Twenty-seven Kent State students and faculty travel to New York on the first Women Framing American Rights trip. Carley Hull shares her experience.
Students depart from the group Oct. 10, 2013, to view the outside of the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn, NY. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church holds the deed for the home and grounds. Photo by Kristi Garabrandt
On an early October morning, I found myself on a stale charter bus full of strangers all on our way to upstate New York. After running around all week as a student reporter trying to meet deadlines, a source of mine brought to my attention that a trip partially funded by Kent State and the Women’s Center had a spot open, for free. That evening, I sent some emails, signed paperwork and was set to join the first Women Framing American Right’s trip on scholarship from the Women’s Center.
The next morning, I was traveling with these 26 strangers and a Bernie Mac doppelganger driving the bus to venture through the Women’s Rights movement through upstate New York.
I popped a Dramamine to ward off the looming car-sickness for our five-and-a-half hour bus trip and slipped in and out of a bus-ride coma until we made our first stop in Auburn, N.Y.: The Harriet Tubman Home.
The ground covered 5 acres of rolling, buzzed grass and old trees that filled the air with monochromes of red and the sweet cloud of apples hanging over the property. This had been Tubman’s refuge after escaping slavery and sneaking silently through the night to help countless slaves on the Underground Railroad.
The group strolled to the visitor center behind the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and the Tubman home. We listened to our tour guide before greeting the door of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. (The Tubman home was being restored, so we toured the historical elderly home, where Tubman had cared for the elderly.) We traveled onto a white porch protected by a copper roof and were embraced by a cozy, two-story white house. Unknown to many, Tubman not only helped with the Underground Railroad, but she helped care for the elderly in the Home for the Aged. She was truly a caring soul until her death.
Inside was simple and humble, with various portraits of her life adorning the walls, furniture that wasn’t time-period accurate but still worn. Her spirit seemed to creak with the floorboards and sleep in the wood-frame bed she used to dream in. We walked through the kitchen to see pieces donated by the Tubman family and little old ladies excitedly tugging at the drawers and yelling, "These are just like what we had." Old ladies never behave.
At the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, NY, students tour the interior of the Anthony home to learn about her life and see personal items such as her crocodile purse and a full lace dress on Oct. 13, 2013. Photo by Kristi Garabrandt
As we exited the home, I wandered to the grounds of the Tubman home, trying to look into the windows from the ground only to see a black reflection of the fall leaves and the gray wooden barn behind. The home was a worn, two-story, brick building that was in the process of a facelift, even though its yellow-trimmed eyes were surely a modern touch. The house was calming in its loneliness, almost whispering, "You are free."
We left Auburn as the sun started to let the chill of evening kiss our cheeks. We traveled, guided by headlights, into Fayetteville, N.Y., to see the white-pillared home of Matilda Joslyn Gage. As I stepped off the bus, a 50-some-year-old man ran to the steps, eager as a child, repeating, "I’ve been waiting my whole life for this!" as he had a friend take a picture of him relaxing on the steps. I didn’t understand his excitement because before I stepped through the doors of the home, I didn’t know who Gage was.
The small, two-story home had been converted to a touch-all museum — just as Gage would have wanted. She was known for adamantly telling people to do what they want and not let the government or church tell them what to do. She was a woman who wrote numerous volumes on women’s equality from church and state and was a good friend and ally of Susan B. Anthony, who, in return, claimed full responsibility for much of their partnered work, successfully eliminating her from history. Gage’s daughter was married to L. Frank Baum, the writer of "The Wizard of Oz."
Each room of her home had a theme related to her work: the Underground Railroad, Haudenosaunee rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, "The Wizard of Oz," a research library and a local history room. The Underground Railroad room had a dark-blue sky painted overhead, swirls of the names of free men, or freedom takers, as our guide pointed out, facing a painted mat on the hardwood floor with the shadows of forgotten slaves and their birth names written around them. A bookshelf opened to a hidden passage where a fleeing slave would hide, and a tourist could experience the claustrophobia of hiding.
By far, the family parlor Oz Room was the most enchanting. Gage was a prolific writer. Fighting for Native-American rights, women’s rights and religious freedom, she was a powerful and influential woman in her work and most likely was a great influence to Baum for his character Dorothy. Oz merchandize from years past lined the room, with old velvet curtains and a worn piano leaned against the wall. It was here where Baum had married Gage’s daughter and was inspired to write "The Wizard of Oz" — I, too, was inspired, as creativity seemed to leak down the walls and envelop me.
Early the next morning, I nursed hot tea as I climbed back onto the bus. The group of us volunteered at a Syracuse Catholic charity’s refugee center until lunch before heading to the mecca of American women’s rights: Seneca Falls, N.Y.
