Slave Descendants Attend Cato Freedom Conference & Think Tank

Hartwick College hosted 20 descendants of slaves the weekend of April 30, 2010 during the Cato Freedom Conference and Think Tank. For three days, descendants from along the Eastern Seaboard and Tennessee joined researchers, authors, and preservationists in telling stories of their enslaved ancestors.

“Hartwick is proud to host this conference of black troop descendants and historic preservationists,” said Dr. Margaret L. Drugovich, Hartwick College President. “The men and women whose memories we evoke through this discussion deserve to be recognized and celebrated, and this conference helps to assure that our nation will never again overlook or underestimate their important contribution to the evolution of U.S. democracy.”

Among those participating in the conference were Roverta Russaw of Tennessee, who was able to trace back to 1815 an ancestor who had relocated from Barbados to Cooperstown, and Darlene Colon, a descendant of Underground Railroad agents and United States Colored Troops from Pennsylvania. New York State historian and senior archivist Robert Weible also joined the participants.

The conference—organized by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, Associate Dean and founding president of Hartwick’s United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research—is named for a black Revolutionary War soldier buried in Otsego County. Freedom was identified by Matthews and Hartwick students in the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project as a native-born African whose enlistment with a Connecticut Regiment during the Revolutionary War resulted in his freedom and that of his family in 1783. By 1816, they had relocated to Burlington, NY, less than 20 minutes from the Hartwick campus. Freedom and his wife are buried at the Butternuts Valley Cemetery in Otsego County.

The discovery of Freedom led to the formation of the USCTI’s Cato Freedom Project, which seeks to identify and research black Revolutionary War soldiers and their white officers. The project expands on the Center’s previous research into Civil War personalities, and in the six months since its formation, a heritage trail has begun to emerge in the Oneonta area. To date, four black and two white patriots have been identified.

“One of the best means for racial healing is preserving the burial sites of those who were enslaved,” Matthews said. “Remembrance events such as the Cato Freedom Conference and Think Tank prompt dialogue and recognition of the contributions enslaved Africans made to the development of this nation.”

The goal of the conference and think tank was to establish the American Freedmen Descendants Commission, which will be made up of the conference's 20 guests, as well as 10 Hartwick participants.

The commission was charged with exploring means of racial understanding through heritage appreciation, Matthews said. A second goal is for participants to critique a proposal for the establishment of the American Society of Freedmen’s Descendants, a group dedicated to respecting the societal contributions of enslaved Americans.

During the conference and think tank, The Cato Freedom Award was established to honor individuals who have distinguished themselves in research, preservation, family research, or Freedmen history. The award will be presented periodically as deemed appropriate.

The conference and think tank follow 2008-09’s year of events focused on issues surrounding Abraham Lincoln. Hartwick and the USCTI are an endorsed site of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.