Glenn Ligon’s Annotations, Runaways; Slavery in Cumberland County and Relative History

I went to the Warhol Museum while I was in Pittsburgh, recently and saw an exhibit of work by the artist Glenn Ligon.  One of the works on display was a web-based photo album titled Annotations.  It is one of the better uses of technology in art that I’ve seen because instead of being about bells and whistles, where the technical wizardry supercedes any other content, it uses really simple technology to create relationships between media that is familiar and low-tech.  From the introduction to Annotations:

In Annotations each image in the twenty-page album leads to a second or third layer — a simple caption, other photographs, images of book covers, lists, narratives, a hand-written letter, and in a few instances, multiple page spreads — plus, (towards the end of the album), audio clips of music, including the artist singing a capella or with songs from the 70s and 80s. The potential for adding layers of materials behind a single image allowed Ligon to present his material in a manner parallel to the way memory works: when viewing a photo album that one knows, each photo invariably prods recollections or associations. In this instance, where the album is unfamiliar to the viewer, Ligon provides hints and suggestions to multiply the layers of possible interpretation.

The fact that the majority of the people in Annotations are African-American makes race a palpable factor in the reading of each image. Yet there is a feeling of recognition, even if none of the faces is known to the viewer, a familiarity that arises from our intimacy with the conventions of a family album — the proud portraits, new babies, special occasions, banal moments when a camera was in hand, the poorly centered or focused images that make their way past the editing process for whatever reasons.

You can view Annotations on the web. Link

I also saw pieces from his Runaways series, such as this one, where he places himself within the iconography of a runaway slave.

A few days later, when I was visiting my parents, I came across a similar graphic, this one from the 1800s and the township where I grew up:

I came across this image when doing some basic research about the underground railroad in Boiling Springs after hiking with my mom to Island Grove (pictured below) where Daniel Kaufman, the founder of the village of Boiling Springs, harbored people who had been enslaved and were escaping to freedom.

I found these images on a page that appears to be a class project by a Dickinson College student. Link

On the page, the author writes:

In a county that was small and fairly unknown, history was made. The people of Cumberland County took it upon themselves to follow their beliefs and assist in the abolition of slavery.

This seems to be a somewhat rosy view of history.  In the book that I read while I was home, it suggested that Cumberland county’s close geographic ties to the south (with the valley and mountains extending to the south) made for a climate that, with few exceptions, was by no means anti-slavery.  The Afrolumens project has a list of enslaved and slave holders in Cumberland county that seems to suggest that slavery was somewhat prevalent.  I don’t know the historical context to compare this with other places in the north.  The Afrolumens project also has this FAQ that provides some interesting insight into slavery in central Pennsylvania.  The FAQ introduced me to the idea of term slavery which was a mechanism to abolish slavery gradually starting in 1780.

When Pennsylvania legislators decided to abolish slavery in the state, they knew that a complete and immediate abolition of the practice would cause a financial loss to slaveholders by freeing those persons that were already held in bondage.   They also knew that this would be politically unpopular, and might not pass a vote in the legislature.  So they decided on a gradual approach, setting a cut-off date, whereby all of the persons held in bondage as of  March 1, 1780 would remain in bondage, but all children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after that date would be held in bondage only until age twenty-eight.

According to the FAQ, even this gradual abolition was abused.

The “hundreds of children of slaves” that were still around in 1850 came as a result of many severe abuses, misunderstandings and simple disregard for the law. Some of the most blatant and frequent abuses occurred in Lancaster County, where the children of slaves were themselves registered as children of slaves for another twenty-eight years. This practice obviously would have set up an endless cycle, which would have been contrary to the spirit of the law–yet few or none were challenged in court. Some of these abuses were possibly a result of a misunderstanding of the law, and some were justified by the slaveholders by the pregnancy of term slaves. In the latter cases, additional years were added to the terms of women in bondage who became pregnant while serving their twenty-eight year term, and their children were in turn registered as slaves.

So the generalization that the student makes about the people of Cumberland County and their attitudes about slavery seems to be a bit incongrous with other accounts of history.  In thinking about this while I was in PA, I realized that the history of the underground railroad in Boiling Springs was only briefly touched on in history class, and the extensive history of slave holding in PA was definitely not mentioned.  I realized that the heroism of those aiding enslaved people who had escaped is often identified by name, but that of the enslaved often remains anonymous.