Essay #3 by William Earle Williams; compliment to current LUAG exhibition

The series of three essays written by the artist are presented here to support the Lehigh University Art Gallery (LUAG) current exhibition that runs until May 25, 2014.  LUAG rescheduled a gallery talk by William Earle Williams for Friday, March 21, 2014, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. A reception will follow from 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. in the Gallery. His lecture, originally scheduled for Feb. 13, was cancelled due to bad weather.


The Underground Railroad is one of history’s finest symbols of the struggle against the institution of slavery. This invisible railroad was composed of men and women, blacks and whites, and people of all ages. They put their moral beliefs ahead of liberty and personal property. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, this already secretive and illegal activity became even more clandestine.

Enslaved people seeking freedom “and their allies” adopted the names and symbols of the railroad to safely travel this secretive route. The conductors and stationmasters along the many routes of this passage adopted the name of the most technologically advanced form of transportation available during the 19th century—railroading. The advent of this form of transit was a national phenomenon that had a profound effect on national transportation. The connections forged throughout the country via the railroad, however, had the ironic effect of increasing the division between the states.

As the economy grew, Americans experienced prosperity in unparalleled numbers. Border states from Delaware to Missouri experienced this turbulence as traffic on the Underground Railroad increased with passengers seeking freedom tickets away from the slaveholding regions. The border states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the states immediately to the north of them, developed a strong abolitionist identity from the 1830s on. New York and Michigan, with their proximity to Canada and abundant land and water routes, have left this region with a rich heritage of places and buildings to make visible this invisible railroad.

The photographs in this exhibition show places both well-known and obscure that played a part in the history of the Underground Railroad—from the Caribbean to the Deep South to the shores of Lake Ontario. Two of the most famous “conductors” on the Underground Railroad were Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Both lived in Upstate New York and maintained stations on their properties in Auburn and in North Elba. Today, both are larger-than-life historical figures whose importance in American and regional history is well established.

Few people today have ever heard of Upstate New York conductors and stationmasters John W. Jones of Elmira, Grace Wilson of Cazenovia, or Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. James Walker, an African American, was a well-known stationmaster and conductor in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. These are a few of the mostly unknown conductors who played important roles in both the operation of the Underground Railroad and the creation of local support for its operation. The station stops on the Underground Railroad suffer from a similar fate as that of the conductors—anonymity. Some stops were well-known, however, including the Hosanna Meeting House located in Pennsylvania near the Maryland/Delaware state lines, and Levi Coffin’s home in Fountain City, Indiana.

The act of researching and locating these sites was the starting point for my creative investigation. The resulting photographs have become more than just documents. I have responded to the vernacular landscapes by using a variety of camera techniques including sharp focus, depth of field, and medium- and large-format negatives to heighten the metaphoric content of the images. A careful reading of the photographs will reveal a rich material world as well as another that can only be hinted at because of the silence of these places. It is my hope that this aesthetic approach will enable the viewer to make psychological connections to these highly charged and storied places.

~William Earle Williams