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Freedom Seekers Are Not Forgotten: Portsmouth Unveils New Underground Railroad Signage and Tour

Words and Images Courtesy of Portsmouth Museums

Portsmouth Museums: Underground RR
Chris Brown (left) Assistant Director of Civil War Trails works with Mae Breckenridge-Haywood (right) from the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth to lower the sign into place. Chris reminded us, “Stories like this one are great reminders that the struggles of the Civil War could be found on city streets not just on Battlefields. Photo courtesy of Civil War Trails, Inc.

(PORTSMOUTH, VA) On Friday, September 9, 2022, at 9 a.m., Portsmouth’s new Civil War Trails Underground Railroad interpretive sign will be unveiled, and the new walking tour announced. The ceremony takes place outside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church located at 637 North Street in Olde Towne Portsmouth. The date was selected to coincide with the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Month and to recognize the Emanuel A.M.E. Church as a designated stop on the Park Service’s Network to Freedom Trail.

The installation represents the culmination of over a year’s worth of work as the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, the City’s Department of Museums and Tourism, and Civil War Trails, Inc. teamed up to research, write, and review content. The new sign helps tell the story of the men, women, and children who were escaping the horrors of slavery via the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander from Norfolk State University was instrumental in the project and said, “As America’s first non-violent resistance movement, the Underground Railroad helped countless enslaved people flee to cities and counties in the north and Canada. And while the true numbers of those who successfully escaped may never be known, what is certain is that in Virginia, thousands fled.” Ms. Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, Vice President and co-founder of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth helped coordinate the efforts of the Society to share their research, artifacts, and primary source information collected by the community. She said, “The visit is well worth a day trip to see and hear the stories about the serious Underground Railroad (UGRR) activity in Portsmouth. The ships, the people, the houses, and especially the Emanuel AME Church have a plethora of tales of Portsmouth’s UGRR activities.”

The new sign, part of the multi-state Civil War Trails program which helps visitors from around the world stand in the footsteps of history at over 1,400 sites is promoted internationally by a partnership of state tourism offices, municipal destination marketers, and the sites themselves. As visitors explore the sites, they will also experience all that Portsmouth has to offer from its historical points of interest and diverse offering of museums to its beautiful waterfront setting and unique collection of shops and restaurants. Dr. Alex Benitez, Director of the Portsmouth Department of Museums and Tourism said, “The story of the Underground Railroad is often overlooked, but thanks to Civil War Trails and their network of travelers, our story will be told to people around the world in the hope that they will come to visit these sites and see our city for themselves.”

“This new designation at Emanuel A.M.E. Church will offer travelers and Virginians alike an opportunity to stand in the footsteps of the brave and heroic community which served at the heart of Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad,” said Rita McClenny, President and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. “Virginia played an important role in the Underground Railroad network, and markers like the one at Emanuel A.M.E. Church allow us to bring those important stories to life. Today, this site serves as a memorial to the enslaved people who died seeking the fundamental human right of freedom, while also commemorating those who fearlessly sought to help them in their quest for emancipation.”

The Dedication ceremony is open to the public. Speakers that morning include Mayor Shannon E. Glover, Dr. Alexander Benitez, Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, and Pastor Billy Hunter of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Local entertainers and historic re-enactors portraying Portsmouth natives Jeffrey Wilson, Portsmouth’s first Black journalist, and Robert Irving, a Portsmouth native who escaped along the UGRR, will also be on hand. The program will last about 30 minutes.

After the ceremony, guests are invited to download the self-guided Underground Railroad walking tour on their phones and explore other sites around Olde Towne important to the effort.

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