I have mentioned my affinity for all things related to the Underground Railroad that aided the ushering of slaves to the North to live a life full of freedom. I wish there was one long trail I could follow from beginning to end of the country. While that may not exist in that way, I am determined to make a dent in the list of stops in any state I am in be it near home or on a vacation.
So far I have been able to visit three of these historic sites. There was the Burkle Estate that I got to see when I was in Memphis in 2011 (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2011/06/for-rock-n-roll-ribs-and-reflection_02.html). It was beyond my wildest dreams that anyone had ever used tunnels to escape. Seeing that for the first time made it real and flooded my mind with images too scary to even believe that they happened. I don’t know that I ever could have been so brave. Of course by comparison I have lived a life of privilege where one doesn’t have to let their mind enter into those horrible possibilities.
Next there was the Slave and Underground Railroad walking tour I took last year in New York City (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2014/05/for-tracing-footsteps-of-new-york-citys.html). I am of two minds about this. Part of me was in awe of the stories I heard as I walked down streets I see everyday. History came alive. Then there is the part of me that felt it was so long ago it was hard to picture amongst the modern day atmosphere. Either way it was an education that I am glad to have under my belt.
Lastly, there is the experience that had the MOST profound effect on me of any Underground Railroad location, and that was at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia (blog about Savannah coming soon). I had been longing to visit this sanctuary the way some people long to see the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. I couldn’t wait to be there knowing the incredible traces of this movement I would see. Prior images and stories did not properly do this place justice. I could have stood in that church marveling at it all endlessly. But I will save the rest of those details for that blog.
This brings us to Selma, Selma the movie that is. I have yet to see it but rest assured that it is on my Netflix list. However every clip I see on the commercial has me waiting for the scene that evokes my memories of a recent Sunday afternoon. It goes quickly but it is of Martin Luther King Jr. preaching at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York.
It can be seen in this clip:
Plymouth Church was founded in the 1800s and Henry Ward Beecher was the first pastor. That name may ring some bells as his sister was famed writer Harriet Beecher Stowe the author, of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I actually visited her house back in 2012 (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2013/02/for-my-birthday-getaway-that-brought-me.html).
The main spirit of the church was freedom and supporting the abolitionist movement. Brooklyn was a progressive part of the North and banned slavery in 1827. Although New York was supportive of blacks and their freedom there were still many places willing to hand escaped slaves back to their owners in the South. It was still a hidden mission to make sure that those who had made a successful journey were able to see their path to the end of the line. Then they could continue to pay it forward.
This church was so popular they had many speakers, now infamous in our history books. Yes there was Martin Luther King Jr. who gave his “I Have a Dream” speech here in its original format a couple of months prior to the march in Washington, D.C. Booker T. Washington, of course Pastor Beecher, and my favorite- a future president, Abraham Lincoln. In 1860 Lincoln was a visitor here as a guest and possible speaker. This was the only church Lincoln visited in New York and it is credited as giving him the Republican nomination. It was here where he made his position against slavery known. In a way it foreshadowed the war that was to come. To mark the occasion of Lincoln’s days here, the pew where he sat is commemorated. I sat in that row without being aware of the history and as my tour guide told me the tale my eyes became fixated on the plaque. It was breath taking. Lincoln is one of my all time heroes in history and to have this connection to him leaves in bewildered. Prior to this the closest I got to this President was his memorial in D.C. and even better seeing his hand writing on the Emancipation Proclamation during an exhibit in N.Y.C. in 2012 (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2012/10/for-first-step-to-freedom-abraham.html).
I came upon this church about a year ago or so and since then I have been trying to find a time to take a tour (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2014/04/for-year-4-20142015-to-do-list.html). I knew it would be a link between many of the places I have already been and those that lay in my future. It turns out I am wise beyond my years.
Now that I have finally had this experience I know what a privilege it is to be able to look back, learn, and leap forward passing on my knowledge.
The first thing you have to know about this church is how grand it feels when you step inside. The original organ remains and looms over the balcony. This facility held almost three thousand people at its height and the semi-circle congregation area is engulfing when you enter. The immediate thought I had was that I had somehow stepped out of Brooklyn and arrived in Savannah. I cannot believe how SIMILAR these two churches are!! Plymouth Church and the First African Baptist Church have the same coloring, design, and layout. I was stunned that two places with the same history also have the same visuals. It was surreal.
Once I quieted my inner self down I was able to focus on my tour guide. It was only me and one other woman and I was just grateful they were able to provide me with a tour I could finally take part of, on a weekend. My tour guide is the archivist for the church and the amount of facts she rattled off blew my mind. I was barely keeping up. In the background there was a choir practice going on which provided the right atmosphere to showcase this church is a big part of our past but also as part of the present.
As I left we walked down a hallway of history that I had raced past when I arrived. I knew those keepsakes had to be important but when we finally got the chance to learn about them they turned out to be more precious than I could have guessed. There was the apron Mrs. Beecher had used and a ring that was sold to provide a young girl her freedom.
But the most profound moment for me was when we were nearing the exit and I noticed a piece of Plymouth Rock encased in glass. Yes that Plymouth Rock!! Of course now the connection seems obvious to me but at the time I was confused. For those of you who are still in the dark as I was, for one they share the same name. This is not an accident. It turns out that the piece of this Rock was given to the church because it originated as the Church of the Pilgrims. It is now the only other place you can see this infamous marker of our country’s foundation, besides its natural home in Boston. This church site was designated a National Historic landmark in 1961.
Just recently I learned about all of the sites in Connecticut that were apart of the Underground Railroad movement (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2014/12/for-mighty-mystic-connecticut-part-ii.html) and now am keenly aware of all of those that exist in New York. The wonderful thing about visiting a site like this one is seeing history come alive. In Plymouth Church the beautiful stain glass windows show Beecher and Lincoln. This destination was known as “Grand Central Depot” and even went so far as to hold fake auctions so that slaves would be “sold” and held in parishioner’s homes until it was safe enough to travel further. I did not get to see the tunnels in the basement but my tour guide said there are not any clear signs of transport unlike my previous experiences. I was a little disappointed but everything else I saw and learned far surpassed my expectations.
A few weeks ago the world recognized and celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of World War II Auschwitz concentration camp. I can’t help but see the parallels of these events. Religion, personal freedom, justice, and peace in the world are the universal human treads of all time and space.
In order to show growth as a civilization we must continue to accept people as they are despite the differences that threaten to alienate us. That is how we honor the past and move into the future.
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