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Local Story of Slavery, Abolition Taught to Children in Unique Music Program where They Write Songs

Chris Bolt/WAER News

The history of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is an important story in Central New York and really throughout the state.  A unique project “Harriet Was Here” brought elementary students together with musicians and historians found a unique way to teach those lessons. 

Fifth grade students at Morrisville Eaton Elementary are coming up with some descriptive words for Harriet Tubman.  Students such as Natalia Jackson just learned some of their local history…that the Underground Railroad for slaves on their way to freedom made a stop nearby.

“We got to go to Peterboro and see the Gerrit Smith Estate and visit the barn and the laundry and we got to learn a little bit more about Harriet Tubman and Gerrit Smith’s relationship.”

Gerrit Smith focused much of his philanthropy on liberating slaves in Peterboro, a little northeast of Cazenovia. 


The students worked with the folk music duo Magpie to learn more about slavery and abolition.  Magpie is made up of Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino.  They've produced music for museums and other historical programs.

Aeryn Jackson describes sing-along spirituals Magpie performed with the students in class.

“I like that they let us participate and let us do the hand motions: River, Freedom, Walking, it helps us see how they work as a team, and how cool it is to actually be able to play instruments.”

Now it was their turn take that knowledge and actually write lyrics to a song they help create with the Magpie musicians.  They were prompted to come up with words that describe Tubman and Smith, which were then going to make up the lyrics for their song. 

Morrisville Eaton Teacher Carrie Martin says children learn best when material is presented in a variety of ways.  And what more creative than music -- that the students write.  She believes it will be emotionally attached in their memory.

“They’re growing up in a region that has a pretty rich history when it comes to community contribution, taking care of others, and Gerrit Smith was an example or role model for his whole community.  I want them to know that because I want them to walk away feeling like they’re a part of that and they can continue it and carry it on.”

Magpie's Terry and Greg work with students in class at Morrisville Eaton school to come up with words for their song, as part of the "Harriet Was Here" project.

The song they come up with is part of a larger project called Harriet Was Here…it was dreamed up by Newcomb Central School Teacher Martha Swan who is also Executive Director of a human rights group called John Brown Lives.  Swan wanted to connect different schools that all had their own local connection to abolition and the Underground Railroad.

“I think it helps instill this feeling, this awareness, that just my part of the story, just my piece of the pie, my backyard is not enough to understand everything.  Somebody across the street, somebody down the road, somebody across the country knows something that will help me understand more fully this history that we share.”

Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News
In addition to history, the program teaches language arts, such as use of thesaurus to come up with interesting words for their songs

She got Magpie to work with her students, the Morrisville Eaton class and students from Genesee Elementary in Auburn.   Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, the Magpie Musicians, are music historians that have written songs honoring the Smithsonian and the National Wildlife Refuge among others.  And they just applied their songwriting process to kids.

“We figure out how to draw out ideas from them and how to organize them.  And then it’s a whole process of really exploring creativity within the English language arts.  So we show them how to use thesaurus and how to use rhyming dictionary and how to phrase and deal with meter and rhythm,” says Artzner.    

The Morrisville Eaton students ended up creating the song titled Kinder Heart about Gerrit Smith hosting Harriet Tubman’s visits to their area.

The song "Kinder Heart" was created by students in Morrisville Eaton school, about relationship between Harriet Tubman and benefactor Gerrit Smith, who lived near them in Peterboro, NY.

(Kinder Heart Lyrics Below)

Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News
The Morrisville Eaton students recorded their song at a gathering of all three participating schools in Auburn.

  They traveled to Auburn for a rehearsal and recording of the song.  There was also a public presentation with the other schools that took part. 

The Genesee Elementary students in Auburn created a song about Luke Freeman, focusing on a barber shop in Auburn that was a meeting place for abolitionist activity. 

The Morgan "Luke" Freeman Song was the Genesee Elementary students' telling of the man and the barber shop he ran that was significant for slaves going to freedom, as well as the relationship with Harriet Tubman.

(Morgan Luke Freeman Lyrics Below)  

The students from the Adirondack school of Newcomb came up with lyrics about the slaves who moved north trying to get to Canada.

Newcomb students helped Magpie write General Tubman, about the slaves' journey north to Canada, which came through their Adirondack community.

(My Friend Harriet: General Tubman lyrics below)

Each song Magpie’s Greg and Terry crafted was different …just as each learning experience was different for the students in the various schools and areas. 

Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News
Morrisville Eaton students rehearsing their song "Kinder Heart with Magpie.

