Friday, October 17, 2003

River place for slaves to escape

Storytellers revive history for Tall Stacks visitors

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You meet the most interesting people at Tall Stacks.

"My name is Maj. Martin Delany of the 104th Colored Infantry," a handsome soldier with a graying beard is saying. He wears the blue uniform of the Union Army, a crimson sash around his waist, a Colt .44 on one hip and a saber on the other. "The Confederates are in retreat," he says, "and we predict the Civil War will end this year - 1865."

tallstacks at night
16 photos from Day 2
Donna Walker, chaperoning students from Madisonville's Eastwood Paideia School, knows clocks really haven't been turned back 138 years. And yet, "He makes you feel like you're there," she says.

Maj. Delany is actually 55-year-old Khabir Shareef, one of four members of the Indianapolis-based Freedom Train Storytellers who are portraying historical figures from the early- to mid-19th century. Today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 6 (with breaks each day from 2-3 p.m.) they will greet visitors in and around a section of Sawyertown called "Along Jordan's Path."

"It brings the African-American story to Tall Stacks," says Rita Organ, director of exhibits and collections for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a Tall Stacks partner.

Jordan's Path is a reference to the biblical stories of Israelites seeking freedom from enslavement by crossing the River Jordan. In the early- and mid-19th century, when Cincinnati was abuzz with steamboats, the city also was a hub for Underground Railroad activity. Slaves often referred to the Ohio River as the River Jordan, because it separated the free North from the slave-holding South.

[IMAGE] Camille Steward portrays Charlotte Randall, who with her husband helped slaves escape from the South.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
Bravery and sacrifice are pervasive themes in the stories told by the Freedom Train's Shareef, Portia Sholar Jackson, Jonathan Thompson and Camille Steward. "Blacks and whites did work together," says Jackson, the group's founder. "There's diversity in the true experience."

Jackson portrays Vernea Mercer, who escaped slavery and made her way to Cincinnati by pretending to be a laundress on a steamboat.

Steward's character is Charlotte Randall, who with her husband, William, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

As for Thompson, dressed in his Sunday finest, a black suit and brown vest ...

"My name is George Washington Williams," he says, stepping into character. "I'm pastor of Union Baptist Church, right up the road here."

He tells of a slave who rode to freedom in a trunk aboard a steamboat; and another who disguised herself as a man. But there were other means of escape.

"You wait until the black of the night," he says, standing on a path just steps from the Ohio. "And you might hear somebody ..."

Heads turn as his booming voice breaks into song: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children.

"When you heard that sound, you followed it, and it might lead you right to the edge of the other side of that river. As long as you stayed in the water, them slave catchin' dogs wouldn't smell your scent."

After the Civil War, George Washington Williams studied law. In 1879, he became the first African-American elected to the Ohio Legislature. In 1881, he wrote History of the Negro Race in America. He died at age 41.

Meanwhile, not far away, Shareef, as Maj. Delany, is offering a lesson on Cincinnati's Black Brigade, "the first unit of black men to serve under the American flag during this Civil War," he says.

Youngsters from St. Mary School in Alexandria ask about his gun. He takes out the Colt, and explains that it must be cocked twice. Partially cocked, it won't fire.

"You never want to go off half-cocked," the major says, with only the slightest hint of a grin.

Christian Bleha listens intently, soaking up all Maj. Delany has to say. Then the fourth-grader turns to a schoolmate and says: "Good thing my teacher's not here. She'd probably give us a test."


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