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Ithaca researchers dig into history of Underground Railroad

 Gerald Arching and Adam Smith standing outside of St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca.
Ellen Abbott
WRVO Public Media
Gerald Arching and Adam Smith standing outside of St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca.

On a warm, autumn Saturday, an interdisciplinary team of Cornell students, faculty and local schoolchildren are using pickaxes to create two-foot deep pits and using a big shaker to separate rocks from what could be remnants of 19th-century life at the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Ithaca. It’s believed to be the oldest church in town and the world’s oldest active A.M.E. Zion church.

The excavation is one part of an Underground Railroad Research Seminar run out of Cornell by Africana and Romance Studies professor Gerard Aching.

"The site itself would have been a place where the congregation and people in the communities around the church would have been assisting freedom seekers on their way North," said Arching.

The problem with studying the Underground Railroad is it was a clandestine activity, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There are some scattered documents and stories about the church’s role in the railroad according to St. James pastor Terrance King.

"There is the speech that Fredrick Douglas preached in the church," said King. "We have documentation that Harriet Tubman actually used the church as a fellowship for Sunday School and Sunday School teaching."

There’s also the possibility the church held a hiding place for escaping slaves.

"There is rumor there is a room in the church that once had a trap door leading to the outside, but we have to invest ourselves to see if these legends are actually correct," said King.

So firming up the historical evidence of the Underground Railroad is where archeologists come in, according to Adam Smith of Cornell’s Anthropology Department.

"What we’re trying to do is give it the archeological quality to give a sense of the reality from it that you can’t get from the documents and because they’re so thin we need archeology to give us a picture of it," said Smith.

Cornell’s Lori Khatchadourian has been sifting through the soil, using a big wooden shaker and has already discovered some artifacts.

"We have turned up ceramics and glass that dates to the 19th century," said Khatchadourian. "That’s exciting because it means we are getting to the levels that are linked to the period of the Underground Railroad."

Also on the jobs some Ithaca-area schoolchildren, including Khalil Hicks who was excited about the dig and what it could turn up.

"I’m learning about the different artifacts that we’re finding from the old times," Hicks said. "Like I’ve found rusty nails and broken glass."

Aching said these kinds of artifacts may not tell a direct story, but document a community that would have been a cog in a path through upstate New York taking freedom-seekers to the Buffalo area, where they could cross over the border into Canada.

“Those things are telling us about daily life in the community and this church and congregation," said Arching. "That’s important because it tells us of the resilience of the community, the ability of the community to function both as a sacred place, but to sustain freedom-seekers because they held the conviction that all human beings are created equal."

Once the artifacts are cleaned and cataloged they’ll become part of St. James History. St. James was a beacon of light to the Black and African American Communities according to King, who can feel a spirit every time he takes to the pulpit.

“Every Sunday I go up to preach, I’m trembling–not in just fear of being humble to the call, but trembling," said King. "I’m standing on the shoulders of people who are important to the culture and the movement."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.