Underground Railroad event steams ahead

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Will link history with ‘controversial issues’ of today

Bill Buell |

When Paul Stewart and his wife Mary-Liz first began researching the Underground Railroad more than 15 years ago, they had trouble finding a conference where they could broaden their knowledge of black history. So, they decided to start their own.

“We wanted to go to a conference somewhere, but we couldn’t find any handy or available,” said Stewart, who works with the Capital District Community Loan Fund.

“We thought the Capital Region would be a great place to host one, so we did it ourselves. We figured out what it would involve and pulled all those pieces together.

Everything came together and it’s been great, but if you told me 15 years ago that we’d still be doing it I would have been shocked.”

Stewart and his wife, a retired teacher in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, have hosted their event all around the Capital Region, but this year’s event, named Liberty Con 2017, will be held Friday and Saturday at Schenectady County Community College. The event concludes on Sunday from 1-4 p.m. with an open house event at the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence in Albany.

“We were a little unsure of just how things would go with the first one,” remembered Stewart. “But the people turned out, they were really enthusiastic, so we thought we would move forward and do another two or three. This year is No. 16, and we are continuing to fine-tune our event. Much of the time people think we’re discussing old history with the Underground Railroad, but this year we’re going to be tackling some of the controversial issues of the day and show how they connect to our history.”

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Americans at Risk: Race, Denial, Privilege, and Who Matters.” To help him start that conversation, Stewart has secured two nationally-known figures in Tim Wise and CeLillianne Green to speak at this year’s event. Wise, who is white, is an anti-racist speaker and author who was an associate director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, a major group formed to fight the political aspirations of former Ku Klux Klan leader and white supremacist David Duke. A 1990 graduate of New Orleans, Wise has produced ten books, including “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama” (2009) and “White Lives Matter: Race, Crime and the Politics of Fear in America” (2017). Wise will speak Friday at 7 p.m. at the Carl B. Taylor Auditorium.

Green, a black woman, will deliver the keynote presentation on Saturday at 10 a.m. A Pennsylvania native who graduated from Drexel University and Howard University School of Law, she had a 20-year law career before blossoming into a successful poet. Her first poem, “Because I Love You,” was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and published in 2003.

Green’s talk is entitled “Crossroads,” after a poem in her recently published book, “A Bridge: The Poetic Primer on African and African American Experiences.”

“There’s a line in the poem, ‘America is at a crossroads in what is just and fair, and the unjust road leads to nowhere,’” said Green. “I’m going to read the poem, and I also intend to analyze it for the purposes of exploring the theme of the conference.

We are at a crossroads. Things get me riled up, but I try to maintain a sense of calm. I know the creator has a larger plan.”

The talks by Wise and Green, according to Stewart, should spark some good discussion.

“Traditionally, we’ve had some major speakers and some workshops,” said Stewart. “This year we’re going to have a lot more interactive things going on, like roundtable discussions. Most people are familiar with the 13th Ammendment and how it did something to stop slavery. But what it did was transform slavery. It said, ‘no private person can hold another private person in involuntary servitude.’ That leaves a big back door for public institutions that led to the Jim Crow system, so we’re going to be talking about and discussing things that are going on today.”

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