AUBURN | Genesee Elementary School fourth-graders are putting what they learn about Harriet Tubman's life as a freedom fighter, suffragette and elder advocate into celebratory song with the help of an award-winning folk duo.
Teaching artists Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner, known as Magpie, bring their collection of stringed instruments to Auburn as a part of a week-long residency. They, along with the students, are working on the project "In My Backyard: Geographies of Slavery and Freedom."
The project is a partnership involving the freedom education project John Brown Lives! and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. It is brought to Auburn by the Harriet Tubman Boosters Club.
On Thursday, two fourth-grade classes spent the morning touring the Harriet Tubman Home. They learned about Tubman's family, her farm and gardens where she grew vegetables and apples to feed the elderly and sick for whom she cared later in her life.
Students learned how Tubman ferried enslaved friends and relatives north to Auburn along the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Her bravery, determination and belief that freedom was a right for all became the subject of song lyrics the students and the musicians crafted.
In the school library, Artzner strummed his guitar as Leonino coached children as together they searched for words to express their ideas.
"You're helping people get educated about Harriet and who she was," Leonino said. "She treasured human beings like no other human being."
One verse the children worked on invoked "Moses" the name given to Tubman honoring her leadership role in the abolitionist movement.
"Oh Harriet don't you cry,
Wicked slavery you did defy,
You have free articles remaining.
Your freedom's gonna be heaven,
Oh Moses don't you weep."
Using a tune wrought from Magpie's extensive folk music repertoire, students incorporated sign language to sing the songs as they worked. They also used nearby thesauruses to find a different word for "generous." They zeroed in on the word "unselfish."
"What does that mean?" Leonino asked.
Ahliyiah Hamilton, 9, had the answer.
"It means you don't keep anything to yourself, that you share with other people," she said.
The folk singers are working with students in Auburn and Maryland, Tubman's birthplace, where they hope to connect all the students via Skype with others, yet, in Canada – the three locations Tubman brought people to safety during the Civil War.
"Part of this project also involves making a connection with other communities where Harriet Tubman had a presence," school librarian Anne Mlod wrote in a letter about the project to parents.
The years-long effort endeavors to draw people together in renewed conversation about the complex, shared history of slavery, said Martha Swan, project director.
"The project aims to unsettle the generalities and simplifications about the North and South’s relationship to slavery and to cultivate a deeper understanding and conversation about the complexities of our history. Whereas the history of slavery is usually approached geographically, with separate narratives for the North and South, 'In My Backyard' transcends these conventional demarcations and encourages students and teachers to weave new stories of slavery and freedom into a common, textured cloth," Swan wrote in an email.