Phyllis Wade, a student support specialist at Rochester Institute of Technology, will help commemorate Black History Month by performing “Signal Songs of the Underground Railroad” to students visiting the Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C.
Her performances, on Feb. 14 and 15, will involve storytelling and singing to classes of children ages 7 to 14, by explaining how slaves prepared to flee to freedom.
“I will talk about how slaves were resourceful when they were planning on escaping. There had to be some sort of signal that this was the night,” she said. “How do you do that? There were some songs which were well known, many of them were spirituals and sung in church. One was “Steal Away,” about going to the Promised Land. And that could be either heaven, or the north.”
Another song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” or Big Dipper, meant to follow the North Star to freedom.
Wade has performed throughout the community since 1974 and has done this presentation since 1998, including at the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y. Her stories come from research she has done, and books her family members have written. Her great-grandparents were slaves in Tennessee.
Wade joined RIT 11 years ago and received the Isaac L. Jordan Sr. Faculty/Staff Pluralism Award in 2011.
“When I started doing this, I didn’t do it for accolades,” she said then. “The stories are about my ancestors. It is a way for people to experience things they have never experienced before. It comes alive; it is something tangible.”
For more information, visit the Discovery Theater website.