Historian to speak about Underground Railroad

Friday, February 10, 2006

While there's a lot of folklore on the subject, documentation is scarce.

For blacks living in the South prior to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad provided them the opportunity and assistance to escape slavery.

The series of hiding places for runaway slaves has been eluding researchers for years, said Dr. Frank Nickell, the director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. "There is so much folklore about it but very little documentation of where it existed," he said.

Nickell will present a program about the Underground Railroad at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cape Girardeau Public Library, 711 N. Clark Ave.

The Underground Railroad is a topic that Nickell has been interested in for many years. He has researched its existence in Missouri but has found little evidence about coordinating routes in the state, especially the southeast region.

"The only story that seems to have some credibility is the old St. Vincent's Seminary," Nickell said. "It seems to have been a sort of safe haven for African Americans who were traveling north."

This program is being held as part of the library's celebration of Black History Month, said Paula Gresham, adult services coordinator at the library.

"I think it's important for people in the area to have an appreciation for African-American history," Gresham said. "There is so much history there, and we want to do anything we can to bring it to the forefront and celebrate it."

A symbolic role

Nickell believes the Underground Railroad is one of the greatest stories in American history and has a symbolic role in regards to the abolishment of slavery.

Because of the folklore surrounding the topic, there are many misconceptions about the Underground Railroad, Nickell said.

"I will provide a realistic perspective about it," he said. "It's important for us to put the issue of race relations, civil rights and slavery into proper perspective."

Gresham said the library asked Nickell to present the program because of his familiarity with the area's history.

As part of the program, Nickell will discuss certain signals which helped slaves escape to the North. Many times quilts containing hidden messages were hung out on front porches or on clotheslines. Certain symbols relayed messages to the slaves letting them know it was safe or where to go next.

A small number of blacks escaped slavery, Nickell said. "But the story of the Underground Railroad is large and is very elusive in its very nature."

The program at the library is free to the public. For more information, call Rhonda Cole at 334-5279.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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