Among the bright lights and towering brick of mid-town Manhattan, the nonprofit organization Common Ground found a home for those who needed and deserved life’s most basic necessity. Another dedicated community partner of StoryCorps Griot, Common Ground seeks to transform buildings, people, and entire communities with the mission to work towards ending homelessness. By acquiring its Times Square building in 1991-a once stately neighborhood fixture fallen into disrepair-Common Ground was able to preserve the historic detail of the building and create housing for 652 low-income and formerly homeless individuals in the heart of the city. It is currently the largest permanent supportive housing project in the nation. StoryCorps Griot joined with Common Ground Times Square to help some of the residents record their stories. Many came to talk about where they had been and where they are going.
It is estimated that during the first half of the 19th century upwards of 100,000 slaves escaped slavery along the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a secret network shepherding African-Americans north, away from formal chattel slavery. Professor Melvin Sylvester of the CW Post Campus of Long Island University asserts that by 1800 there were 700,000 slaves in America. In South Carolina, alone, there were more Africans then Europeans and in Maryland and Virginia the population demographic was split 50/50. Since there is little or no existing evidence of runaways, we are left with only legends, tales, and oral histories. There is no way to know if the estimate of 100,000 runaways is low, high, or close to accurate. The amount of hysteria caused by stories of the clandestine network igniting the suspicions and hope of slave society might lead one to think that maybe this number is a low estimate. There is no way to know. The hysteria could have simply been a young nation desperately trying to protect the backbone of its economy and burgeoning prosperity. Regardless we are left with only the accounts of decedents.
Photos courtesy Melvin Reeves