This year the Halifax Underground Railroad has been chosen to present at the 20th Annual African-American Cultural Festival at the N.C. Museum of History to take place virtually on Saturday.
Earl Ijames, N.C. Museum of History African-American History/Curation, will be the moderator.
“We are honored to work with the Halifax Underground Railroad as part of the 20th annual African-American Cultural Celebration at the North Carolina Museum Of History,” he said.
This statewide kickoff to Black History Month themed Health and Healing, will include a range of information about health disparities and steps that African-Americans can take to promote and preserve their health. This year’s digital format allows the museum to share in a safe environment to a statewide audience.
Steven Green, HUR treasurer, said the organization is more than ecstatic to be chosen to present at the festival.
“I have been to the last two events and after the first event I knew I wanted to share our story about our county’s involvement with the underground railroad movement,” Green said.
He said the organization has three designated sites by the National Park Service, another application in for the Tillery area and many other hotspots of activity in Halifax County are being researched.
Planning and talks have been ongoing since the last festival to be a presenter, Green said. An application was completed on Aug. 1.
“We had to give more clarification and answer more questions,” he said. “On October 1, we got the good news that we would be one of 16 main presentations from across the state.”
Green said since then, they have been working hard on gathering information and developing a PowerPoint and videotaping Jackie Ruffin-Pittman’s portrayal of Piety Cotton, a formerly enslaved woman who found her freedom in Halifax, where she survived as a business woman as a cook and baker for the Roanoke Navigation Company and its employees for a number of years until recaptured.
She also brewed ale and profited from her talents, Ruffin-Pittman said.
“It is an honor to share history of African-American life in North Carolina’s Pre-Civil War years with the Halifax Underground Railroad,” she said. “The North Carolina Museum of History is a place that preserves and highlights the life stories of North Carolinians.”
The HUR presentation will be in two parts. Green will give a brief introduction about the organization. Rodney Pierce, local educator and historian, will give a PowerPoint presentation about the Halifax Underground Railroad and its designated sites by the National Park Service.
Pierce said Halifax County is arguably the most historic county in the state from the Halifax Resolves to its role in the Civil War to the Underground Railroad to its role in the long, black freedom struggle called the Civil Rights Movement.
“For this history to be recognized on a state level, to me is a formality — it was going to happen one way or another,” he said. “For the museum to embrace it, to allow us to share some of the history in the county, it’s well deserved and I think it’s about time.”
Pierce also reminded “The Key to Independence” is located in the N.C. Museum of History. This artifact is the key to the Colonial Courthouse in Halifax, which no longer stands. The courthouse is believed to be where the delegates to the Fourth Provincial Congress approved the Halifax Resolves, which was the first official action by any colony for independence from Great Britain.
According to Historic Halifax, the key was donated by Halifax County resident, Lena Hill Smith of Scotland Neck, who had been principal of Vine Hill Academy and later operated her own academy. Smith was a descendant of Whitmel Hill, who had served in the colonial assemblies and later kept the key to the Courthouse.
“I thank Mr. Green, Ms. Ruffin-Pittman and the Underground Railroad Committee for thinking of me and offering me an opportunity to be involved in something like this — I do appreciate them,” Pierce said.
After Pierce’s presentation, Ruffin-Pittman will portray Piety. Her slave ad will also be included in the presentation. Last, a discussion of future projects will take place, with a Q&A session.
Halifax Underground Railroad, a 501©(3) has been organized for more than five years including the time to get the three designations by the National Park Service, Green said.
With the assistance of Carol Shields, the group was able to have a luncheon to discuss the Halifax Underground Railroad with professional historians, civic leaders and community organizers, Ruffin-Pittman said.
“The luncheon was successful and we are now doing online discussions on HUR,” she said. “We also share free professional webinars with the public, the topics are on African-Americans held against their will and the stories of their freedom.”
Green said HUR has had several successful fundraisers and educational events including service speakers that were virtual. The organization has applied for a $60,000 grant with Z Smith Reynolds that is under review, of which if awarded will jump start their efforts, Green said. In addition, the railroad has been donated the Edward Cheek House and Museum in Historic Halifax, but funds are needed to finalize this and make this a Museum, visitors center and office space.
A fundraising event is also planned for Feb. 19, with Melissa Timo, staff Archaeologist and Historic Cemetery Specialist with the N.C. Office of State Archaeology. She will speak on the plans by the state to document as many African-American cemeteries in the state, Green said. She will also provide information on preserving the cemeteries and techniques to clean and preserve grave markers. In addition, while she visits, she will survey the old African-American Cemetery in Historic Halifax. The public is welcome to attend, Green said.
And “Harriett Tubman — The Journey to Freedom” traveling exhibit is the next major event of the Halifax Underground Railroad to take place at noon on March 1-April 19, at Historic Halifax. This exhibit has traveled all over the East Coast including the Harriett Tubman Museum in Cape May, New Jersey. The exhibit’s state premier will be in Historic Halifax, Green said. The artist is Wesley Wofford, an Emmy and Academy award-winning sculptor from Cashiers.
Ijames said, “It has been my privilege to work with the organization, local museums and Historic Halifax to help bring the Harriet Tubman Statue exhibit to Halifax in 2021.”
“We are seeking support for this from the community,” Green said. “Please reach out to us if interested.”
The HUR board members are Chairman Gary Grant, Vice Chairwoman Ruffin-Pittman, Treasurer Steven Green, Members At Large Sandra Bryant, Florine Bell and Nancy Mueller. And though the Halifax Underground Railroad is small in numbers, it needs enthusiastic people who have the courage to continue learning and discovering researched history about the Underground Railroad, Ruffin-Pittman said.
“History is a story of someone’s life, ‘his’ ‘story,’ so the story of the Halifax Underground Railroad is ‘Halifax’s Story,’ she said. “We need many more folks to share ‘their’ family stories of what life was like in pre-Civil War years. The HUR needs people to attend our events and assist with our fundraising endeavors.”
Bryant reiterated the need for volunteers. She said there is a lot of opportunity for learning, growing and improving the area.
“This Halifax Underground Railroad is a great opportunity to share with the public efforts enslaved African-Americans used to gain freedom through Halifax County,” she said. “Also it will be instrumental in promoting education and tourism for our Underground Railroad Network, because we are another resource for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. The educational aspects of it is most important, and not just for our children but for our adults who don’t know the history. A lot of it is being uncovered as this process grows.”
Named a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society since 2015, the 20th Annual African-American Cultural Festival will bring together community organizations, authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers and scholars to showcase the contributions that African-Americans, past and present, have made to North Carolina’s history and culture. Lori Medlin, president/CEO of the Halifax County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a proud sponsor of this event, Green said.