Historian recounts Underground Railroad experience

By Wayne Bryan Published February 27, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Donnie Sewell/ASMSA

Underground Railroad historian Anthony Cohen recounts his attempt to recreate the experience of a runaway slave during a lecture to the students of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. Cohen even had himself shipped from Philadelphia to New York in a box as part of the re-enactment.

HOT SPRINGS — Students from the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts learned about the Underground Railroad, an informal and secret network of people who helped runaway slaves escape to freedom before the Civil War, during a lecture by a historian who has tried to recreate the experience of slavery and escape for himself and others.

Anthony Cohen, a historian of the Underground Railroad, spoke to the students of the two-year state school for advanced students on Feb. 20 at First Presbyterian Church in Hot Springs as part of a lecture series sponsored by the school. When he asked the students what they knew about the escape routes and the people who ran the Underground Railroad, one member of the student audience gave the well-known reply that it was neither a railroad nor underground.

Cohen said that while most people think it was a system to move runaway slaves from the Southern slave states to Northern free states, he said that over the years, it was a much more complex and dangerous route.

“What was free, and what were slave territories?” Cohen asked. “The state of New York did not abolish slavery until 1828, while Georgia had banned slavery for the first 50 years after the colony was established.”

Meanwhile, Cohen said, there were a lot of places to go to find freedom. After slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the ultimate goal for escaped American slaves was to reach Canada.

“For slaves in Texas, the goal was Mexico or the British islands in the Caribbean,” Cohen said. “If runaways could get on a British ship, they could go to Great Britain or even to Africa, and along each escape route, there were guides and people who would help along the way.”

A descendant of a runaway slave, Cohen said he became interested in the Underground Railroad as a child living in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

“I was told that one route of the Railroad operated by Harriett Tubman came through my hometown of Sandy Springs,” he told the students. “Yet when I asked the Montgomery County Historical Society for more information, I was told there was no Underground Railroad in the area, which had been a slave state before the Civil War.

Trying to write a paper in college on the Underground Railroad, he found there were few official records available.

“It was a clandestine and secretive operation. They could not and would not keep records,” Cohen said. “It is a big challenge to document what, by design, was not to be found.”

For his research, Cohen talked to senior members of the Quaker community in Maryland, who had heard stories from their older relatives about the Quakers’ efforts to help runaway slaves across the Mason-Dixon Line and into Pennsylvania.

Cohen also said he found information by reading old newspapers that featured ads by slave owners asking for help in returning runaway slaves or offering rewards.

“These ads would give all kinds of information,” he said. “They would describe the slaves and give ideas about where they might be headed, their accomplices and even disguises they might have available.”

He found additional information in recorded slave stories gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Cohen said his school paper received a good grade, and it was published by the historical society that had first claimed there was no Railroad in the county.

For further research, Cohen told the students he got the idea of following the known routes of the Railroad from Maryland into Canada, walking the same paths and staying near some of the same places.

Speaking of his trip to a class of fourth-graders, they asked what he would eat, where he would stay and how long his journey would take.

“I told them I didn’t know, and they took on the project of planning my trip,” Cohen said.

The trip was to take seven weeks to cover 1,200 miles by foot, boat and train to Ontario, Canada.

“So secretive was the Railroad that we do not know all the methods used to send the escaped slaves to freedom,” Cohen said. “When the students asked me about that, I told them about one man who had himself crated in a box and mailed to freedom. So I got the idea that I could do that, too.”

With the help of friends, Cohen said, he planned to be moved as freight from Philadelphia to New York by train.

“I am a historian and anthropologist, and I had been looking for information,” Cohen said. “To be shipped by train would be an emotional experience.”

With $88 worth of lumber and some planning, he and his friends built a box that was 24 by 28 by 30 inches. That was enough room for him to sit with his legs drawn close to his chest and have 3 inches of space on all sides.

“For air, I had holes drilled around the sides of the box, but I could be seen,” he said. “So we covered the holes with stickers, and if I needed more air, I could break through one of the stickers and breathe through the hole.”

While the trip on the train was only two hours and he would be accompanied by friends, the trip turned out to be more complex than they had thought.

Having been boxed, Cohen was taken to the train station, but his friends were told they had arrived too late to take the box on the train for the scheduled trip. They waited two hours to take a later train, while Cohen remained in the box.

He said the summer weather was very warm, and it was hot inside the box. Cohen said he undressed down to his boxer shorts and waited. He had installed a trap door, but tie-downs covered the hatch, and freight handlers were near the box through the train trip.

“At one point, someone sat on the box and used the top for bongos,” Cohen said. “I feared being discovered, but I was tempted to beat on the box and growl.”

Cohen said he put all his energy into staying still and quiet.

“I have learned that it was fear and adrenaline that pushed the Underground Railroad forward,” he told the ASMSA students.

When the box was taken off the train, Cohen said, he was just happy to be alive. When friends got the box outside the terminal, they told him, “You are a free man.” He said that when he stepped from the box, the hot humid air of New York City was the “sweetest air I had ever breathed.”

During his trip to Canada, Cohen talked with school groups and historical societies about his travel, and by the time he was in Philadelphia, the news media had “discovered” him, and he was followed by Smithsonian magazine and National Public Radio.

Oprah Winfrey read about Cohen’s journey, and he was asked to appear on her show. Later, she asked him to help her have a similar experience concerning slavery and escape as training for the movie Beloved.

Using a nearby plantation home, he created an immersion experience for the television star and actress that was to last several days, but Winfrey lasted only seven hours. However, the story about the experience was recounted by Winfrey on her show, and Cohen began to receive other requests for similar experiences.

He founded the Menare Foundation and began offering lectures, tours and workshops about slavery and plantation life at the Button Farm Living History Center in Seneca Creek State Park in Germantown, Md.

Cohen repeated his recent lecture later that day at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs. That session was open to the public.

Cohen’s lecture was the first of a series of Science and Arts Cafe presentations sponsored by ASMSA that will be offered each month. The schedule is set through May.

For more information about Cohen’s work, visit his website, www.buttonfarm.org, and to find out about other lectures at ASMSA, call the school at (800) 345-2767.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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