Charles L. Blockson’s voice was nearly gone after a hectic week of speaking, but that didn’t hamper his enthusiasm in retelling how his ancestor, Jacob Blockson, was one of the documented slaves in William Still’s records of those who ran away through the Underground Railroad into Philadelphia.
On Oct. 16, 80-year-old Blockson discussed the role of church hymns that contained secret codes for African-American slaves and allies as part of the Underground Railroad through a presentation in collaboration with the Moonstone Arts Center’s three-month series on the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.
The Underground Railroad is one aspect of African-American history that Blockson has dedicated his life to, compiling the collection in Sullivan Hall of more than 500,000 items for the study of the African-American experience. He said he is extremely proud of this history and believes it’s something that needs to be held onto.
“[The history] doesn’t belong to me; it doesn’t belong to you,” Blockson said to the audience. “We’re preserving the history to pass on to our students.”
Because of laws that banned organized resistance of slavery or the aid of slaves, it was important for African Americans and abolitionists to use secret ways of communicating, Blockson said. Music, a tool that Blockson said Africans were already deeply experienced with, became a form of hidden communication.
Blockson told the audience at “The Ballad of the Underground Railroad” that slaves “spoke in riddles, sang in code, to understand the message you had to be told; those who knew the secret, never to tell, the secret message of the freedom train bell.”
Dr. Diane D. Turner, curator of the Blockson Collection and three-time graduate of Temple, focuses on music in her studies and teachings as a vital part to the re-telling of the African experience.
“The music becomes a form of cultural resistance to slavery,” Turner said. “I was able to use the music to talk about the history and also to tell the true function of the music.”
A hymn like “Highway to Heaven” was used to communicate the free passage to Canada and “Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass” signified that an opportunity to escape could not be missed.
Blockson said he wished more students had attended the event, given the historic value the Underground Railroad has on American history as a whole.
“The Underground Railroad seems to excite the imaginations of most Americans from the ages of nine to 90, because it has so much of our history, geography and science,” Blockson said.
Sakiel Harrison initially came to the library for some research, but after listening in, he said he was grateful to have learned more about the history.
“It just shows how under a time of destruction and turmoil, people could rise and be innovative and actually do things to uplift themselves,” the sophomore psychology and African American Studies double major said.
“After taking up [African American Studies], my perspective on life has completely changed,” Harrison added. I’m just knowing more about my culture knowing more about my history.”
“It’s almost phenomenal that under this type of terrorism, [African Americans] were able to create culture,” Turner said.
Although Blockson said he has yet to see President Theobald visit his collection, the speaker hopes the Nov. 11 opening of the honoring Samuel L. Evans will draw his attendance, as well as more students.
“[President Theobald’s] always welcome,” Blockson said. “I’m looking forward to the day I can shake his hand.”
“African-American history is American history, and African history is world history, so it’s for everyone,” Turner said.
Albert Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org