ROANOKE BUZZ: Underground Railroad Symposium draws a crowd

Published 1:35 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2019

I hope by now you have heard about our Finding Freedom Symposium. After months of planning, on March 22nd, interested locals as well as visitors came together to learn more about North Carolina’s Underground Railroad history. We hosted a packed house at the Halifax County Agricultural Center for this much-anticipated event.

Our day began with remarks from Angela Thorpe with the NC African American Heritage Commission; US Congressman G.K. Butterfield from the 1st District and Sherrie Jackson with National Parks Service.

Halifax County Commissioners Vernon Bryant and Rives Manning as well as Mayor Charlotte Griffin from Bear Grass were also in attendance. Commissioner Bryant enthusiastically congratulated all involved. Halifax Convention and Visitors Bureau generously provided a hearty breakfast for participants to begin the day.

Altogether, nearly 100 participants from Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and all across North Carolina came to learn and share. Representing our Roanoke River Region assets, we were particularly pleased to have staff from Hope Plantation and Somerset Place among those in attendance.

A tasty lunch was provided by Hattie Staton with the Scotland Neck Senior Center of Excellence in Scotland Neck.

Esteemed presenters for this event included scholars and practitioners from: the NC Museum of History, state historic sites, theatre and performing arts, and several North Carolina colleges and universities. The keynote speaker was Dr. Gregg Hecimovich, Professor of English at Furman University.

You might ask, “How did this event happen in our region?”

My answer would be, as a result of a great team of collaborators who saw the possibilities and pulled together to brainstorm, plan and host this notable event.

Dr. Ben Speller, from Edenton, reached out with an offer to those of us working “upriver.” From there, Carl Burke with the Historic Halifax State Site; Angela Thorpe and Kyma Lassiter with the NC African American Heritage Commission and I came together with Dr. Speller to develop this event.

The longer I do this kind of work, the more I believe in the “magic” that happens when partners converge for the greater good. Roanoke River Partners (RRP) was fortunate to be one of the collaborating partners on this event and we look forward to future collaborations with these dynamic partners.

This event was a great opportunity for RRP to share information about our developing Roanoke River Underground Railroad Trail. We were able to showcase our trail through a short presentation as well as through an exhibit where attendees could pick up information and sign up to be added to our database for future communications. Rose Railey, US Fish and Wildlife Service staffer and an RRP member, created and staffed our Roanoke River Underground Railroad Trail exhibit.

Through expanded trail development, we are establishing a growing network of partners to connect our natural assets, our African American cultural heritage assets, and our member towns throughout the region. With funding made possible by a GlaxoSmithKline Foundation grant, we will be hosting additional Underground Railroad events/activities throughout the region over the next two years.

This new dimension of our regional trail and this recent symposium are two more examples of how through cooperative partnerships we can accomplish more to positively impact the communities we serve. It is our partners and our on-going partnerships that support this regional growth and we are most grateful to them!

Be on the lookout for additional upcoming Roanoke River Underground Railroad events/activities coming soon!

Carol Jones Shields is the Executive Director of Roanoke River Partners, Inc. You can contact her at (252) 798-3920 or You can learn more about Roanoke River Partners at