This one-of-a-kind conference celebrates the real people behind the Underground Railroad

The gathering at Temple is totally free and open to the public.

A mural on Germantown Avenue celebrates Harriett Tubman and other heroes of the Underground Railroad

A mural on Germantown Avenue celebrates Harriett Tubman and other heroes of the Underground Railroad

Mural Arts / Painting by Sam Donovan, photo byJack Ramsdale
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It makes sense that the nation’s only major annual conference about the Underground Railroad happens in Philly.

The city was a frequent stop for abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and played a large role in the network taking Black Americans from enslavement in the South to free lives up North.

Temple University has held the one-of-a-kind academic gathering centered around the pipeline to freedom for 17 years now, thanks to organizing professor Nilgün Anadolu-Okur. Free and open to the public, the Underground Railroad and Black History Conference celebrates figures who made it happen, such as Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Philly’s own William Still and Lucretia Mott. This year’s edition happens on Wednesday.

“I think Temple is setting forth a model with this conference,” said Anadolu-Okur, a professor in the Department of Africalogy and African American Studies. “It will be a major event.”

This year’s theme focuses on translating past learnings for future generations: “How do we teach Black history in the digital age?”

Anadolu-Okur launched the event in 2003 after she was inspired by a portrait of a woman she soon discovered was Harriet Tubman.

“She’s extremely brave, this woman has to be studied,” Anadolu-Okur recalled thinking. “So we’re going to do a conference once a year and bring her up.”

Along with Temple’s African American studies department, she created the conference with the goal of spreading more information about how much real people risked to end the institution of enslavement. In this divisive political and social climate, Anadolu-Okur said, it’s especially important to remember how human beings connected and worked together to accomplish something so significant.

“They didn’t know each other, just trust,” Anadolu-Okur said of the people operating abolitionist networks. “Can we have this kind of trust nowadays? Where’s all that beautiful camaraderie? It’s all gone. But in 1830s until the beginning of the Civil War, it was very powerful and many people risked their lives.”

Temple’s African American Studies department has its own storied history. The program is one of the oldest in the country. Temple’s Africology department also became the first of its kind to offer a doctoral program in 1987, created by the person who is now its chair, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante.

MK Asante, a filmmaker, Morgan State University professor and Dr. Asante’s son, is the conference’s keynote speaker. His speech, “While Black: Black History at the Digital Age,” plans to explore how tech and data has expanded access to Black history research. It’s an exclamation point at the beginning of the conference, dedicated this year to the topic.

In 2018, technology helped preservationists identify the South Philly home of prolific abolitionist William Still, a Philadelphia man said to be “second only to Harriet Tubman in Underground Railroad operations.”  Tubman herself spent time at the house during her decade of leading enslaved Black Americans from enslavement in the South to freedom in the North.

“I think [the digital age] has created wonders for us,” Anadolu-Okur said. “Because now we are able to unearth documents, manuscripts, deeds, and we learn more about the Underground Railroad network because of this digital mapping.”

The day of programing at Walk Auditorium begins at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

It comprises a keynote address, educational break-out sessions, a performance from Harriet Tubman historian and re-enactor Millicent Sparks and a panel on digital media, which will include this reporter.

Organizers expect the 150-seat space to be full throughout the program, which is presented in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts, Temple Libraries and the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

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