Tracking the Underground Railroad


In song, drama and craft, a Westminster music-and-arts festival is retelling stories from the Underground Railroad, relying on oral history and scant information culled from letters, diaries and memoirs to describe treacherous flights to freedom.

Common Ground on the Hill, which opened this week for its ninth season at McDaniel College, has organized several classes on the dangers of escape routes, the safe houses that dotted the countryside, the freedom seekers and those who aided them, including the well-known abolitionist John Brown.

The festival includes a play tonight on the life of Brown, which builds dialogue from letters; a tour tomorrow of several "stations" along the secret routes; a quilting class that will re-create patterns that were used as signals for prospective escapees; and several lectures on that practice - which probably began soon after the first Africans were enslaved and brought to America.

About 1830, when the nation's first rail service began between Baltimore and Point of Rocks in Frederick County, the term "Underground Railroad" was coined to describe the flight from slavery to freedom.

"'Underground Railroad' came to mean a freedom seeker aided by someone," Peter H. Michael, a Common Ground instructor, said during a seminar Monday. "It had to have happened early on, and it was an unorganized, clandestine activity right through to the end of the Civil War."

Railroad terminology seeped into the language used by the freedom seekers. Safe houses were "stations"; freedom seekers were referred to as "cargo"; and guides were called "conductors."

The story of John Brown, active in the Underground Railroad for most of his life, fascinated Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner, Common Ground instructors who perform as Magpie. They have turned letters Brown exchanged with his wife, Mary, into Sword of the Spirit, a play they will perform at the Carroll County Arts Council tonight.

Brown organized a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859, in an effort to steal guns and arm slaves.

"The idea was for the escapes to become so many that the entire economic system would collapse," said Artzner, who plays Brown; his wife portrays Mary.

Brown was captured, tried and executed in December 1859. The play deals with Brown's final days in a Charlestown jail cell.

"We use the story to educate people on what is not in the history books or on TV," said Leonino.

After the play, James "Sparky" Rucker, a musician and historian, will perform "Echoes in Blue and Gray" with his wife, Rhonda. Dressed as a soldier and a belle, they will tell stories culled from battlefield accounts and letters, and they will chant the songs of the era.

"We have the unique opportunity today to see the war from all perspectives," said Sparky Rucker. "I probably know more about the people who fought than they did. They only knew what happened to them."

Music also played a role in the Underground Railroad. Gospel songs, which are part of Rucker's repertoire, often held clues to escape routes and stations on the way north to "the promised land," which, for many, meant Canada.

"The music was used to pass messages among those who needed information," said Leonino. "The songs were filled with double meaning."

"Sword of the Spirit" opens at 8 tonight at the Arts Council theater, 91 W. Main St., Westminster. Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for senior citizens and students and $5 for children. Information: 410-848- 7272.

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