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CLASS OF ’96

On a Track to the Past

 

Two years ago Major Barnett SW’96 traveled to Selma, Alabama, to bury a stepbrother he had never met. And while stopping to fill up on gas one evening, the Binghamton, N.Y., resident looked out across an enormous green field and thought: “This was something slaves had to go through to secure freedom. It was a long hard road to travel—to have dogs after you, people hunting you, not knowing whom to trust.”

To recognize the slaves who journeyed that “long hard road”—and others who helped them along the way—Barnett has founded the Southern Tier Underground Railroad Commission. The organization, which represents the southern counties of New York state, plans to raise money to build a memorial, speak at schools, and work with historians and librarians to uncover more information about that region’s role in a major part of American history. Most people, for example, have heard of Harriet Tubman, but few know of Old Bay Tom, a slave who came to Binghamton via the Underground Railroad and in the early 1880s was—as a joke—made a write-in candidate for mayor by citizens who didn’t like the politician on the ballot. He won, much to the chagrin of the white populace, and held office for two days.

Earlier this year, Barnett’s group held an Underground Railroad exhibition at Binghamton’s Roberson Museum, featuring such artifacts as quilts embedded with symbols to communicate secret messages to slaves about which houses were safe and a poster listing women slaves by age and “value.”

Barnett, also president of his local branch of the NAACP, started the commission after he encountered obstacles tracing his own ancestry. He found records on relatives dating back to 1870 before hitting a “brick wall.” Because they were considered property, slaves were not counted in the U.S. Census. Starting the Underground Railroad Commission was a way “to put a face on people who lived during that time. Since I couldn’t touch [my ancestors],” Barnett says, “then I could touch others’.”


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