African American History, Freedom, and Finding Home

*Photo taken of wildflowers at sunset in Walpole, NH.

Michael and I have had a busy week. Work on our Olean home continues relentlessly, but we may finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I wrote up a newsletter for the community garden on Green Street in Olean, went on a tour of Olean’s African American history (more on that in a moment), and over the weekend we drove to New Hampshire for some hijinks with the ER crew in Keene. Today we are back in Olean again, and have a lot to accomplish on the house. We have goals now, and our hope is to complete the interior of the house this week. That will leave us with the exterior, which needs to have the siding finished. Our house has been an eyesore on the block for years because Michael started siding the house, then ran out of money to finish it. He went to school, had to work, and the house stayed unfinished. Now we need to sell it, so it must be done. I can’t wait to see it looking like it should, since Michael has done such beautiful work on the whole house. It deserves to look its best, and someone is going to be a lucky home owner soon. Everything has been done, down to the plumbing and electrical, and he made excellent choices in décor and finishes. Really, I am excited to show it when it’s complete.

In between painting and drywalling and sweeping and moving boxes from room to room, I was invited to go on a tour of Olean’s African American history. A dear friend of the family, Della Moore, is a local history expert who started the African American Center for Cultural Development, which is due to be relocated in one of Olean’s oldest churches soon. The exciting new center will be on a main street in town, where it will be visible, and will serve as the preserver of a part of Olean’s interesting architectural history by using the old Christian Science Church. When I agreed to join the tour, I didn’t expect to gain so much exciting knowledge about Olean’s history with the Underground Railroad, nor did I ever consider how much the Allegany River, which flows through Olean, really played a part in that history. Della told us stories about Sarah Johnson, a runaway slave who was the first woman to own property in Olean, and Sarah’s influence on the town in her day. We visited Union Street, our downtown, to learn that tunnels exist beneath the street, connecting businesses to the now closed bank on the corner. Apparently a judge in Olean took part in the Underground Railroad and helped escaped slaves to achieve freedom, utilizing his downtown hotel as a “station.” And Sarah Johnson supposedly sat in the bedroom of the house she purchased down the hill, watching the river for new arrivals on their road to freedom, the same river on which she arrived in Olean.

What surprised me most was learning the history of Oak Hill Park, which is at the head of the block where we live in Olean. I knew that Oak Hill used to be a cemetery many, many years ago, and that the graves were exhumed and moved to Mountain View Cemetery across the river. Lots of kids used to love telling spooky stories about hearing the swings move themselves at night, typical urban myth stuff. What I didn’t know is that the cemetery used to be a portion of the Underground Railroad operation in town, and that runaway slaves hid behind the gravestones to avoid capture by bounty hunters. While I sat on a park bench listening to Della tell the stories, I felt chills thinking about how terrifying it must have been to flee the way so many slaves did, forced to trust in total strangers to achieve their freedom, much like the people escaping Honduras and Guatemala today. Della explained that Olean has a deep history of helping African Americans, which made me terribly happy. It’s good to know our city has such a heart. At the end of the tour, we chose to visit the cemetery to look for the graves of a few soldiers who served in the Civil War Colored Troops Infantry, because after Della mentioned that the graves had been moved and she had never found them…we had to go look.

Mountain View Cemetery is one of the oldest in the Olean area, and has some of the oldest graves in the area. I have no doubt there are historians who know a lot more about this than I do, but there are graves there from the early 1800s which are readable, and then there are graves whose markers are either much older or are just softer stone because erosion washed away the carvings. I need to take a piece of paper and some charcoal there one day and see if I can get anything to show up from rubbing over the stones. Such things fascinate me. In any case, we wandered through the military section of the cemetery and found three graves marked with “CT” for Colored Troops. We were so excited to find them there amongst others who had served in the Civil War, and it reminded me that the ground on which we walk every day is etched with the lives of so many people. Sacrifices made by so many hundreds of thousands over the centuries have created the possibility of the lives we live today, for good or ill. Imagining bounty hunters prowling the town and the people of Olean thwarting their ability to find their prey made me glad. Later, when the war was over, the African American community started a church, and they suffered from fires twice before finally relocating to their third building in town. Guess which church it was? Oh, yes. Serendipity is a thing. It’s the church where I recently attended meetings for the community garden.

With my head full of history, we headed for the hills over the weekend. It’s almost as if I cross a line of where I connect more closely to the land when we go to New Hampshire. I can’t describe it very well, but something about New Hampshire pings in my heart, and I feel a magnetic pull, a sense of rightness as soon as we drive into the Green Mountains in Vermont. A friend of Michael’s from the hospital where he worked in Keene hosted us for two nights so we could attend a barbecue for the Emergency Department of the hospital. Everyone was surprised to see him, as they knew he finished his contract long ago, but they were thrilled. It was lovely to finally meet all the wonderful staff Michael has told me about, and they welcomed me into their little family. We had so much fun eating, telling stories, watching kids enjoy the bounce house, and then later having smores over the fire. The sun even deigned to shine by the time the afternoon came around, and most of the day was sunny and warm. While we threaded through the conversations and stories, Michael and I both just grinned and enjoyed it. What a beautiful day.

The morning of the day we drove home, we took some time to look at properties there again, as the dream of having a tiny house in the woods is still a shining point in our future. I believe we will fall into it somehow, a lucky break will strike and the stars will align to bring us there to the right place at the right time. It will happen because we both want it. When we ditch the anchor of our home in Olean, perhaps that will be the trick. Or some other little trigger we can’t know is out there. Who knows what it will be? We cast our nets outward, and eventually we capture what we are meant to hold in our lives, our hearts, our hopes. The love is the guide, and that’s all we can keep. Nothing else really belongs to us, as I was so recently reminded while walking the streets of Olean with a whole new image of my home town. Once we freed slaves here. I believe the struggle remains, even if the slavery has a different name, but the glimmering achievement of human connection still remains, too. We still love even if we still fight hate. I’m so honored to have learned so much about Olean’s history, and that new connection I feel to the park up the street from my house. It’s a good, cleansing kind of love for the kindness and daring of the people of the past. And it counters some of the dark history I learned when I lived in Savannah, Georgia for a short time. That river where thousands of tourists now walk in Savannah to see the original cobblestone street, eat pralines and shop—the Savannah river is a bed of bodies where slaves were brought ashore for sale, worked to death, or died from disease. From the bottom of the country to the top, from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, I have traveled. And in my lifetime I have freed myself from the prison of my own unhappy past. Freedom is my favorite thing, and I value it above all else. I fought hard for my freedom, and I do my best to help others do the same. I hope everyone reading this now has found freedom, or is on the road to it. Prisons and slavery are not only physical, and those limits of the heart and mind are often the most difficult to break. May you be brave enough to break through whatever limits you, readers. It’s worth the work.

In case anyone is interested in learning more about the African American Center in Olean, or you want to read about the walking tour I took, you can find out more here. Della is actively seeking donations to help raise funds for the new center, which is still under construction to repair the historic structure they are saving. If you would like to donate, contact Della at Any amount is welcome.

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