William Osborn Stoddard was 10 years old when he learned about slavery one day in 1835.
Stoddard found a man of African descent, an escaped slave, in the basement of his grandfather’s house and when his grandfather realized this, he made sure that Stoddard would never speak about it. When Stoddard returned to the basement the next day, the man was gone, Homer Town and Village Historian Martin Sweeney said Monday’s at celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at Cortland’s YWCA.
“’I’m not dreaming,” Sweeney said reading from Stoddard’s memoir. “’I know what I saw. This was my introduction to something called the Underground Railroad.”
Sweeney, speaking in full costume as Stoddard to roughly 100 people, including children from the organization’s child-care program, told the story of the Homer boy who would grow up to meet Abraham Lincoln and become the president’s and Mrs. Lincoln’s personal assistant secretary.
Stoddard would later help draft versions of the Emancipation Proclamation, Sweeney said.
Stoddard also helped free a fugitive slave from a Syracuse jail with a group of abolitionists, Sweeney said, and broke a law requiring Northerners to help return escaped slaves.
“There was a law I as a teenager was so proud I had disobeyed,” Sweeney said, speaking as Stoddard. “Normally, I don’t break laws. But that one, I did and I had the bruises to show for it.”
The event was part of the YWCA’s tradition to host a speaker to discuss civil rights on King’s birthday, said Andrea Rankin, a member on the YWCA’s board of directors and advocacy committee.
“Anything that can continue to create awareness and and raise consciousness is so important to work against the injustices in this country,” she said.
Slavery caused fear of black people, Rankin said, and that has led to higher incarceration rates of black people.
She said she hoped events like this would help people to keep speaking about injustices and make a change.
“Even if people go home to the dinner table and talk about this, it’s important,” she said.
Those conversations are especially important to be had with young children, said Mindy Gardner, the YWCA’s mentoring director, which helps teach children about racial and other injustices.
“The kids are really eager to learn about these issues so having events like this really trigger that start point,” she said.
Historical pictures depicting racism and the fight for equality were hung outside the multi-purpose room, where the event was hosted, by children from the teen mentoring group, Girls: Empowered, Motivated, Successful.
“If we don’t teach it to them, and don’t teach it to them while they’re young, we’re just ignoring it,” Gardner said. “Teaching it while they’re young will hopefully help carry it on into adulthood.”
Sweeney reflected on how work for civil rights connected both time periods — Stoddard’s and King’s.
“None of it came easy,” Sweeney said. “None of it came without a price. None of it came without the sacrifice of blood. All things Dr. King 100 years later would continue to fight for and expect each of us to fight for.”