Local Underground Railroad history connects with film opening of ‘Harriet’

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 | 7:32 AM


Harriet, the major motion picture biography starring Tony Award winners Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. (CMU alum and Broadway Hamilton star), relates the bravery and struggles of enslaved African, Underground Railroad conductor, freedom fighter, spy, suffragette and icon of world history, Harriet Tubman.

 

“History, heroism and leadership are the stuff of (Director) Kasi Lemmons’ rousing and heartfelt film about the life and times of Harriet Tubman, the Spartacus of the American South,” shares the UK’s Guardian.

“Harriet is a thriller, an adventure and almost a superhero movie at times…” says Dog and Wolf.

History.com calls Harriet Tubman “one of the most recognized icons in American history and her legacy has inspired countless people from every race and background.”

Alongside the opening of Harriet on Friday, Nov. 1, The Tull Family Theater will offer an array of activities honoring Harriet Tubman, a 5-foot-tall whirlwind. Those seeking an enhanced learning experience will be able to explore local connections and added dimension through music, photography and dialogue.

Special events, starting with the initial screening on the opening day, will be offered at The Tull Family Theater, which is situated across the street from St. Matthews AME Zion Church, a former Underground Railroad (UGRR) station in Sewickley. Other activities may be added during the film’s run.

The UGRR, most active in the years before the Civil War, was a transportation network that often used rivers and nightfall to move freedom seekers North. It was “underground” in terms of being a resistance and a “railroad” metaphorically for this then-new type of passenger transportation. Escaped enslaved Africans and Free Blacks participated alongside abolitionists who were involved primarily because of religious beliefs.

Pennsylvania adopted a law for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1780, stipulating that those born after its passage would be freed at the age of 28. The resulting Free Black communities of Southwestern Pennsylvania gave rise to the earliest UGRR activity in the area. Freedom seekers from western Maryland and western Virginia (now the state of West Virginia) sought liberty by making the risky journey to the Pennsylvania border and connecting with the Free Black community.

The penalties for UGRR participation grew more severe with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, equivalent today to $31,000 (officialdata.org). Escaped enslaved Africans and Free Blacks who were captured/ kidnapped were at risk of their lives or, at a minimum, being taken to slaveholders without the right to testify on their own behalf. Thus, much about the UGRR’s secretive activities was undocumented.

Despite these challenges, intrepid regional researchers, some dedicating 25 years to the project, have uncovered people and places that honor Harriet Tubman and those like her who had the courage to reach for—and achieve—freedom.

Harriet is scheduled for its first full week through Thursday, Nov. 7. Screenings on Tuesday, Nov. 5-Thursday, Nov. 7, will be at 2:00, 4:30 and 7:00 p.m. Details and a schedule of screenings and events during the film’s first days follow.

CURRENT SCHEDULE of ACTIVITIES

Friday, Nov. 1New Brighton Historical Society

Harriet Screenings: 12:00, 2:45, 5:15, 7:45

12:00 p.m.: After the screening of Harriet, New Brighton Historical Society member Mike Spratt will be the first to share regional context about the UGRR in Beaver County and a brief video produced by Beaver County Tourism. Spratt grew up in the Robert Townsend House, a former UGRR station, currently J&J Spratt Funeral Home. New Brighton is particularly notable as the town with the largest collection of still-existing safe houses in the country, according to historical society researcher and President Odette Lambert.

Posters and photographs shared during a blockbuster September tour of the New Brighton UGRR sites will be available in The Tull Family Theater’s Community Room throughout the run of Harriet. Brochures for walking and driving tours of both New Brighton and Darlington, another hotbed for abolitionists, will be available; books of local interest on the topic can be purchased.

Saturday, Nov. 2Free World Premiere & Director’s Talkback

Harriet Screenings: 12:15, 2:45, 5:15, 8:00

7:30 p.m.: The World Premiere of the artistic cinematic short, We Are Free Because of Harriet Tubman, is directed by Nadine Patterson, an award-winning independent writer, producer and director working at the crossroads of narrative and documentary cinema.

For this film, supported with a 2019 Leeway Foundation grant, Patterson created a meditation of resistance, history and nature around poetry written and read by Sonia Sanchez, internationally honored poet and scholar, and Professor Emerita of Temple University. The film was shot on location on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, along the UGRR Trail marked by the state, and in Philadelphia, where Tubman found refuge in a community of Free Blacks and Quakers.

“Professor Sonia Sanchez’s words speak to us today as many in America struggle to find their own liberation. The imagery is meant to heal and aid the viewer in reflection upon the text,” says Patterson, who earned her Master of Arts in Filmmaking at the prestigious London Film School and operates the Philadelphia production and consulting company Harmony Image Productions.

Patterson coordinates MoonDocs as the Documentary Film Strategist at the Center for Documentary Production and Study at Robert Morris University. Her films, including Moving With The Dreaming, Anna Russell Jones, Release and Tango Macbeth, have been screened widely on public television and at film festivals around the world. The only filmmaker selected for The Biennial 2000 at Philadelphia’s African American Museum, Patterson has earned awards at the National Educational Film/Video Festival, African American Women in the Arts Film/Video Competition and the National Black Programming Consortium, and curated the Trenton International Film Festival. Her work has screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Constellation Change Dance Film Festival in London.

Admission to the World Premiere and Director’s Talkback is free.

Sunday, Nov. 3Author-Historian & Washington County Historical Society presentation, St. Matthews AME Zion Church Gospel Spiritual performance

Harriet Screenings: 12:30, 3:15, 6:00

12:30 p.m. screening: Introduction by UGRR historian and author Dr. Thomas Mainwaring, with Tom Milhollan of the Washington County Historical Society. Mainwaring, professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College, authored the award-winning book Abandoned Tracks, a study of UGRR activities in Washington County, particularly emphasizing the courage of freedom seekers themselves as well as the role of the Free Black community. The LeMoyne House in Washington, Pa., curated by the historical society, is recognized as a national historic landmark on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. After the screening, both will be available for discussion, and Mainwaring’s book will be available.

2:30-3:00 p.m.: Gospel Spiritual music by St. Matthews AME Zion Church, a historically black congregation in Sewickley and a known stop on the UGRR. St. Matthews was established at the corner of Thorn and Walnut streets in 1857. According to author William Switala in The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Second Edition), church members and others camouflaged their purpose by dressing as hunters and carrying provisions for freedom seekers in their game bags. St. Matthews was served by itinerant preacher David B. Matthews, who came West from the Philadelphia area and served in Sewickley through the Civil War. The church is home to the David B. Matthews Historical Society.

Monday, Nov. 4Community Conversation

Harriet Screenings: 1:00 & 6:00

3:15-3:45 p.m. Free Community Conversation in the Community Room after the 1:00 p.m. screening. Anticipating that Harriet will spark memories and interest in personal and/or regional stories, all are invited to a Community Conversation where documented and undocumented stories are encouraged to be shared. These reminiscences will add to the powerful discussion of  the secretive-by-necessity activities of the UGRR.

Additional screenings of the show are scheduled through the cinematic week, and Harriet’s run is likely to be extended another week.