By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — “It’s time to recognize the power of the Underground Railroad’s brilliant legacy” pronounced Maya Angelou at the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati 10 years ago in 2004. But my dear friend and colleague, the late Carol Murphy, as usual, was way ahead of the call; she’d already been up and running a full 10 years earlier, expanding the working McClew farmstead in nearby Burt into the most popular Underground Railroad Education Resource Center in Western New York, visited by more school children and families than anyplace else in the region.
So it was especially striking when the sad news arrived less than one week later that poet Maya Angelou, no doubt an inspiration to Carol, had also passed away, both taking their rightful places, somewhere over God’s Rainbow in the sky, neither to be soon forgotten as their brief time here on this Earth left behind legacies that will be long remembered for decades to come as the bountiful harvests from their work survives them.
Carol and I met initially on the telephone. I was trying to help her with some of the paperwork to complete an application for a grant to put together an interpretive center. She wanted to tell the whole story of the long rumored role of Charles and Anna Marie McClew’s and their alleged involvement in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) as so-called Station Masters back during the 1850s Fugitive Slave Laws days when anyone caught giving aid to “runaway slaves” could be subjected to severe penalties, including fines and the possible loss of their property.
Competition was tough. As word got out that money was available from New York state to fund educational programs that would help convey the truth about the UGRR, some groups and individuals began to discover all manner of “secret passages” and hideaways which they believed to be connected to the history of the UGRR. Some stories were potentially valid while others turned out to have a more likely connection to a more recent history having to do more with liquor smuggling during prohibition than the slave trade and the UGRR.
But Carol had two things going for her: First, she had ownership and control of an actual secret compartment built beneath the main barn which served no other rational purpose other than to hide people, complete with artifacts consistent with the persistent rumors that had survived for nearly 150 years that the McClews were well known for their abolitionism, and second, perhaps more powerful than the first, she had the untiring will and the amazing charm and tenacity to see her dream of telling the true story all the way through.
We worked together to convince all of the other local grant competitors to withdraw their applications and support Carol’s; they did, and she was awarded the small grant to put together a powerful presentation that linked the combined interests of people seeking freedom with farms in Niagara County that needed labor.
Carol Murphy, like Maya Angelou was a poet, a master storyteller. She was neither long winded, nor affectatious. She was direct, often blunt, sometimes very, very funny, always a lady, a chef, a hostess, and always, always, always a farmer.
She loved people as much as she loved that orchard; proud of her Tea Room, jams, jellies and preserves, she was especially proud of the orchard. I recall accompanying her on several trips around the property as she explained to wide-eyed kids of every age, pulled along on a wagon powered by an old tractor, her voice rising above the rumble answering questions from eager voices; “What was it like here 150 years ago?”
“Just like you see it today”, she’d refrain. “Farming is hard work, these trees need people, and the people needed the work. This farm took care of a lot of people, and a lot of people took care of this farm, still does!” she’d say, asking the kids if they think that they could find their way in the woods if they were trying to find their way to freedom while some slave catchers were sure to be right behind them?
She’d show us how to tell where there might be water, a stream, or edible berries and fruits. She would take time to teach them how to tell directions by knowing something about how moss grows, or she’d explain how they’d have to survive on small animals and certain plant life which could keep an otherwise lost soul on the right track and alive in the cover of the woods and wilderness.
Carol Murphy like Maya Angelou was, and will always to be an inspiration to me personally. Dr. Angelou’s famous “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is a deeply moving coming of age story of a young black girl who manages to survive against the odds in the rural South during the 1930s, should be required reading for everyone.
Both, strong-willed, determined, powerful women who met their challenges head on and succeeded, should be inspirations for everyone.
A memorial service, open to the public will be held at 2 p.m. this Saturday at the farm, 2402 McClew Road in Burt, about 30 miles from Niagara Falls.
May Angelou’s service will, no doubt receive international recognition when it is staged a few days later, on June 9 at the campus of Wake Forest University.
Having been touched by both, I’ll remember them always, especially whenever I think of a delicious ripe apple, or whenever I happen to catch a rainbow in the sky.
Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.orgContact Bill at email@example.com