Conference Gives Diversity Scholar New Vision and “Home”

Posted on: November 15th, 2011 by Guest Writer

Written by Nancy J. Dawson

During the Underground Railroad field session tour, Nancy Dawson stands on a bridge similar to the one abolitionist Harriet Tubman led enslaved Africans to freedom in Canada. (Photo: Nancy Dawson)

“Is it real?” I asked myself, as I stood paralyzed listening to the raging waters--all while one foot was planted in Canada and other in the United States. As I looked over the rails of the walkway, I couldn’t help but wonder how Harriet Tubman, one of America’s most noted abolitionists, felt when she ventured across a suspension bridge in Niagara Falls, New York, nearly 150 years ago bringing enslaved Africans to freedom.

Although our guide was determined that our group forge on so that we complete our tour on schedule - for me, the hands of time had stopped. Even though I have a disdain for heights, it didn’t matter. Tubman and I were one for a moment as I felt the fears, anxiety, desperation, and anticipation of her passengers.

How serendipitous, that I (a descendant of runaway enslaved Africans from Quindaro, Kansas), was tracing Tubman’s trail during a field experience at the National Preservation Conference. This was one of several fantastic experiences that I was privileged to take part in as a conference Diversity Scholar.

After returning home, the networking and information that I gained at this year’s conference set me ablaze. Although, I have worked to preserve African American history and culture for decades, the conference gave me a special edge and helped me define myself as a true historic preservationist. I am eager to apply the knowledge gained to my work in Western Kentucky where I help to preserve Cherokee State Historic Park, a once segregated facility, which operated between 1951 and 1964. Today, Cherokee Park is one of only three known state-owned formerly segregated parks in the United States. Furthermore, I have no doubt that my conference experience will enhance my collaboration efforts with several organizations to support my research about African American Civil War soldiers and their families living along the Kentucky/Tennessee border. Already, partnerships with Fort Donelson National Battlefield, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and the New Orleans National Jazz Historical Park have led to development of a theatrical production entitled Stories from da Dirt, the creation of a quilt featuring runaway slave ads, and a two volume CD entitled Songs of the Lower Mississippi Delta.

All my projects were elevated by resources offered at the conference. The meeting also reinforced for me that the road I am on as a preservationist and the partnerships that I have developed are in harmony with many of the goals and objectives of the National Trust. I think my return flight home from the conference best sums up my new relationship with the National Trust. I was showing a picture of my (historic) home to a woman at the airport. A gentleman, sitting near us, chuckled and said, “while most people share photos of their children, National Trust people share photos of their homes and historic projects.” I smiled and said, “I guess that is why I feel so at home.”

Nancy J. Dawson, a former university professor, playwright and textile artist, has been working to preserve historic sites in Kentucky and Tennessee as well as in her hometown of Quindaro, Kansas. Nancy was a first time Diversity Scholar at the 2011 National Preservation Conference. She may be reached at

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