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Underground Railroad figures highlighted and Some Were Women'

PLATTSBURGH Lives were lost. Families were torn apart. Heroes were forged. The dark era of slavery in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries remains at the forefront of civil rights discussions. The end of that period is something historical societies such as the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association will always celebrate. In recognition of those who fought against slavery and supported the Underground Railroad an informal network of safe houses and secret routes slaves used to escape the shackles of slavery the NCUGRHA hosted And Some Were Women, at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts Feb. 9. In addition to performances by the Seton Catholic Central School students and staff, one of the featured speakers at the event was storyteller Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti. Ms. Quezaire-Presutti drew much attention as she stood dressed in clothing reminiscent of the 19th century, taking on the persona of Lear Green, a slave who escaped to freedom in the late 1850s. Ms. Quezaire-Presutti, speaking as Green reading from her husband Williams journals, told the true story of the escape of Jane Johnson, a slave in 1850s North Carolina. Johnson was the slave of John W. Wheeler, a politician who was appointed to the position of United States Minister to Nicaragua. Wheeler was traveling to New York with Johnson, accompanied by her two young sons, Daniel and Isaiah, with plans to leave the country for his new post. Johnsons plans, however, were much different, said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti. Unknowing to Wheeler at the time, she said, Jane had no intentions to travel to Central America or to remain a slave. Her plan was to leave Wheeler and escape with her children as soon as they were safely north of slavery. While staying in a hotel in Philadelphia, Wheeler locked Johnson and her sons in a room, commanding her not to talk to and of the colored staff, said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti. Wheeler left for dinner and came back to make sure she was still there, then left again. It was then Johnson seized her opportunity to escape. Through the door, she told a colored female porter she was a slave, and wanted to be free, said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti. The hotel porter drafted note sent to my husband William at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office. The wheels of the freedom train were set in motion. An abolitionist by the name of Passmore Williamson and a group of free men came to their rescue and brought them to a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Williamson was arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Law, which forbid assisting slaves to free states. He was convicted of contempt of court for not revealing there whereabouts of Johnson and her sons. Johnson came forward and testified Williamson had nothing to do with her abduction. She lived as a free woman in Boston, Mass., for several years after, assisting other fugitive slaves before the abolition of slavery. In the case of Green, the young 18-year-old woman managed to escape from her owner, James Noble, a butter dealer in Baltimore, Md., said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti. Her desire for freedom was fueled by the love of a young man named William Adams, who proposed marriage to her. Though she longed to marry Adams, said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti, starting a new life with her love while still a slave was something she couldnt accept. Green procured an old sailors chest that would become her means of transport on an 18-hour boat ride to freedom in Philadelphia. Crouched inside with little more than a quilt and pillow for comfort and a small amount of food and water, Greens only human contact during the journey was from Adams mother, a free woman who traveled aboard the same boat to quietly protect her sons intended. Throughout their voyage, Adams mother frequently checked on Green, unbinding the chest to check on her and allow her a breath of fresh air. She safely arrived in Pennsylvania where she stayed with a family involved in the Underground Railroad and later married Adams in their new home in Elmira. At first glance, Greens tale seems like a joyous one, said Ms. Quezaire-Presutti, but her freedom was short-lived. She died a mere three years after her escape. The Feb. 9 event is one of several hosted by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association throughout the year. To learn more, contact the association at 561-0277, or via e-mail at NCUGFHA@aol.com

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