Historian, Anthony Cohen has spent most of his life unraveling the past. It started at an early age when he wondered how a black man, like himself, wound up with a Jewish name like Cohen. That early quest, lead him to the legacy of America’s own history of the Underground Railroad and the thousands of freedom seekers who made their way north.
In 1996, Cohen embarked on a two-month journey to explore the Underground Railroad. He traveled the 1,200 miles by foot, boat and rail gathering artifacts, documents, and oral accounts. Cohen walked the trail on two other occasions. In addition, he coached Oprah Winfrey on the experience of being an enslaved person escaping to freedom, in her role as Sethe in the 1998 film, Beloved.
In a new 25-minute film that Cohen collaborated on and narrates, Rooted Wisdom: Nature’s Role in the Underground Railroad, he invites viewers in to experience how self-liberators used the landscape of the eastern shore to feed themselves, avoid capture and forge a path to freedom. Cohen asks the audience to look around the forest and think about where they might hide, then he tells them that freedom seeker, Harry Grimes, lived in the hollow of a great poplar tree for seven months. You can view the film’s trailer here.
The Arboretum plans to launch the film and a companion website on March 11, 2022, at 7:00 pm with a premiere via livestream hosted by the Avalon Foundation and viewable on the project’s website. The event is free, though registration is encouraged. Register here.
Cohen practices a brand of history known as “experiential” history and the Button Farm Living History Center in Germantown is a glimpse into what that means. It’s home to Cohen’s Menare Foundation, an organization dedicated to persevering the legacy of the Underground Railroad. The 40-acre farm depicts 1850s plantation life by offering visitors, what its website describes as unique “immersive experiences”. In one of the workshops Cohen shows participants the slave collar he had made from a drawing he found in his research. You can see Cohen lecturing about the collar in an American History TV clip here It’s a massive steel structure with four spike-like fixtures protruding out of the collar’s four sides. It was sometimes put on enslaved persons who tried to escape. Cohen believes, “Touching objects that hold our collective past, or visiting the places where history happened, provides tangible experience otherwise unavailable in the pages of a book.”
The film, Rooted Wisdom, is another extension of Cohen’s experiential history he says, “Rooted Wisdom invites people to experience Adkins Arboretum—its landscape, flora and fauna –to visualize in a tactile and sensory way the true-life journey on the Underground Railroad.” Cohen will be leading live tours at the Arboretum on April 22, June 17, and September
Beyond the film and Cohen’s farm, he notes that much is changing in the way historians themselves are thinking about the history of the Underground Railroad. Cohen explains, “Even the terminologies we use as historians has been rapidly shifting over the past few decades.” Cohen explains, “In the nineties the term freedom-seeker emerges. I think that tells part of the story but not even the full story. I use the word, self-liberators, it describes exactly what people are doing and it puts the power back with them.” Cohen says it’s different than branding victims of this system with the title of slave. He says these shifts in terminology have inspired the history community to look at this time period differently.
To hear Cohen further explain the film and “experiential” history click on the on-camera interview above. The making of the film and website were supported by a grant from the Association for the Study of African Life and History (ASALH) and funded by the Department of the Interior National Park Service. Additional funding was received from the Dock Street Foundation and private funders for promotion of the Rooted Wisdom Project, which is also comprised of live tours at the Arboretum and school lesson plans for on-site field trips.