  Martha Swan of John Brown Lives recalls one of the greatest parts of “Harriet Was Here” was seeing pieces of the puzzle coming together.

“It’s extraordinary, the feeling that comes froth from the kids and what they learned, what they shared with one another.  In our school our 5th and 6th graders Skyped with the Auburn kids and they were swapping what their local connection, their background connection to Harriet Tubman is.  We teachers, we learned from the Auburn kids, what they shared with our kids.”

Swan’s idea for the “Harriet was Here” project came while trying to find a way to advance understanding of racial issues.

“If we could get children in northern and southern schools learning about the history and geography of slavery and the struggle for freedom as it was played out in their backyard, and if the kids then had the chance to swap and share what they were learning, across these political demarcations, then perhaps we would ’d have a chance of deepening our understanding of slavery as a history we’re implicated in North and South.”

And Maybe music was the right language for that conversation.


To the rolling hills of Peterboro

From Maryland's Chesapeake Bay

We walked many, many long harsh miles

Facin' danger along the way

My heart ached for the freedom seekers

We shivered in the wind and snow

In a pitch dark moonless winter night

It burned our fingers and our toes

Wore out my traveling' shoes

Travelin' shoes, travelin' shoes

Wore out my traveling' shoes

On my way to his heavenly home

I know you’re hungry tired and cold

But we’re too close to turn back

Let’s keep on headin’ toward heaven’s door

Follow me on down this track

Don’t give up now, my friends,    

‘Cause we’re not out o’ danger yet

Push through and you’ll see Peterboro

All your life you’ll never regret

Through the blinding snow we saw the glow

Of the Gerrit Smith house light

At the door he stood so tall

With his long beard of white

All around the family gathered

Ann Smith welcomed us inside

When they realized that they could have died
          The freedom seekers broke down and cried

A kinder heart I never knew

Gerrit Smith would lend a hand

Unlike many other wealthy people

He gave throughout the land

They told me I could trust him

I’s wonderin’ if he was real

One by one he’d help us all

To end the painful troubles that we feel

Words and music by Terry Leonino, Greg Artzner and Carrie Martin and Julianne Taylor’s 5th grade students at Morrisville-Eaton Central School, Morrisville, NY. June 11, 2015


My name it is Luke Freeman

My journey first began

I was born a slave in Auburn

But now I’m a free man

I worked as a barber

And in my barbershop

I helped the freedom seekers

At my station stop

Long and hard we worked for freedom (3x)

To end slavery

I knew Harriet Tubman

Extraordinar’ly brave

She helped freedom seekers

From slavery she did save

She came to New Guinea

Our black community

We worked with William                                             Seward

To set our people free

Come on Harriet, come on Harriet (3x)

There's many more to save

Our brothers and sisters

She led over the land

Then she came to live among us

To lend a helping hand

Our good friend Mister                                 Seward

A farm to her he sold

A home for friends and family

A shelter from the cold

Come on Harriet, come on Harriet (3x)

There's many more to save

The woman we call Moses

And I were best of friends

And yet I thought we’d never see

The day when slavery ends

it took a lot of people

to free those who were bound

to fight the fight for freedom

the whole wide world around

Come on Harriet, come on Harriet (3x)

There's many more to save

Long and hard we worked for freedom (3x)

To end slavery

4th Grade students @ Genesee Elementary School, Auburn, NY  November, 2014


General Tubman shared my freedom dream

General Tubman hitched on her whole team

She agreed and approved my daring plan

She was as brave and as bold as any man.


Freedom, oh, freedom

Freedom, oh, freedom

Freedom, oh, freedom

Oh Freedom, let ‘em go

She knew the forests, the swamps and waterways

Runnin’ hard with her people many nights and days

With a keen sense she’d find the way if anybody could

Secretly moving through the dark and dangerous wood


Freedom, oh, freedom

Freedom, oh, freedom

Freedom, oh, freedom

Oh Freedom, let ‘em go

The intrepid liberator, she was known far and wide

I needed her helping hand, standing by my side

Her skill and her vision to join me in the fight

For freedom like Moses when he led the Israelites

To see the General to Canada I did go

Would she really join me, I just had to know

But she did not come to Chatham where many came to meet

And pledged in common cause slavery to defeat

Tubman and Douglass were my greatest friends

They’ll have my understanding even after my life ends

I’m sitting in my jail cell waiting to be hung

This war hasn’t ended in fact it’s just begun

10/1/2014 Newcomb CS, Grades 3-6, Julie Slayback & Meredith Aitcheson-Phelps        

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.