High school students write new chapters in Nebraska history

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May 4, 2011 - 7:00pm

If a group of high school students have their way, a chapter of Nebraska history will be rewritten: the chapter on the state's role in slavery.

The students are in Barry Jurgensen's honors history class at Arlington High School in Arlington, a small town between Fremont and Omaha. Their year-long project is to nominate several locations in far Southeast Nebraska for the Network to Freedom, a National Parks Service program which registers Underground Railroad-related sites - but only after thorough documentation is presented. It's this documentation that the students are concerned with.


Photo by Jerry Johnston

Hope Hemme and Emily Korus stand in front of the Freighters Museum in Nebraska City. The building used to belong to Nebraska slaveowner Alexander Majors. Hemme and Korus are investigating whether the site has connections to the Underground Railroad.

Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause

View the Lane Trail in a larger map

Photo by Jerry Johnston

Barbara Mayhew helped slaves escape during the 1860s. Her gravesite, located south of Nebraska City, is being nominated for inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Student historians

The application forms to nominate sites can range up to twenty pages; a long paper for first-time researchers.

But when classmates Hope Hemme and Emily Korus talk about the slaves held by a Nebraska City freight tycoon, they can rattle off the details.

"We know their ages - there were four women and two boys - there was a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy, and there were two 40-year-old women, and a four-year-old girl and a twenty-year-old girl."

These people were claimed as property by Alexander Majors, who made a bundle in Missouri in the 1850s with his freight partnership. When he moved to Nebraska Territory to further his business, he brought his slaves with him.

Even though Hemme and Korus know how many slaves Majors owned, their genders and their ages, they don't know names. That's because the 1860 Territorial Census didn't record them. The students also know that the slaves escaped in 1860 - that's also part of the public record. What's harder to ascertain is exactly where the slaves were when they escaped. Since many of Majors' land and building purchases were made under his company's umbrella, it's hard to know for certain where he actually lived. Hemme and Korus need to have proof of his residence in order to make a case to the Network to Freedom.

"We're going to look at some city directories, see if we can find some that go back to 1860 that say where exactly Alexander Majors lived," the girls said, talking over each other. "And then we also want to look at more newspaper articles from the 1860s, back when his slaves escaped, see if there's any ads in the papers, like runaway ads offering money for escaped slaves from Alexander Majors."

Hemme is determined. Maybe even a little obsessed.

"I spend about every day during my study hall trying to research and see if I can find anything at all," she said.

Nebraska and the Underground Railroad

Started in 1998, the Network to Freedom is list of locations which have documented connections to the Underground Railroad. You might think the Underground Railroad - a way slaves escaped to freedom - existed mostly on the border between the North and the South during the Civil War, but Network to Freedom head Diane Miller said Nebraska played a part, too.

Slaves in Missouri escaped into Kansas, skirted around Northern Missouri through Nebraska, then went to Iowa and freedom, she said.

Teacher Barry Jurgensen said he's thrilled with how the project has turned out.

"This whole project really got started with me trying to find a way for my students to experience history," he said.

Before teaching, Jurgensen interned at the National Park Service, working for the Network to Freedom office. Three things came together: Jurgensen's National Network to Freedom experience at its headquarters in Omaha, the need for a big school project and some inspiration from Bill Hayes.

Director of the Mayhew Cabin, Nebraska's only Network to Freedom-approved site, Hayes told Jurgensen that there were other sites in Southeast Nebraska that were good candidate. Jurgensen took the bait.

Photo by Jerry Johnston

Arlington High School teacher Barry Jurgensen and students Hope Hemme and Emily Korus speak with National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom director Diane Miller at the Nebraska Network to Freedom conference, held in March in Nebraska City.

"So I said, OK, this is going to be awesome, this is a little more that I had expected, but this is perfect,'" Miller said. "Now it has snowballed into this huge project where the kids are acting as historians and they have uncovered some really cool history about Nebraska and about our nation.

"This is really a very exciting project, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with," she added.

"They'll always remember this project"

Hayes led the way with Mayhew Cabin, which for years was known to Highway 2 motorists as John Brown's Cave. The John Brown connection is sketchy, but now the location is included in the program because of documented accounts of the Mayhew family giving sanctuary to fleeing slaves.

As the only approved Network to Freedom site, the Mayhew cabin was chosen as the site of the first Nebraska Network to Freedom conference, held in March, Jurgensen and his students had the opportunity to get some coaching from Miller.

Miller said this student experience will have a lasting effect on all participants.

"It's really important to understand the value of history, and these kids, whether they become a farmer or a waitress or a nuclear physicist, they'll always remember this project," she said. "They'll always remember that they found new information that other people didn't know, and they will always have an appreciation of that. They can do something that adds to society, and that gives them an appreciation of the power an individual, even a student, has to make a change."



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