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Was There an Underground Railroad on Staten Island?

February 19, 2013

The Staten Island Museum and CSI present A History Round Table on the Underground Railroad in Honor of Black History Month.

Community historians and academics will gather at the College of Staten Island for A History Round Table discussion, Fact or Fiction: Was there an Underground Railroad on Staten Island? on Saturday February 23 from 9:30am-1:00pm in the Center for the Arts.

The panel discussion will focus on the Civil War on Staten Island, as well as the Abolitionist Movement, and is designed to bring the community closer to history and make history more accessible to those eager to learn.

The event will be moderated by Professor Catherine Lavender, PhD, Director of the American Studies Program at CSI. Lavender, who was named the 2011 John J. Marchi Scholar in Public Affairs, says she is dedicated to living up to the late Senator Marchi’s commitment to advocacy on behalf of Staten Island. “I am committed to the importance of the “forgotten borough’s” history,” said Lavender, “and encouraging students to undertake vital local history research and to share that research with the community.”

The panel discussion will, in part, focus on evidence that Staten Island was one of many stops along the Underground Railroad. Debbie-Ann Paige, a recent CSI graduate with an MA in History and a panelist, worked tirelessly in cooperation with the Sandy Ground Historical Society to document the presence of Underground Railroad way-stations on Staten Island. Specifically, she examined the participation of Louis Napoleon, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and an important link in the long chain of abolitionists who assisted self-liberated slaves as they passed through Staten Island and New York on their way to Canada. Her research has resulted in Louis Napoleons’s house being named a national landmark, and her work was featured in an episode of “Secrets of New York” on NYC Life.

Professor Lavender and Debbie-Ann Paige have worked together for several years and, according to Lavender, “it is Paige’s research into abolitionism, self-liberation by former slaves, and the Underground Railroad in Staten Island and its surrounding region that has served as the immediate impetus for the entire event.”

The panel will also feature Professors Howard Weiner, PhD and John Dixon, PhD of the CSI History Department and Professor Calvin Holder, PhD, Director of the African American Studies Program at CSI, as well as Professor Robert Fanuzzi, PhD from St. John’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Professor Weiner, who currently teaches Urban and Ethnic History at CSI, believes that the panel is the combination of two important factors, “the need to appreciate the historical role Staten Island has played in American History” and the fact that “not enough people realize the historical importance of the Sandy Ground Historical Society.”

CSI Interim President Dr. William J. Fritz praised the event saying, “graduates from both the undergraduate and graduate programs in History from the College of Staten Island serve as advocates for local and community history. I am proud that the Staten Island Museum and CSI have joined together to share the active research of our faculty and students with the entire Staten Island community. I look forward to being a part of this wonderful meeting with our fellow Islanders.”

The event, presented by the Staten Island Museum and the College of Staten Island, is free and open to the public, and includes a Question and Answer period.  It takes place at the CSI Center for the Arts at 2800 Victory Boulevard in the Willowbrook neighborhood of Staten Island on Saturday February 23, 2013 from 9:30am-1:00pm. The program is made possible thanks to financial support from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Con Edison, the New York Council for the Humanities, and the College of Staten Island. For more information or to register for the event, visit www.statenislandmuseum.org or call (718) 727-1135.

By Carlo Alaimo and Ken Bach


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