Pathway to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Symposium at Tryon Palace

On Saturday, May 21, Tryon Palace will present “Pathway to Freedom,” a symposium on the Underground Railroad. This symposium will delve into lesser-known maritime routes taken by many who sought freedom in Eastern North Carolina, New Bern, and elsewhere.

The Underground Railroad refers to the efforts of enslaved African Americans to escape bondage. Many of the routes were carefully planned, some were opportunistic. Escape was by both land and sea. These acts of self-emancipation labeled slaves as “fugitives,” “escapees,” or “runaways,” but “freedom seekers” is a more accurate description. The Underground Railroad network began in the late 18th century. Efforts to assist escape increased and became more refined during each subsequent decade while slavery was legal in the United States. They grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1865.  One estimate suggests that by 1850, approximately 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.

The symposium will deepen our understanding of this remarkable and courageous movement. Speakers and panelists presenting at this symposium will cover topics on the “First Underground Railroad,” from the colonial era through the late 1700s, and the “Second Underground Railroad,” from 1800 to 1865. A posting of colors by the United States Colored Troops 35th Regiment will open the Symposium, followed by a film, “Women of the Underground Railroad in Northeastern North Carolina,” and later in the day, a performance of “Songs of Freedom and the Underground Railroad” by the Craven Community College Gospel Choir.

The Symposium’s keynote speaker is Dr. Timothy D. Walker, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he serves on the Executive Board of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture.  Dr. Walker will present “Sailing to Freedom,” and highlight little-known stories and the less-understood maritime side of the Underground Railroad, as well as the impact of African Americans’ paid and unpaid waterfront labor.  

Some routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, or to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. Dr. Maria Hammack of the University of Pennsylvania will speak about those who left the United States and claimed liberation in Mexico. Her studies on this subject began when she was a student at East Carolina University and has continued through her doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin.  Her work includes a monograph, “Channels of Liberation: Black Freedom Across the US-Mexican Global South.”

Join Tryon Palace and explore the Underground Railroad in eastern North Carolina, and nationally. The event will take place in the North Carolina History Center’s Cullman Performance Hall, 529 S. Front Street, from 8 AM to 5 PM on May 21.  Registration is required and space is limited.  Admission is $5 and includes lunch with pre-registration. For more information, please contact Sharon Bryant, African American Outreach Coordinator, at 252 639-3592.

The Symposium was funded in part by North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the Tryon Palace Foundation and supported by the Tryon Palace African American Advisory Committee.