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USCTI Mini-Conference to Celebrate Harriet Tubman Sites

October 13, 2017

On October 20 and 21, Hartwick College will welcome nearly 40 participants for the annual United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research (USCTI) Student Mini-Conference. The event will honor the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, MD, and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY. Both sites were opened to the public by the National Park Service in March 2017.

For the members of the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project (HTMP) at Hartwick College – the student chapter of the USCTI – making an annual journey to Tubman’s home and gravesite has been a priority since 2007. The students commit themselves to local history and family research in honor of Tubman.

The HTMP was organized by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs and founding president of the USCTI. Over the years, the HTMP has assisted Matthews in documenting the Upper Susquehanna connection to the Underground Railroad, and placing members’ ancestors within historical context of the broader Freedom Journey.

“The USCTI’s focus on local history and family research continues to blossom, with 50 students engaged in personal family research and/or local anti-slavery efforts during 2016-17,” Matthews said. “Eight of these students have completed the highest level of research and qualified for recognition at this year’s mini-conference.”

The conference begins Friday evening with a dinner, at which USCTI members, its Alumni Advisory Council, and Harriet Tubman Mentors will be introduced. Saturday’s morning session will highlight presentations of family and historical research conducted by Harriet Tubman Mentors and USCTI alumni. Recipients of the American Society of Freedmen Descendants (ASFD) Gold Medal will also be introduced.

The cornerstone of the mini-conference will again be presentations of research by USCTI and HTMP members who have documented evidence of a military ancestor who was enlisted during any of the conflicts between the Civil War and Korean War. Further, these ancestors also have a confirmed connection to the African-American Freedom Journey of the 1870s and 1880s.

For the first time, most of the presentations on Saturday will be made by students, eight of whom have produced research that qualifies for the USCTI’s ASFD Gold Medal.

Special inclusions for honor this year will be made for research done by two students. One documented her lineage to the famed Pullman Porters following the Civil War. Pullman Porters were African Americans (mostly former slaves) who attended to sleeper cars on railroad lines. The Porters’ travels enabled them to learn of opportunities in the North, and contacts they made were used to support the Underground Railroad that assisted Freedmen with escape from the harsh South following the Civil War.

Another student traced her lineage to a Civil War ancestor who served with Company H, 13th Virginia Cavalry, Confederate States of America, during and after the Battle of Gettysburg.

“It is humbling to watch the growth of the student researchers as they expand their oral histories into documented results using a rubric to substantiate their research skills,” said Matthews.

Saturday afternoon will be devoted to the Harriet Tubman and Freedom Journey exhibit that will be open for public viewing from 3 – 4 p.m. in the Celebration Room, Shineman Chapel House, on the College campus. The exhibit will highlight reproduction paintings of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and other items about early African-Americans, including notable personalities along the Susquehanna River.

“We now have a pre-Civil War book that identifies an escaped slave, Rev. Alexander Hemsley, who made his way via the Underground Railroad to Otsego County in 1837,” Matthews said about the ongoing discovery of information relating the Underground Railroad with the Southern Tier of New York State. “This book, along with an 1838 article from The Colored American newspaper, identified in coded words that Otsego County Presbyterians were involved with assisting runaway slaves from the South.”

Hemsley would eventually move on to St. Catharines, Ontario, Matthews noted, where he joined the same African Methodist Episcopal Church that embraced Harriet Tubman. And as late as 1860, a family of escaped slaves reached safety in Oneonta.

Joining the presentations and discussions on Saturday will be Randolph Johnson, a USCTI member from Oneonta, and descendant of the first African-American graduate from Syracuse University School of Law. He, along with eight Hartwick College student researchers, will receive ASFD Gold Medals. The students are D’Asia Brockington ’19, Hampton, VA; Aliyah Bridgett ’19, Leeds, NY; Elektra Hoyoun ’18, Jamaica, NY; Destiny John ’20, Far Rockaway, NY; Amber Lawson ’19, Harlem, NY; Ashantai McCain ’20, Brooklyn, NY; Kayla Martinez ’18, Colonie, NY; and Symphany Rochford ’18, Brooklyn, NY.

In recognition of Tubman’s transnational relationships with sites in the United States and Canada, Matthews has prepared two booklets focused on history and genealogy in the United States and the Caribbean to be given as gifts to the student presenters.

Darlene Colón, vice president and senior Fellow of the USCT from Lancaster, PA, will facilitate the luncheon discussion, “Should the USCTI expand its focus to include greater recognition of the broader Freedom Journey?”

Matthews will also share his own family research, which recently connected a maternal DNA sample to the Fulani people of Africa’s Sahel belt, which extends from Senegal to Ethiopia.

The soldiers and Pullman Porter being honored this year with ASFD Gold Medal for outstanding family research are: Servant Sandy Spratley of Co. H, 13th VA Cavalry, Confederate States of America; Private Willie McCain of WWI; MM. William H. Edlow of the U.S. Merchant Marines, WWII; Private Mark Adams, Sr., of WWII; Private Samuel M. Boddie of WWII; Private Frederick Douglass Killingsworth of the 365th Infantry, 92nd Buffalo Division, WWII; Private Archie Hawkins of WWII; Private Herbert A. Johnson of WWII; Private Rosario Sole, Jr. of WWII; Private John A. Bridgett of the 45th Division, Korean War; and John E. Scott of WWI, and the Pullman Porters following the Civil War.

The USCTI was established in 1998 as an outcome of the academic year’s “United States Colored Troops Symposium of Delaware and Otsego Counties 1997-98” that was held at the College and SUNY-Oneonta. Since then, the USCTI has emerged as a national and international resource for the study of the 200,000 black soldiers and their 7,000 white officers of the Civil War. The Institute’s focus has since expanded to all military conflicts from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War. In the 19 years since he founded it, Matthews and the USCTI have received numerous regional and national recognitions.

For more information on the mini-conference, please visit the USCTI webpage or contact Matthews at 607-431-4428 or matthewsh@hartwick.edu.