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National Park Service Week Long Visit to Inland Empire

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By Cheryl Brown

A Colored Civil War soldier’s grave, a Black museum named after an enslaved African woman, and activities focusing on freedom and the Underground Railroad,

were only a few of the activities shared with the National Park Service Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Program.

They visited the Inland Empire to hold their annual staff meeting. Hosting this year’s meeting was the Black Voice Footsteps to Freedom Study Tours. Their stay ended with the unveiling of the Booker T. Washington bust at the Mission Inn, commemorating Washington’s 1914 visit to Riverside.

Peg Hill, San Bernardino County Schools’ head of History/Social Science, and Footsteps member, coordinated the school visitation day.

The visitors saw what the program had spawned first at Butterfield County School in Riverside under the direction of Regina Patton Stell and teacher and conductor Clare Rodriguez. And in San Bernardino at Martin Luther King, Jr. School under the direction of Marlene Bicondova.

The group was amazed at the way the history had been depicted. A visit to Cal State to have a roundtable discussion with students in the Santos Manuel Student Center with Conductor John Futch was also on tap. "I have been bragging about the program," said Barbara Tagger, Southeast Region UGRR Coordinator. "I was most impressed by how the students have transferred the information. The teachers used the information, applied it in a creative way and helped to bring out more stories about the UGRR," she said.

Lisa Warren, a teacher at King Middle School engaged her class in a play that students were pleased to perform. In her classroom Vikki Chavez dissected a spiritual, to show the codes in the songs. " The students had an understanding and appreciation for the significance of the UGRR," said Taggar.

Lincoln Shrine

Over to Redlands the Lincoln Shrine is an exciting place to see the history of freedom in America. There are original documents and historical items that focus on the time in history that our country could have been torn apart. Lincoln’s descendent on his mother’s side, Richard Hanks, is an intricate part of the Shrine. His stories kept everyone wanting to know more. He is also friends with Nettie Washington Douglass, great granddaughter of Booker T. Washington and great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass, who stopped by to see where Richard works before she spoke at the Contemporary Club.

She was following her famous great grandfather’s footsteps. Newspaper articles of 1914 reported on his speech at the Contemporary Club. The President Marion Jensen proudly exclaimed, “and that’s why we’re named Contemporary. We have always been relevant to the time.” The family, the Park Service, and friends of the Contemporary Club were invited by Mrs. Jensen to have tea. The minister whose church hosted the Booker T. memorial service a year after his visit gave the invocation and the benediction. Nettie Washington Douglass spoke of the life of both them a famous ancestor.

The things they did to make America a better place and gave a little insight into the family. She deferred to her cousin Margaret, the matriarch of the Washington family, who told the story of how Washington expected excellence in his students.

Finishing up the whirlwind tour of the Inland Empire was a viewing of the play Straight From The Underground, written by Rickerby Hinds, a UCR Assistant Professor. Diane Miller, the National Coordinator of the NPS program, said that the play was fabulous. "It had a way of connecting the story to the young people today. Everyone assumes the Underground Railroad is not relevant to California that is not true. There are many questions but the story is important everywhere. This play allowed the lessons of the Underground Railroad to transfer their knowledge and values to another generation.”

Evergreen Cemetery

Black Voice News coordinated the full day of activities visiting Underground Railroad sites in the Inland Empire. First stop was the gravesite of Prince Edwards, formerly enslaved, a former soldier in the Civil War veteran, and one of the founders of Second Baptist Church in Riverside. There the group met Harriet Tubman (Vickie Roberts) and Judge Victor Macelli and Steve Wynn who told the story.

Roberts told of how brave Edwards was and how he served his county well and who better to tell the story but Tubman who served as a spy for the Union Army. Macelli and Wynn were there the talk to the NPS about their plans to preserve the un-kept cemetery where most of the city fathers are buried. It is a historic cemetery that was founded long before the laws of endowment care went into effect. Others heard about the visit and came out to see what was going on. Prince Edwards granddaughter Lorraine Taylor was even there.

NPS Welcomed By City of Perris

Moving on the trail, the group traveled to Perris where elected officials, community members, and business and educational leaders, met for a tour and a word from the founders Mr. George and Mrs. Mable Kearney. Kearney told the story of how and why she founded the Dora Nelson African Museum.

It was out of guilt, plain and simple, guilt. Mrs. Kearney saw a building that was abandoned and offered to tear it down because she wanted the doors that she thought were so beautiful. As they were finished tearing it down, someone asked if she knew it was a historical building, home of Dora Nelson, the founding site of the first Black church in Perris. She said that she felt so bad about it she had to build a museum in tribute to Nelson.

The museum houses many artifacts from people in the area and in the nation. There are a pair of Dr. Dorothy Heights‚ President of The National Council of Negro Women shoes and a developing exhibit that will include Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Cheryl and Hardy Brown. Much can be told about a pair of shoes, and she is looking forward to telling the story. Also at the museum is a quilt from slavery.

With Nelson being born into slavery and the quilt located there, this makes the site historically significant to the UGRR story. " I was so impressed with Mrs. Kearney and what she has been able to do in Perris. I was also happy about the warmth of the residents, including the Mayor and the church members," said Monta Coleman, interim coordinator for the National Capitol Region of the NPS. "Everyone is so much a part of the museum. It is not a separate thing it is truly a part of the community," she said.

Pioneer Cemetery and S.B. Archives

Guy Washington, Pacific West Region of NPS, said he was so pleased to hear the story of research he has been doing on California’s connection to the UGRR. He said that the story of Lizzie Flake and Grief Embers was of most interest. The group traveled to Pioneer Cemetery in San Bernardino to visit the gravesite of Lizzie Flake, who came to San Bernardino as the slave of Mrs. Agnes Flake.

She was a wedding gift to her when she was four years old. Biddy Mason, founder of Los Angeles First AME Church, was also enslaved in San Bernardino and won her freedom when her master Robert Smith tried to escape to Texas.

Washington was pleased because he had more information about the characters. He spoke about the documentation of the story located at the S.B. Archives. "It is a very good source of local history that helps us to put together the pieces of enslaved African Americans and their efforts to achieve freedom in the San Bernardino area," said Washington.

Washington said that the San Bernardino Archives are a valuable source of local history. Also the group was impressed with the staff. Israel Garcia was largely responsible for making the information available to everyone.

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