A group of 35 students took a field trip to Auburn, N.Y., last weekend to tour the homes of Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman and New York Statesman William Seward, who sold Tubman her house when it was illegal to do so. The trip was organized to introduce students to the rich cultural history of the Finger Lakes region. It is also one of a number of tours of the region intended to honor the memory of Deborah Tall, professor of English and comparative literature at HWS. Her 1996 book, “From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place,” is used as a guide for touring and studying the historic sites.
“This trip is so exciting! I never realized how close we are to history,” exclaimed Sarah Pierce ’10.
The day began at the historic Harriet Tubman Home, which was established in 1896. HWS students watched an informative documentary on the life of Harriet Tubman and learned that she had settled and eventually was buried in Auburn. Known decedents of Tubman still live in the area, revealing the long line of history still prominent in the Finger Lakes region.
Walking around the house, the tour guide remembered a group of HWS students who came and helped with a construction project at the property in 1992.
“I'm glad you are here to visit; we really appreciate students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges,” she told the group.
After dining on bag lunch provided by HWS, the tour continued at Seward House. The students toured the 17 public rooms, all arranged and preserved the way it would have been back in the 1800s. Seward, famous for becoming President Lincoln's Secretary of State and negotiating the purchase of Alaska, had an impressive collection of art, books and artifacts from his life and travels.
“I felt like I was back in time with the Seward family,” says Michael Steiner ’09. “I got a real understanding of their family and the time period they lived in.”
The event was organized by Alejandra Molina, adjunct professor of Latin American Studies and director of Intercultural Affairs, and Instructor of English Mary Hess and was the result of the collaboration of the Offices of Intercultural Affairs and Student activities as well as the English and History Departments.
Hess also led the first historical tour honoring Deborah Tall, “Finding a Sense of Place,” last fall. In October, two first-year seminar classes visited Ganondagan, the National Historic Site and the Seneca “Village of Peace,” and traced the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 from Kanadasaga (Geneva) to Canandaigua's “Treaty Rock” and Squaw Island. Students in the First-year Seminars “Our Native Heritage” and “The Sacred Earth” used Tall's memoir as a guide to these significant Seneca historical sites.
Tall taught at Hobart and William Smith from 1982 until her death in October of 2006 at the age of 55. She had battled inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease, for two years. Tall was named The John Milton Potter Professor of Humanities and won the 2001 Faculty Scholarship Award, as well as numerous faculty research grants. She was also the editor of the literary journal Seneca Review. A month prior to her death, she was a President's Forum speaker when she, with her friend and former faculty member Stephen A. Kuusisto '78, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, presented “The Art of Memoir: A Reading.”
“Deborah Tall, a much-loved teacher and colleague, left an important legacy that is celebrated by these historical tours,” says Hess. “We hope the tours will bring a greater awareness of both our region's rich history and of her path-breaking work.”