Enslaved Virginians sought freedom from the time they were first brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. Acts of self-emancipation were aided by Virginian’s waterways, which became part of the network of the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. Watermen willing to help escaped slaves made eighteenth-century Norfolk a haven for freedom seekers. Famous nineteenth-century escapees like Shadrach Minkins and Henry “Box” Brown were helped by the Underground Railroad. Enslaved men like Henry Lewey, known as “Bluebeard,” aided freedom seekers as conductors, and black and white sympathizers acted as station masters. In this banner lecture on July 25, 2019, historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander narrates the ways that enslaved Virginians used Virginian’s waterways to achieve humanity’s dream of freedom.
Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander serves as a professor of history and the director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for the African Diaspora at Norfolk State University. She has spearheaded the 1619 Making of America conference, which seeks to transform the narrative about the role of early Africans in the evolution of America. She is a member of the advisory committee for the VMHC’s exhibition, "Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality" and is the author of several books, including "An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads"; "Voices from within the Veil: African Americans and the Experience of Democracy"; and, most recently, "Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad."