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Uncovering history: Girl Scouts are first to try out Abolitionists tour

By Patrick Ball/Staff Writer Thu Feb 05, 2009, 12:26 PM EST

Concord – Their silence said more than words ever could.

Smiles fell from faces like dominos in a row as a copy of a receipt for sale of a young black girl was passed among two-dozen Girl Scouts gathered at the Scout House last Saturday.

They were about to embark on a trial tour of the newly developing Concord Underground Railroad and Abolitionists tour organized by the Drinking Gourd subcommittee of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council and the Concord Historical Collaborative Membership.

But first, for a few hours, the girls were transported back to mid-19th century Concord, re-enacting a meeting of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society and learning about Concord’s role in the underground railroad and of women like Maria Prescott, Mary Grace, Mary Brooks and the Grimkes, who all played prominent roles in the town’s anti-slavery movement.

Louisa May Alcott and Frederick Douglass crashed the party, sharing the experiences of a young girl who couldn’t keep a secret learning about the Underground Railroad by finding a black teenager hiding in her family’s beehive oven, and of a black boy realizing he was a slave after his grandmother carried him 16 miles only to leave him with brothers, sisters and cousins he had never met.

The girls and their parents then split into two groups. One went to the Thoreau-Alcott House, which purportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There, they heard about false closets and other places where fugitive slaves may or may not have hid.

They visited the Concord Art Association, where they saw evidence documented on an inside door that leads to where runaway slaves actually hid. And they took a trip out back, trudging through the snow to see another hiding spot at the Old Burial Ground.

“I think they were just in awe that they were actually seeing these hiding spots, and that it was in their own backyard and they didn’t know,” said Maria Madison, the mastermind behind the Drinking Gourd Project. “It was the women, it was the Africans, it was the abolitionists — everyone. There were so many courageous people in Concord, who helped forge history.”

Watching a PowerPoint presentation as they snacked on Brooks cake and cider, the Girl Scouts gained more insight into the people their schools were named after. Franklin Sanborn, for example, helped fund the war John Brown waged against slavery. And Thoreau’s abolitionist sentiments, the girls learned, followed closely those of his aunt and older sister.

“I think we struck the right cord, not to startle them,” Madison said. “It was meant to be educational, not political or judgmental.”

It was a day better than a year-and-a-half in the making, according to Polly Attwood, co-chairman of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council. What started as an idea among a few residents to re-write a book on Concord’s abolitionist history evolved over time into a tangible trial tour, which would show people the places others wrote about.

Out of those meetings emerged the Drinking Gourd Project, named for the Big Dipper asterism fugitive slaves called “the Drinkin’ Gourd” and followed north to freedom, which seeks to unearth forgotten stories of individuals who led the heroic lives that made Concord an antislavery hotbed.

“Most people who were helping fugitive slaves kept quiet about it, because it was illegal,” Attwood said. “But this town was filled with people who couldn’t stop writing.”

The Drinking Gourd Project plans to hold a garden-party fundraiser in May to generate funding they hope will help them develop the Underground Railroad and Abolitionists tour into something that would lend itself to self-guided tours and functions and that could be integrated into existing tours of the town.

Proposed Drinking Gourd tours would include stops at places like John Jack’s grave at the Old Hill Burial Ground, the home of Underground Railroad stationmaster Mary Rice, underground railroad stops, homes of abolitionists and places where residents and guests like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery.

Whether those plans come to fruition, Madison said, “There are 20 girls out there who are so much more aware of how wonderful Concord is.”

Or, as Attwood puts it, “They know that there was more going on here in Concord than Thoreau contemplating flowers in the woods.”

The nonprofit, volunteer-run Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council is fundraising to help this tour become a nationally-registered town tour, with signs, brochures and a book. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to the Concord-Carlisle Human Resources Council, Box 744, Concord, MA 01742, with checks made out to C-CHRC, and Black Heritage Trail in the memo line.

For more information visit the tour’s Web site.

Read the full article in the Concord Journal

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