Underground Railroad Tour actively listened to interracial freedom voices, participated in discussions that might develop a broader context for understanding about current race matters and status of historically marginalized groups in America. In The Lessons of Ubuntu: How an African Philosophy Can Inspire Racial Healing in America Mathabane counsels for education, reflects upon the example of Nelson Mandela, and recognizes the power of “restorative justice” (pp. 185-200, Mathabane, 2018). Conductors acted in spite of federal legislation that supported slavery, took courage of conviction, and prods greater reflection on “restorative justice”. In his famous speech Mandela confronted with possible death falsely accused as a terrorist, resisted injustice, and envisioned an egalitarian society, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Through directing the movie, “Juneteenth Freedom Road Voices: 2023 Underground Railroad Tour” I looked at the possibility of developing new allies, framing the Underground Railroad tour to promote discussion about mutual resistance to oppression and awakening to “restorative justice.”
Roland Barksdale-Hall and Bill Philson, former director of Mercer County Historical Society, display in the Society's reading room a heirloom blanket believed to be made by early residents of the fugitive settlement of enslaved persons, Liberia. Richard Travis, a free African American Underground Railroad Conductor, owned valuable land on the lakefront Liberia settlement, and later along with others from the settlement under duress moved to Canada due to the unjust federal 1850 Fugitive Slave Act https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/freedom-road/
Diverse Collection Building
“What happened to the Black Studies Collection?” I asked when I began my current library position. In Information and Liberation: Writings on the Politics of Information and Liberation Shiraz Durrani, an activist librarian, notes how many librarians hide behind a false, unproductive sense of “neutrality.” Various stories emerged about what happened to the Black Studies Collection. “It was water damaged.” One team member explained. I heard other stories from neighbors that they retrieved Black Studies and Greek folklore from a trash dumpster. Former library workers had another version of events.
“Why have books not been replaced in the Black Studies Collection?” Community members asked me. I reasoned benign neglect at best, decided not to hide and accept the status quo. Yet, in some circles the purchasing of diverse collections has become political. I am a proponent of literacy, recognize the correlation between literacy and incarceration of young people of color, and understand the correctional facility as the new Jim Crow for African American youth (Alexander, 2010).
My proactive response included developing Juneteenth Underground Railroad courtyard storytelling, researching missing titles for replacement of some titles and placing an order for some missing materials in the Black Studies Collection. I was surprised by the response of the library administration. It was “bad”, expending so much of the materials budget in this manner. What came to mind was the heroic adventures of library workers in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I do not consider myself among the ranks of those who risked their lives and saved manuscripts about to be destroyed in Mali.
Outcomes of the Underground Railroad Tour included:
Increased funding streams for Farrell Juneteenth Celebration through collaboration for community,
Supported the ongoing work of Our Beloved study group,
Collection building opportunities through collaboration with community organizations,
Promoted literacy through diverse children’s book giveaway,
Received unprecedented front-page coverage in three newspapers throughout the county,
Developed new allies,
Community service award recognition of library staff by the local unit of the NAACP.
John Young, Sr. registered Margaret "Peggy" an enslaved African American on September 6, 1780 , according to requirements fir for slaveholders of the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. He , his family and Margaret “Peggy” later moved to Mercer County and became pioneers in the Indian Run settlement. Her children, Robert and Sally Johnston, later married to Arthur Jackon, became free at the age of 28 through the Act. Frank (also listed Francis) Jackson, a free person and grandson of Margaret "Peggy" was tricked, kidnapped, sold into slavery, and illegally held in Virginia and North Carolina for over seven years before through the valiant efforts of interracial cooperation he was freed (courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives)
What kind of community member do you aspire to be? My friends if I am BAD for rebuilding a diverse collection, countered a false narrative about the harmonious relationship between the Ku Klux Klan and African American community, serving as an Underground Railroad Conductor, directing a movie, “Juneteenth Freedom Road Voices: 2023 Underground Railroad Tour,” retelling courageous tales of interracial cooperation, reviving the story of Frank Jackson, who was a freeman, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and remained a slave for over 7 years, so be it. I recognized the power in reviving freedom voices, employed poetry, movie directing and arts, discussed the intersectionality of COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death and Kwanzaa commemoration with the backdrop of library book shelves in an interview, yet I recognize a reluctance persists among those with white privilege to discuss race (https://www.sharonherald.com/news/local_news/kwanzaa-takes-on-special-meaning-in-2020/article_2aa0f35b-37c7-548e-8a7c-bb1e086eb541.html Roknick, The Herald, 2021). May be just what is needed in the world are more, bad-ass librarians emerging on the freedom pike.
Abston, D. (1995) “Building bridges to unity,” ACRL college & research libraries news 56:1. https://crln.acrl.org/index.php/crlnews/article/view/24134/31924
Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the era of colorblindedness. New York: New Press.
Anyike, J. (1991). African American holidays. A historical research and resource guide to cultural celebrations. Chicago: Popular Truth.
Chenu, B. (2003). The trouble I’ve seen: The big book of Negro spirituals. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.
Durrani, S. (2008). Information and Liberation: Writings on the Politics of Information and Liberation. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Fairhurst, G. and R. Starr. (1996). The art of framing: Managing the language of leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mathabane, M. (2018). The lessons of Ubuntu: How an African philosophy can inspire racial healing in America. New York: Sky Horse.
Rankine, C. (2020). Just us: An American conversation. Minneapolis: Grey Wolf.
Rocknick, M. (2020, December 29). “Kwanzaa takes on special meaning in 2020,” The Herald. https://www.sharonherald.com/news/local_news/kwanzaa-takes-on-special-meaning-in-2020/article_2aa0f35b-37c7-548e-8a7c-bb1e086eb541.html