St.-James-AME-Zion-Church-by-Jan Buskop/Sun File Photo

The interior of the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in 1978. St. James, the first building in Ithaca to be designated a New York Historic Landmark, hosted abolitionist leaders as a part of the Underground Railroad.

November 16, 2023

Underground Railroad Seminar Course Advances to a Multilevel Research Project

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Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church, constructed between 1833 and 1836, served a crucial role in the Underground Railroad. As the city’s primary station, the church hosted abolitionist leaders Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, all within a less than 15-minute drive from Cornell’s campus.

The Underground Railroad Research Project began in 2020, deriving from the course Africana Studies and Research Center 6464: Underground Railroad Seminar that was led by now-retired Prof. Gerard Aching, Africana and romance studies. During the pandemic, Aching collaborated with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and Cornell’s Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity to develop an innovative approach incorporating archaeology and creative writing.  

“It emerged as a course, but then it took on a life of its own and just grew during the pandemic in ways that I couldn’t ever say, ‘oh, I had a blueprint for this the whole time,’” Aching said. “It just emerged organically. It had a lot to do with people’s curiosity and goodwill and then with cooperation from a full community partnership.”

CIAMS Director Prof. Adam Smith, anthropology, expressed his appreciation for being a part of the project — which brings together faculty, students and community partners — in an email to The Sun.

“The Underground Railroad Research Project is, to me, a model for what insightful, impactful and caring research should be,” Smith wrote. “Its value rests not only on the discoveries it makes but in the empathy that it cultivates.”

Samantha Sanft Ph.D. ’21, a postdoctoral associate with CIAMS, currently leads the archaeological fieldwork segment. In the fall, she teaches Archaeology 4200: Field Methods in Community-Engaged Archaeology. The course invites students to study archaeological evidence connected to the everyday experiences of people who partook in the Underground Railroad during the early- to mid-19th century. According to Sanft, through a combination of classroom instruction and practical field experience, students acquire essential fieldwork skills, putting their knowledge into practice during Saturday field days at the excavation site located at the church.

“We were brought on to see if we could help tell the story of the Underground Railroad. But that’s a pretty big ask, because the Underground Railroad is meant to be a secret. So it’s hard to pinpoint certain artifacts that would have been associated with that movement,” Sanft said. “What archaeology can do is tell us more about the lives of church members who aided freedom seekers. So we’re able to use archaeology to tell us about daily life at that point in time, which is cool.”

The New Frontier Grant’s support allowed Aching to advance The Underground Railroad Research Project by working with CyArk, a California-based digital documentation company, to create a 3-D model of the St. James church and virtual tour. On March 25, 2022, the 3-D video model was released and commemorated for its significance to the Underground Railroad.

Although the course did not run this fall following Aching’s retirement, ASRC 6464 provides students with the opportunity to research historical narratives of enslaved people before channeling their creativity into writing, according to Aching. Students also visit regional Underground Railroad sites, including the St. James AME Zion Church. Immersing themselves in the lives of freedom seekers, students craft fictional slave narratives that vividly capture the emotions of fearful yet resilient individuals who navigated the Underground Railroad stations in New York. These narratives have been uploaded to “Voices on the Underground Railroad,” a website dedicated to students’ work.

“The course has always been one in which we go to the sites. I can’t emphasize how important that is,” Aching said. “It’s one thing to get the material to read, but I’ve always noticed that when we go and see, people’s minds start racing, and questions start emerging.”

During his time as a professor, Aching reflected on the worthwhile parts of engaging with students and their reactions to the material learned in the course.

“And that’s the best thing ever, because it all of a sudden becomes their questions, their intellectual curiosity, their imagination,” Aching said. “That, for me, is the most rewarding thing to see — that people can take facts and fragments of information and imagine the experience.”

Isabella Hanson ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].