Group Hopes to Save Underground Railroad House
By Heath Gordon | Online Only | Sept. 16, 2009
A six-month stay on the demolition of a historic house in Concord, Mass., ran out on Sept. 12, but local activists are one step closer to saving the former stop on the Underground Railroad.
Six residents raised $30,000 to have the Caesar Robbins House moved. Their group is called the Drinking Gourd Project, named after a song that urged slaves to "follow the drinking gourd," or Big Dipper, north to freedom.
"We just keep moving forward," says Maria Madison, a member of the Drinking Gourd Project, founded last year. The group now hopes to raise $390,000 more to buy the land the house stands on.
Built in 1770 by the town's first emancipated slave, Caesar Robbins, the house later sheltered three generations of prominent African Americans, one of whom was described by writer Henry David Thoreau as the "gentle hog butcherer" of Concord.
"This house represents not just three generations of families, but everyone who played a role in the abolitionist movement, like everyday townspeople who were heroic," Madison says. Her group plans to turn the house into a museum about the anti-slavery movement in Concord, where women, Irish immigrants, and African Americans contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad.
The house has been uninhabited for more than a year, after the previous owner died. The new owners filed an application to demolish the house in March 2009, but Concord bylaws allow for a six-month delay if the property is historic. Steve Moga, a circuit rider with Preservation Massachusetts, says that saving the Caesar Robbins House is "a tough chase."
Currently, the fate of the house is in the hands of town planners, who Madison says "can act as quickly or as slowly as they want." The funds to relocate the house came from a single large donation and subsequent matching donations.
If the house is relocated, it would not be the first time; the house was moved about two miles to its current location in 1870. Despite an addition and one year of disrepair, the wood-shingled house is in remarkable shape and still contains some historic fabric, according to Moga.
The final chapter of the Caesar Robbins House's story is, as yet, unwritten. Drinking Gourd Project members plan to apply for a grant that would pay for the preservation of the interior, allowing them to turn it into a museum. Saving the house, Moga says, will require "education, public awareness, and enthusiasm."
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