We toured the National Women’s Hall of Fame to see countless influential women displayed in plaques lining the walls. Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Amelia Earhart — the list of successful women went on, yet so many women were still missing. Where were Barbara Walters and Jane Goodall? As I mused to myself, a childish squeak of a voice echoed through the room and Julie Krone, the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race and a 2013 inductee was 4 feet away from me, with spiky blond hair and 4-foot-10-inch frame, showing her daughter her plaque. "To be 50 and have that monument … my mom passed away at 50 so this is a way better deal," Krone says with a girlish laugh. I left inspired but disappointed. I couldn’t help get the sinking feeling that there were more women who had slipped through the cracks.
The government shutdown had delayed our trip, but we persevered. After touring the National Women’s Hall of Fame, we toured Seneca Falls on the same path as the suffragettes to the very corner and to Wesleyan Methodist Church, where the first convention for women’s rights was held. In 1848, women marched down the streets in restrictive 20-pound dresses while I walked beside in jeans. How eerie it felt to walk along a path where cries of equality rang. Because of those women, I voted last November.
The church was modern except for a few remaining walls, and a sign reading "Because of the federal government, this National Park Service facility is closed" blocked women and men from entering. Students and professors grumbled, while others posed for candid frowning selfies.
After completing community service with a Catholic charity the next day, we went to the New York Chiropractic College for the National Women’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The ceremony gave me this feeling of accomplishment, and I was swelling with the pride like I, too, had won something. Women alive and deceased were inducted that day including Betty Ford, Ina May Gaskin, Julie Krone, Kate Millett, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, Bernice Resnick Sandler, Anna Jacobson Schwartz and Emma Hart Willard.
Family and colleagues accepted the awards for the deceased, while living inductees gave articulate speeches and thanks for their induction. At the end of the ceremony, we stuck around trying to get photos with the women. (We also stuck around to swipe the leftover novelty champagne glasses that guests had neglected to take home.) I managed to briefly meet Bernice Resnick Sandler, the woman responsible for Title IX’s creation, and wished that her determination and success were contagious. Before we left, a woman in a pink suit spoke with professors before we were introduced to her. Turns out, she was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great, great granddaughter, Coline Jenkins. I crammed through the crowd to shake her hand only thinking that would be the closest I would ever get to Stanton, and shaking a blood-relative’s hand made no joke about how many social "degrees" I was from the women’s rights activist.
The Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y., was being restored, but the grounds could still be explored. Photo by Kristi Garabrandt
By Day 4, students dragged their feet, and coffee and bus ride naps were essential. We stopped at the Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse in the morning where Seneca Indian rights, African-American rights and women’s rights activists were all welcome to speak and plan. The old barn had been gutted and moved around the area so many times that iron beams made it difficult to walk through. It was hard to imagine the successful planning that happened in this building that crumbled with age.
We toured a small cemetery near the meetinghouse before we drove to Mount Hope Cemetery to see Susan B. Anthony’s and Frederick Douglass’ graves. What we had not planned was getting a charter bus stuck in a cemetery, and we had no time to see Anthony’s grave, but we finally parked and were led by an elderly man up steep hills to Douglass’ grave. The cemetery was welcoming and uplifting as fall leaves covered the ground and the warm sun highlighted immaculate and distressed headstones long forgotten. There was no hair standing on the back of my neck, just a comforting warmth as I strolled above the dead.
Douglass’ grave consisted of a large slab adorned with copper letters faded to green and a boxy headstone. It was so cared for. Douglass was a slave into adulthood before he escaped and became a public figure against slavery and a supporter of women’s rights. Six feet under, Douglass eternally rested as a free man. His second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, a white woman, rested beside him, yet his first wife, Anna Murray-Douglass, who was black, was not immediately visible. Stepping around the side of the headstone, Anna’s name appeared on the left side of the tombstone as if to keep her hidden. Three African-American students gathered in front of her side, furious about her treatment. I was even sick to my stomach for this woman’s treatment after death. Anna was the reason Douglass escaped from slavery, but I had a feeling that racism was a factor in deciding where to lay the headstone.
We continued our journey through Rochester to the Frederick Douglass Resource Center. The building stuck out between industrial buildings and a Victorian-style home with its modular glass exterior and a red, purple and green panel. There, we watched re-enactors and read information on Douglass before walking down a couple of blocks to the Susan B. Anthony House.
Anthony’s red-brick home had been completely restored with tan shutters and a small side porch leading to the front door. It was one of those homes that tricked the eyes with a slender exterior giving the façade of a small home but an interior full of rooms. Anthony’s entire family worked toward equality, abolition and women’s rights in the home. "There must have been something in the Anthony blood," our tour guide laughed about the entire family’s activism. I couldn’t help but feel the house was a breathing organism with all the historic people it produced.
The Anthony home was the antithesis of Tubman with geometric and floral wallpaper, fine china and linens decorating the home as it once was. It was cozy like a grandmother’s house, but we still had to tiptoe to avoid breaking anything. Here, she had met with Elizabeth Cady Stanton many times and overlooked Gage. I felt inspired, but confused about Anthony. She seemed so desperate and cutthroat to get the vote by working with religious radicals, breaking the law, breaking friendships and devoting her life to women’s suffrage, but she never saw it realized.
This story originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.