Tempe’s Stephen Marc was in a shop for rare and used books outside Cambridge, Md., when serendipity smiled on him yet again.
“I was running late, and my brain told me I didn’t have time to go in there, but my body was turning the car around,” he recalls of the trip.
A photographer and artist who tracks down stations on the Underground Railroad — the network of people and places that helped slaves escape to freedom — Marc had heard from colleagues that the birthplace of famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman was nearby. The only problem, they said, was that relations with the owner of the property were still too new, too tenuous to gain access to the site.
“While I was there, a young guy walks in and starts talking to the owner about an old slave cemetery,” says Marc, who interrupted the conversation, explaining his field of study.
Intrigued, the young man said Marc would probably be interested in seeing some of his properties, including Thompson Plantation — the site of Tubman’s birth. Just like that, Marc was in, with permission to take pictures.
“Things keep happening like that. The more people get to know you, the more they’ll do to introduce you to other people and open up doors. It’s a gracious community of people with a commonality of spirit,” says the Arizona State University professor of his ongoing journey to share stories of the railroad’s stations, conductors and fugitives.
An exhibition of his effort, “Stephen Marc: Passage On the Underground Railroad” is on display through Sept. 23 at Phoenix Art Museum. It features about 30 panoramic digital photo montages on the topic.
“I was completely captivated by it,” says Marc, who travels across the East, South and Midwest to photograph old station sites, comb antique stores and consult historical materials in academic and private collections.
“The stories were really rich and incredible, but when I looked at the visual material (already in existence), I usually saw photos that looked like some kind of real estate shot.”
So he set out to create context, merging images of buildings, people, objects or documents, landscapes and even references to contemporary culture.
“It allows me to tell the bigger picture of slavery. If I just took you from one Underground station to the next, it wouldn’t give you a bigger view of what people were escaping from.”
Q: Have you discovered any of the historical items in your montages yourself?
A: As I’ve started to know what to look for, not only have I found things at the sites, but I’ve found things at antique stores and paper shows and things. (In one antique store,) I actually found a slave collar. There were three of them. One was sort of decorative, maybe for a house slave running errands or during dinner parties or something like that. The owner’s name was etched lightly in script. The second one was much more deeply engraved, and it had ‘CT’ on it, which is Connecticut. Nobody thinks about slavery in Connecticut, but what many people forget is that all 13 colonies had slavery, so going north wasn’t always the direction of freedom. The one that I wanted was printed in heavy, black block letters. It had the owner’s first initial, middle initial and last name. And, more critically, it had his exact address in New York City. Within 48 hours, I was at that address. It’s now newer construction, but I wanted to see the place, and there it was, about four blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Q: What other pieces come to mind?
A: There are a couple of documents and artifacts that I still find very amazing. (In one) piece, you will see writing coming across the sky and down into the landscape. What you’ll see, if you read it, is a letter by a slave holder ordering shoes for his slaves, and you get down to the bottom and you see the slave’s names and shoe sizes. There’s also a piece — a field scene in Illinois — where there are a couple of clippings about the prices of slaves and a slave auction scene from an illustrated London newspaper, and a 1910 Aunt Jemima ad with an arch, but I removed that section in the bubble and replaced it with a newspaper clipping I found here in the Valley. It was a series of (1858) newspapers from New Bedford (Mass)., which was at one time the whaling capital of the world and where Frederick Douglass lived for a while.
It’s of a guy who had escaped on the Underground Railroad and was now trying to raise money to purchase his wife, who was still enslaved. It had the name and address of who to contact if you could help this man. That was one of the more stunning things to read, after reading so many runaway (slave) notices describing missing body parts and scars and speech patterns; that one had a whole different kind of impact on me.
Q: Arizona is so far removed from where most of your subject matter took place. Are there important or inspiring sites of African American history or culture here?
A: It’s not so far away in some ways. Along the Gila River, sort of down toward Fort Bowie, was actually one of the southern routes for gold miners getting out to California. Folks leaving out of Arkansas came through that way.
There’s also a wonderful story out of Fort Huachuca about the third black man to graduate from West Point: Charles Young. He is buried in Arlington (National) Cemetery. He was a Buffalo Soldier stationed at one time in Fort Huachuca. He was also a professor of military science at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and it turns out his home there was an Underground Railroad station. And he was actually born a slave. I’ve photographed the cabin where he was born that’s still standing in May’s Lick, Ky., outside of Maysville.
One of the most significant objects I’ve found was in downtown Mesa, at a store called History By George. It was a Civil War-era envelope with a cartoon on the upper left-hand corner, an illustration of contraband of war — escaping slaves — at Fort Monroe, Va. (The Fort) didn’t even have one (of those cartoons) in their museum. If that piece had gone on the market in Colonial Williamsburg, it probably would have been cost-prohibitive and would have been gone before I got there.
Q: You also have work on display in the free “Family Matters” exhibition at The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts. Tell us about those pieces.
A: It’s five pieces all about one family, the family of William Sugg, a black gold miner. He’s brought to California as a slave in 1850 and buys his freedom for $1 in 1854. Many people think there wasn’t slavery in California, but just in Tuolumne County alone, I read the manumission (release from slavery) papers for eight slaves.
Q: The Underground Railroad is something a lot of us probably haven’t thought about since our school days. What do you hope your work brings to people who see it?
A: I went to school in a black Episcopal grammar school in Chicago, but a lot of the materials and knowledge we have now didn’t exist then. I learned the basics—like everyone else, you always hear about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. But there’s so much more to it. It’s a bigger, more complex picture than we realize. In fact, the more I learn about it, the more I know I don’t know.
The other thing is, it’s American history. It’s an American story with an emphasis on the black experience, but it’s all American history. So I hope maybe it becomes a little more real for people.
If you go
What: Stephen Marc: Passage On the Underground Railroad
When: Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 23
Where: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Cost: $15 adults, $12 seniors, $10 college students, $6 kids 6-17. Free for everyone 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. the first Friday of each month.
Information: (602) 257-1222 or www.phxart.org
Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or email@example.com