Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church, constructed between 1833 and 1836, served a vital position within the Underground Railroad. As the town’s major station, the church hosted abolitionist leaders Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, all inside a lower than 15-minute drive from Cornell’s campus.
The Underground Railroad Analysis Undertaking started in 2020, deriving from the course Africana Research and Analysis Heart 6464: Underground Railroad Seminar that was led by now-retired Prof. Gerard Aching, Africana and romance research. In the course of the pandemic, Aching collaborated with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Materials Research and Cornell’s Milstein Program in Know-how and Humanity to develop an revolutionary strategy incorporating archaeology and inventive writing.
“It emerged as a course, however then it took on a lifetime of its personal and simply grew throughout the pandemic in ways in which I couldn’t ever say, ‘oh, I had a blueprint for this the entire time,’” Aching mentioned. “It simply emerged organically. It had so much to do with folks’s curiosity and goodwill after which with cooperation from a full neighborhood partnership.”
CIAMS Director Prof. Adam Smith, anthropology, expressed his appreciation for being part of the mission — which brings collectively college, college students and neighborhood companions — in an e mail to The Solar.
“The Underground Railroad Analysis Undertaking is, to me, a mannequin for what insightful, impactful and caring analysis must be,” Smith wrote. “Its worth rests not solely on the discoveries it makes however within the empathy that it cultivates.”
Samantha Sanft Ph.D. ’21, a postdoctoral affiliate with CIAMS, at the moment leads the archaeological fieldwork section. Within the fall, she teaches Archaeology 4200: Area Strategies in Neighborhood-Engaged Archaeology. The course invitations college students to check archaeological proof related to the on a regular basis experiences of people that partook within the Underground Railroad throughout the early- to mid-Nineteenth century. Based on Sanft, by means of a mix of classroom instruction and sensible subject expertise, college students purchase important fieldwork expertise, placing their data into apply throughout Saturday subject days on the excavation web site positioned on the church.
“We have been introduced on to see if we might assist inform the story of the Underground Railroad. However that’s a reasonably large ask, as a result of the Underground Railroad is supposed to be a secret. So it’s laborious to pinpoint sure artifacts that may have been related to that motion,” Sanft mentioned. “What archaeology can do is inform us extra concerning the lives of church members who aided freedom seekers. So we’re ready to make use of archaeology to inform us about each day life at that cut-off date, which is cool.”
The New Frontier Grant’s help allowed Aching to advance The Underground Railroad Analysis Undertaking by working with CyArk, a California-based digital documentation firm, to create a 3-D mannequin of the St. James church and digital tour. On March 25, 2022, the 3-D video mannequin was launched and commemorated for its significance to the Underground Railroad.
Though the course didn’t run this fall following Aching’s retirement, ASRC 6464 supplies college students with the chance to analysis historic narratives of enslaved folks earlier than channeling their creativity into writing, in accordance with Aching. College students additionally go to regional Underground Railroad websites, together with the St. James AME Zion Church. Immersing themselves within the lives of freedom seekers, college students craft fictional slave narratives that vividly seize the feelings of fearful but resilient people who navigated the Underground Railroad stations in New York. These narratives have been uploaded to “Voices on the Underground Railroad,” an internet site devoted to college students’ work.
“The course has all the time been one through which we go to the websites. I can’t emphasize how essential that’s,” Aching mentioned. “It’s one factor to get the fabric to learn, however I’ve all the time observed that after we go and see, folks’s minds begin racing, and questions begin rising.”
Throughout his time as a professor, Aching mirrored on the worthwhile components of partaking with college students and their reactions to the fabric realized within the course.
“And that’s the perfect factor ever, as a result of it abruptly turns into their questions, their mental curiosity, their creativeness,” Aching mentioned. “That, for me, is essentially the most rewarding factor to see — that individuals can take info and fragments of data and picture the expertise.”
Isabella Hanson ’27 is a Solar contributor and might be reached at [email protected].