Text    Click for small text size. Click for medium text size. Click for large text size.         Click to share this page.     Click to print the page.   GO »

Call for Proposals

On the Edge of Freedom: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the Borderlands

Location: Cambridge, Maryland

Dates: May 18-21, 2017


Call for Presentations:

The National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF) Program and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference will co-host a joint conference in 2017, in honor of the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland.  The conference, “On the Edge of Freedom:  Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the Borderlands,” will be held in Cambridge, Maryland, May 18-21, 2017.
This conference will explore all aspects of the Underground Railroad in borderlands—both literal and figurative.  For a more complete discussion of the theme, see the attached “Historical Context Statement.”  The Conference Program Committee welcomes proposals from a wide variety of scholars, community researchers, site stewards, educators, interpreters, and others interested in Underground Railroad history. Some ideas for presentation topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Explore the contours of personal borderlands between black and white families in slave states that affected their understanding and accommodation of slavery and freedom.
  • How did knowledge and ability to negotiate and manipulate borderlands facilitate or obstruct escape?
  • Who were the members of local communities who secretly crossed back and forth between local, regional, and national borderlands?
  • How did trade, travel, and commerce facilitate the crossing of borderlands?
  • Contrast black communities on opposite sides of borderlands
  • How was the Underground Railroad different in the borderland regions, both in the North and South? 
  • What factors influenced the Underground Railroad, slavery, and freedom in borderlands?
  • How did international borderland regions compare to internal (to the US) borderlands?
  • How did the boundaries between freedom and enslavement affect relationships between enslaved and free blacks?
  • Kidnappings and reverse Underground Railroad
  • Creating and maintaining freedom and communities in borderlands
  • Transnationalism and the Underground Railroad



Submission Procedures and Deadlines- MUST BE SUBMITTED ONLINE:

Proposals should be submitted electronically through the Organization of American Historians website at http://www.oah.org/ugrr

All proposals should include:

  • A complete mailing address, email, phone number and affiliations (if any) for each participant;
  • A 500 word abstract for the complete session (if proposing a “non-traditional format”, please describe) and 250 word abstract for individual submissions; and
  • A 125 word biographical sketch for each participant.

Deadline for receipt of proposals:   Deaddline Extended: February 9, 2017
Proposals will be reviewed by the 2017 Conference Program Committee.
All sessions will be 90 minutes in length, with the exception of workshops, which may run longer. 

Traditional Session Type
The traditional format is for a “panel” with 3 presenters and a moderator, with 30 minutes allotted for discussion with the audience.  Proposals are accepted for full sessions and for individual papers.  The program committee will generally place individual papers of similar theme together to form a traditional panel.

Other Session Types
Discussion amongst presenters and with the audience is an important component of the conference.  The program committee encourages proposals for other presentation types that are more interactive.  Some ideas include:

Roundtable discussion: Presentations in roundtables are typically limited to 30 minutes of presentation, followed by 60 minutes of discussion and feedback. Roundtable presenters should bring targeted questions to pose to others at the table in order to learn from and with those attending. Roundtables are an ideal format for networking and in-depth discussion on a particular topic.

Workshop: A workshop is a training session where the presenters work directly with participants to teach them a skill or concept. Workshops are usually small, so the group can participate in the learning and interact with the presenters. These sessions often have one or two chairs.

Exhibit/Poster:  Table top exhibits are ideal for sharing information about a site or project in a visual format.  Exhibits will be displayed throughout the two days of sessions.  Exhibitors should plan to be present during certain hours (to be determined)  to discuss with attendees.
Film Screening: Film screenings usually show all or a portion of a film and include a discussion afterwards or question-and-answer segment with the filmmaker and producers.

Accepted presenters can expect to receive notification by February 15, 2017


Registration Requirements

Registration fee for presenters will be $60, a discounted rate. Presenters are responsible for their own conference travel, lodging, transportation, and meals.


Historical Context Statement

The theme for the 2017 conference will explore the Underground Railroad, slavery and freedom in the borderlands. The Underground Railroad as a network that traversed boundaries of communities, counties, states, territories, and nations, helped to shape and define these areas. The proximity of places where slavery was permitted to those places where it was not, presented unique opportunities and risks for escape and flight. Maryland’s border, for instance, with Pennsylvania, a free state, contributed to its relatively large numbers of escapes compared to slave states in the Deep South, a reality that helped facilitate Harriet Tubman’s own escape and numerous rescue missions. Proximity to a free state posed obstacles as well. In Missouri, slave holders came to understand the danger of holding people as property so close to a free state and began to move them further south. Facing the threat of sale, some enslaved people in border regions took action to free themselves.
While these borderlands are often seen as representing clear demarcations between slavery and freedom, they are much more complicated. Borderlands, as transitional zones, are contested spaces, sites of both resistance and accommodation. These geographical locations represented both a divide and continuum between slavery and freedom, and people living in and between them sometimes shared economic, cultural, social, and familial ties. Quakers, for instance, often exploited long distance family and business networks to support their Underground Railroad activities. Sizeable free black communities in Maryland complicated the meanings of slavery and freedom because members of each family often had different status, thus challenging familial, social, economic, and faith boundaries. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross,was set free and able to earn wages and provide additional comforts to his enslaved family, while also working as an Underground Railroad agent. Rev. Sam Green, a literate free black minister and Underground Railroad agent in Maryland, was watched closely by suspicious whites who eventually succeeded in having him arrested. Blacks who had achieved their freedom by legal or extralegal means, were the most vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold into slavery on the reverse Underground Railroad, or were subjected to special scrutiny and punishment for suspected involvement in the Underground movement. Despite these risks, Blacks purposefully created communities in north-south borderlands to remain near enslaved loved ones and facilitate the work of the Underground Railroad.
In their quest for freedom, enslaved people exploited the inherent ambiguities and contradictions of physical and metaphorical boundaries where they could. They leveraged the political and diplomatic differences amongst European nations and the United States in the contested border regions of the new nation as it expanded westward.  Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, the western frontier territory as well as Canada became refuges for freedom seekers. As slavery was abolished in Mexico, Canada, and parts of the Caribbean before the Thirteenth Amendment ended it in the United States, these countries provided safe havens for those who could reach them. So too did marginal spaces such as swamps, dense forests, or rugged hills and mountains where authorities had difficulty in enforcing fugitive slave laws. Some freedom seekers sought safety in numbers, by “hiding in plain sight” amongst urban free black populations, like Tubman did when she lived in Philadelphia. For freedom seekers crossing these borders not only represented physical freedom, but psychological freedom, too, offering opportunities to reinvent themselves and expand their own personal boundaries.


Contact  Information

Diane Miller, National Program Manager
Network to Freedom 
National Park Service
4068 Golden Hill Road
Church Creek, Maryland 21622
Phone: 410-221-2290, x 1111
E-mail: diane_miller@nps.gov  
Terry Nield or Ellen Mousin
E-mail: tubman.conference@gmail.com