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Powerful Walking In the Footsteps evokes the spirit of the Underground Railroad
Exhibit by award-winning photographer Stephen Marc comes to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Unraveling the history of the Underground Railroad — the clandestine network of early roads and hideaways used by escaped African-American slaves heading North in a bid for freedom during the early 1800s — is a daunting task. Since everyone involved, from the fugitives to the people who helped them along the way, was defying the laws of the time, documentation is scarce and fragmented. Some important sites have no structure to mark them. We know, for instance, that the Ohio River marked the boundary between the “free” and “slave” states, and that freedom-seekers used various shallow points to cross it, but few records exist to tell the complete story.
Starting January 29th, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will host a photography exhibit that attempts to capture the spirit of the Underground Railroad. Photographer Stephan Marc’s Walking In the Footsteps is part of an ongoing project called Passage on the Underground Railroad. Though Marc has done meticulous research, traveling to 22 states and taking tens of thousands of photographs, the exhibit eschews strict historical documentation. Instead, Walking In the Footsteps brings diverse images together to create composites or montages, metaphorically blending photographs that address the Underground Railroad and slavery. “It’s not just a straightforward ‘here’s a house,’” explains Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Associate Curator of Collections at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. “He’ll have images of rafters because fugitives might hide up there during a search. Slaves used to plan escapes when the corn was high, so he’ll have images of cornfields that might form a pattern rather than just a straightforward landscape, but everything ties back to that theme.” Among the many images Marc uses are Confederate currency, anti-slavery tokens, and even portraits of descendants of people involved with the Underground Railroad.
Stephen Marc will appear at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art on February 12th along with Angie Quinn, executive director of ARCH (Fort Wayne’s historic preservation organization) to give an overview of what we know about the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad in our area. The Underground Railroad ran through Fort Wayne and the surrounding area, and the city itself played host to one of the era’s most radical abolitionists. “We’ve always been a crossroads in so many ways, and we are in terms of the Underground Railroad, too,” says Angie Quinn,
“One of earliest roads came straight up here from the Richmond, Indiana area, and that was a hotbed of abolition and Underground Railroad activity,” Quinn explains. “We were the next spot up the road. When the canal was completed around 1845, it went all the way down to Evansville. That also became a very useful route, because it could get you from the Ohio River all the way to Lake Erie, where you could cross over into Canada.”
One of the projects ARCH is working on is the Alexander Rankin house downtown at 818 Lafayette Street. A well-known abolitionist in the mid-19th century, Rankin was the brother of John Rankin, publisher of “The Abolitionist Papers,” and was paid by William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society to organize abolitionist activities throughout Indiana. Rankin came to Fort Wayne in 1838 to head up the Presbyterian congregation here.
By the early 1840s, there was also a substantial African-American community in Fort Wayne that became a source of aid for many freedom-seekers. George Nelson Black, the minister of an early African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the city around 1845, was a documented Underground Railroad agent. “We’re not sure where his house was, but we do know he is named by people who fled slavery and he assisted them,” says Quinn. “Many people were actually going northwest to an area in Michigan in Cass County, where a very, very large African-American population settled, some free, some former slaves.”
Most of what we know about the Underground Railroad comes from Ohio State professor Wilbur Siburt, who around 1890 compiled a massive database of interviews with African Americans who had fled on the Underground Railroad. During the mid 1800s, federal laws regarding escaped slaves became increasingly tough. Early on, a fugitive could simply cross the Ohio River to gain freedom, leading to the growth of many African American farming communities in Indiana and Ohio. Those communities dissolved as a series of laws gave slave-owners more leeway in their pursuit of escapees, and imposed heavy penalties for anyone caught helping them.
“In 1850, they passed an even stronger law, which said that if there was any indication that you had helped a fugitive, you yourself could be arrested,” Quinn says. “It became really scary and really dangerous at that time. A lot of people who had settled in Allen County moved up to Michigan or Canada, even if they were free, because there were people who were suddenly making money kidnapping free African-Americans and sending them to slavery.”
The Stephen Marc exhibit includes several images from Indiana, mainly from Lancaster, a stop for fugitives traveling from Madison, Indiana near the Ohio River.
Walking in the Footsteps
January 29 - April 3, 2005
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
311 E. Main Street
Admission: Free to members / $5.00 adults / $3.00 students / $10.00 family
Lecture: Perspectives on the Underground Railroad, with artist Stephen Marc and ARCH executive director Angie Quinn
Saturday, February 12, 2005, 10am – Noon
Free with museum admission