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Traveling exhibit of Underground Railroad now on display

By Staff | Sep 10, 2014

Photo By BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Jason Fink from the Lycoming County Visitors Bureau is observing some of the quilt patterns that were associated with the Underground Railroad movement.

MUNCY – Going back in time to revisit the past is not always a good thing, but the historical artifacts of this particular memorable exhibit cannot be ignored. It is hard for many of us to identify with the toils and tribulations that slaves experienced on their arduous routes to freedom in Canada. Known as the Underground Railroad, slaves followed a path that took them through these remote parts of the country. Property owners would open up their homes and barns to accommodate some of the fugitives escaping from the south.

“Passage to Freedom,” is a traveling exhibit from the Welland Museum in Ontario, Canada and sponsored by the Muncy Historical Society. This free exhibit provides an opportunity for viewers to travel back to the 1800s and learn more about escaping from slavery, the dangerous routes undertaken and the challenges they faced reaching the “Promised Land” of Canada.

The exhibit will be on display during the month of September at the Lycoming Mall’s Community Room. Hours for the special exhibit are noon to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays until September 30th.

Bill Poulton from the Muncy Historical Society said that he and other members have been working on bringing this exhibit to the Muncy area for the past two years after viewing it in Virginia. “We knew that the Underground Railroad would be our focus and we wanted to bring a variety of educational opportunities that support its initiatives.”

A special opening with reception was given on Thursday evening, August 28 to introduce the exhibit to the press, school and county officials, museum personnel, and members from the Lycoming County Visitors Bureau.

PHOTO BY BARB BARRETT/The Luminary A traveling exhibit from Canada "Passage to Freedom" can be viewed at the Lycoming Mall during the month of September. It depicts the Underground Railroad and hardships experienced by slaves escaping to a life of freedom. Shown here are whips and chains that were used to capture them.

By partnering with the Visitors Bureau and the Lycoming Mall, the Historical Society was able to secure the exhibit, which has now traveled across Canada with stops in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, and in the United States, Port Huron, Michigan and Roanoke, Virginia. From here it will be going back to Canada, so this could very well be its last stop for awhile and most likely the only one in Pennsylvania according to Poulton.

Featuring illustrations, narratives, models of a slave cabin, a plantation, a safe house and slave bunks, this three part exhibit is interactive, informative, and realistic depicting the capturing and everyday life of a slave’s existence. It points out the dangers, signs, codes and symbols used. There were hidden messages in spiritual songs, routes devised on the importance of the constellations and even wooden boxes were used to mail themselves to freedom.

“The stories came from former slaves and their descendants who found both freedom and prosperity in Canada, and those who found discrimination, racism, and even lynching in Canada,” said Poulton. In the 1850s, approximately 40,000 Black refugees entered Canada from the United States, helped by such famous “conductors” as Harriet Tubman.

Also on display at the exhibit are several historical quilts and some replicas of patterns that were associated with the Underground Railroad movement.

Local properties are also featured such as the House of Many Stairs in Pennsdale and a butler’s tray that once belonged to the Bayard family. Henry Harris was a free black man who had been enslaved to this family when they lived in Maryland. They arrived here in the 1850’s by canal boat. Harris owned an eatery on Main Street in Muncy and some of Harris’s belongings are on display. Some feel that the Bayards played an important part in freeing slaves on their way north.

This is Henry Harris's butler tray. He was a free black man who worked for the Bayard family and moved here from Maryland by canal boat. Harris was "highly regarded" in the Muncy community and some feel he played an important part in helping slaves escape north.