The Finger Lakes region of New York is an important place in the history of struggles against oppression in the United States.
In 1848 the region hosted the nation’s first convention for women’s rights, in Seneca Falls, at the northwestern end of Cayuga Lake.
Fifteen miles east is Auburn, which was a vital hub of the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes for enslaved African Americans in the early to mid-19th century.
Auburn was the last home, and is the final resting place, of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and became known as “the Moses of her people” as a leader of the abolitionist movement generally and the Underground Railroad particularly.
The struggle against slavery is poised for new entry into cultural consciousness this month with the debut of “The Underground Railroad,” a streaming television series on Amazon Prime Video.
The broadcast is based on the eponymous novel by Colson Whitehead, a bestseller that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Barry Jenkins directed the much-anticipated adaptation. Jenkins is an acclaimed filmmaker who in 2016 directed “Moonlight,” winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The New York Times calls the 10-hour series “a technically, artistically, and morally potent work, a visual tour de force worthy of Whitehead’s imaginative one.”
Whitehead’s fiction depicts the Underground Railroad mythologically, as a distinct physical entity running beneath the soil from southern states to the north. The book has thus been described by some reviewers as fabulistic, speculative fiction or alternate history.
Whitehead’s central metaphor, or actually his negation of any, gives him license to move subjects through space, time, consciousness and reality incongruously, illustrating the almost unfathomable distance and difference between slave and free states (of the nation and of being), the legal acceptance of the most horrific crimes against humanity, and the torturous oppression and proximity of death always for an enslaved people in a nation that somehow proclaims liberty and equality its founding principles.
Whatever its alternate conception, the book is painstakingly exact in its portrayal of broad brutality, repression and persecution cast singularly and collectively among its subjects. In an afterward Whitehead acknowledges, among others, “Frederick Douglass, obviously.”
Like Harriet Tubman, his friend and colleague, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland. Like her, he escaped slavery and came to reside in central New York.
Tubman’s work was largely furtive. In the decade before the Civil War, soon after her own escape in 1849, Tubman aided or personally made scores of surreptitious trips to the south to bring hundreds of enslaved African Americans north, at penalty of death. During the Civil War, she worked as a spy for Union forces.
Douglass’s work was more open. In 1845 he wrote an autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which was widely read in the U.S. and abroad. He became a noted political figure, orator and writer. In 1847 he founded a newspaper, the North Star, which he published from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in his adopted home of Rochester, New York.
In Ithaca, the AME Zion Church has significant historical roots. St. James AME Zion Church is Ithaca’s oldest church. It stands on Cleveland Avenue, built in 1836 in the heart of Southside, Ithaca’s traditional African American neighborhood.
The Ithaca church is among the oldest in the AME Zion system, which was founded by African Americans in 1821 in New York City, and now has over a million congregants nationwide.
Ithaca’s St. James Church was a crucial component of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both visited.
In ways, Ithaca can be a self-contained place. Its “central isolation” is a well-known cliche. In decades living here, I have been to Rochester twice, for instance. I don’t know anyone there.
I know one person in Auburn, but he moved there from here. As it happens, the first social media notice I saw from him of his (recent) move there was a photo he took of Harriet Tubman’s grave.
Tubman’s tombstone is stirring in its starkness. It is without ornamentation, bearing only her name.
I have been to Auburn once, to see Tubman’s house.
I did not visit her at rest, at least not technically.
The official tour of Tubman’s home is brief. It is a humble structure. The staircase and doorways are narrow, the ceilings low and its rooms smaller and fewer than modern houses.
I entered the house as the last of five visitors. I closed the front door behind me.
There came a sound from the latch. I turned as the door creaked open, then stopped. No one was there.
I must have looked startled, at least somewhat. The tour guide looked over to address me.
“Oh, that’s alright, don’t worry about that. That’s just Harriet,” she said.
I looked at the guide. She was smiling, but just slightly, professionally. Beyond that she looked placid and completely sincere.