January 2013 marked the beginning of a semester long project for juniors in Honors U.S. History at Arlington Public Schools. Their project was to nominate historic sites associated with the Underground Railroad to the Network to Freedom; a program developed by the National Park Service to preserve the history of the Underground Railroad sites throughout the nation. The deadline for their project was July 15th. Students were assigned three sites in Nebraska as well as one site in Iowa to nominate to the Network to Freedom. The sites in Nebraska included two burial sites at the Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln and the site of a slave escape in Brownville. Two students were assigned to nominate a monument in Iowa titled, Shattering Silence, that was designed to commemorate an 1839 Iowa State Supreme Court case, In Re Ralph. The monument is located on the grounds of the state capitol next to the state judicial building.
The burial sites in Nebraska included the Civil War escapes of John Jefferson McWilliams and Harrison Johnson. McWilliams ran away from his owner in Missouri and joined the 2nd Colored Kansas Infantry, later known as the 83rd United States Colored Troop. Harrison Johnson's burial site at the Wyuka Cemetery was also nominated. Johnson escaped from slavery in 1864 while in Arkansas and enlisted with the all-white 1st Nebraska Infantry as an undercook. He served in the Union army until the surrender of the Confederacy and followed the regiment up to Nebraska where he lived out the remainder of his life in Lincoln.
The site in Brownville covered the story of three freedom seekers (or escaping slaves) from Missouri who encountered slave catchers south of Brownville. A gun fight ensued leaving one of the freedom seekers injured and one of the slave catchers dead. After local doctors amputated the slave's arm, Deputy Sherriff Ben Thompson of Brownville housed and protected the slave in the Nebraska House; a hotel located on the eastern side of town and close proximity to the Missouri River. During the night Thompson prevented a mob from taking the slave and passing vigilante justice. Although the Nebraska House is no longer in existence, the vacant lot where it stood at the time of the incident was accepted to the Network to Freedom.
Eighth grade students, influenced by the success of previous projects wanted to try and nominate additional sites in Nebraska. It took around two years but they successfully nominated two additional sites to the Network to Freedom. These two sites were also the burial sites of Lewis Washington, a freedom seeker and abolitionist speaker who is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha, and Ruth Cox Adams, a freedom seeker and adopted sister of Frederick Douglas, who is buried at the Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln.
Applications that are completed for each site are extremely extensive histories with an abundance of primary resources to prove their association with the Underground Railroad. The five applications that were accepted to the Network to Freedom this year involved extensive research, which produced a total of 210 pages; including histories, images, and a long bibliography.
This year the class will be nominating sites to the Network to Freedom in Iowa, Ohio, and Nebraska while participating in an effort to create awareness for modern day slavery, human trafficking. For more information on this story and upcoming projects, please contact Barry Jurgensen, Arlington High School Social Studies Teacher, at 712-269-5269. You can also watch the segment Nebraska: A Route to Freedom which was featured on Star City Buzz". In addition, for more information on the Network to Freedom program, you can contact Deanda Johnson, Network to Freedom-Midwest Region Coordinator, at 402-661-1590.