By Amanda Wyatt
It’s often said that history is not only found in textbooks and in museums, but in our own backyards. And for Dr. Kathleen Velsor, this couldn’t be truer.
A professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Dr. Velsor has spent nearly 20 years delving into the rich history of Long Island and the role it played in the Underground Railroad.
On Saturday, March 9 at 5 p.m. Dr. Velsor will make her way to Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, where she will discuss her new book, “The Underground Railroad on Long Island: Friends in Freedom.”
“It’s a great story. It’s an American story and I just think it’s wonderful that Long Island played such a big part of it,” she said in an interview this week.
Although Dr. Velsor is an associate professor of education, her interest in the Underground Railroad is lifelong. Growing up in the upstate New York town of LeRoy, she first discovered her passion.
“At a very early age — I’m going to guess about six or seven — it was all about the Underground Railroad and how that little town was part of it. And I was totally fascinated by black history,” she said.
Her family moved around a number of times, and as luck would have it, many of the communities in which they lived were also stops on the Underground Railroad.
Still, Dr. Velsor did not begin to fully explore the subject until after she became a college professor.
“I had done some pretty steep educational research, but I was really interested in branching out and looking at different things,” she said.
So she headed to her local library, where she went to research the Underground Railroad on Long Island. But as it turned out, there were no existing books on the subject, and the librarian wasn’t exactly helpful.
“The local librarian looked me straight in the face and said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly. There was no Underground Railroad on Long Island because there was no slavery on Long Island,’” she said. “And I said to myself, ‘that doesn’t sound right.’”
Dr. Velsor went to the Long Island Studies Institute and began to immerse herself in local history, reading letters and studying genealogy in order to crack the puzzle of the Underground Railroad. She soon began traveling around the state and applying for grants to finance her project.
After nearly 20 years of research, Dr. Velsor has released her book. Mostly, it covers the Underground Railroad in Nassau County, highlighting the role that Quaker families played.
For example, in Old Westbury, the Post family established a major stop on the freedom trail with the help of an escaped slave from Virginia, and in Jericho, members of the Hicks family also played a pivotal role on the Underground Railroad.
Begining around the time of the American Revolution, the well-known Quaker preacher Elias Hicks helped to free 191 slaves and established safe houses in a number of cities in the Northeast.
Dr. Velsor also added that some free African Americans established their own communities on Long Island, where escaped slaves could seek refuge. As she pointed out, there were significant cultural differences between northern and southern blacks, and it was imperative for former slaves to quickly assimilate.
At different stops on the Underground Railroad, escaped slaves would learn to read and write, and “how to behave like Northern blacks — how to walk, how to speak, how to dress — so when they moved to their next location, they wouldn’t be suspected,” Dr. Velsor said.
“When I got that idea, that was a real tipping point for me because it really changed the way you perceive the way the railroad was working. Many people say, ‘oh, they were just randomly running.’ That’s what’s portrayed on TV because it’s more dramatic. But this is a planned, calculated way,” she said.
And as Dr. Velsor pointed out, Quaker helpers like Valentine Hicks were aware that the Underground Railroad was fraught with danger.
“He said it was more dangerous for them to run than it was for us [Quakers] to keep them. People say, ‘oh, they could have lost their farm.’ Yeah, but they wouldn’t lose their life,” Dr. Velsor said.
“He was saying [escaped slaves] were very, very heroic people, and that they should be remembered for that,” she said. “To take that walk, to come up, is a heroic start. To start all over is heroic.”
While Dr. Velsor’s book does not discuss the East End, she has visited the historic, Eastville neighborhood of Sag Harbor. She has also spoken with Kathy Tucker, a historian with the Eastville Community Historical Society, about it being a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Dr. Velsor said that she and Tucker suspected there could be a connection between Eastville and the Hicks family, although was unwilling to reveal Tucker’s work.
In any event, Dr. Velsor was excited to share her work with those on the East End.
“Going out to Sag Harbor, maybe I can ignite somebody else to research that history out there,” she said. “The more connections we make, the larger the story gets, the more people realize that they were a part of this really interesting part of history.”