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    MARCH 2, 2006
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Underground Railroad conference puts focus on Philadelphia’s role

Underground Railroad
Photo by Nilgun Anadolu-Okur
Millicent Sparks (left), a performing artist who portrays Harriet Tubman, and Mariline Wilkins, the great-grandniece of Tubman, take time out from the third annual Underground Railroad and Black History Conference to trade stories about their mutual interest in spreading Tubman’s message to audiences.

In honor of Black History Month, the Center for Humanities hosted its third annual two-day Underground Railroad and Black History Conference on Feb 11. The conference, “City of Brotherly Love at War: Philadelphia’s Contribution to Freedom,” highlighted Philadelphia’s role in the creation of the Underground Railroad.

Expert historians spoke on Philadelphia abolitionists, from Villanova’s Judith Ann Giesberg leading a discussion on the Philadelphia Women’s Street Car Battle to Temple expert in U.S. military history Gregory Urwin leading a panel on “African Americans and the Battlefront: From Philadelphia to Gettysburg.”

One visitor, and an expert in her own right, also had important historical lessons to share.

Mariline Wilkins, the 89-year-old great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman, gave the audience a little insight into the woman most associated with the success of the Underground Railroad.
“Harriet [Tubman] raised my mother until the age of 9, and I’ve grown up hearing stories that she had told her,” Wilkins said proudly.

Wilkins debunked misinformation she said some history books have recorded about her famous ancestor. She informed attendees that Tubman had freed more than 800 slaves (rather than the 300 many people believe) and that in 1913 she died at the age of 103 (a decade older than what most history book report).

Among the more than 80 people who braved the swirling snow and winds outside to join the event was Philadelphia resident Bill Doubles, who was attending for the second straight year.

“I really enjoy coming to this conference,” said Doubles, a Park Services volunteer for the City of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia was instrumental in the construction of the Underground Railroad, but for some reason it has been neglected by historians.”

This year’s conference was the largest yet, and it marked the collaboration of three University departments: Elizabeth Varon from the history department, Nilgun Anadolu-Okur representing the African-American studies department and Anthony Waskie from the French and Italian department.

“Temple is the only university that has an Underground Railroad conference, and that’s something to be proud of — especially because Philadelphia played such an important role,” said associate professor Anadolu-Okur. “It was the goal of three different professors to come together to take a look at this part of history in an interdisciplinary way.”

- By Karen Shuey