Cohen, Anthony 1963–

views updated

Anthony Cohen 1963

Author, historian

At a Glance

Selected writings


Image not available for copyright reasons

Beginning on May 4 and ending on July 6, 1996, Anthony Cohen retraced an 800-mile route from Montgomery County, Maryland, to Ontario, Canada-one of the possible routes of the Underground Railroad. According to Cohens 1994 senior paper, published by the Montgomery County Historical Society as The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County, Maryland: A History and Driving Guide, The Underground Railroad was an organized system of escape, uniting fugitives with faithful volunteers who could carry off, conceal, feed, and clothe the escaping slaves before conveying them across the borders to free states. Cohens research then and now focuses on antebellum history and the slavery period.

Before embarking on the trek to Canada, Cohen helped Professor Edward C. Smith develop American Universitys Civil War Institute, a summer program offering lectures and tours of U.S. Civil War sites for college credit. In a letter to CBB, Professor Smith described Cohen as a very talented and tenacious person with a tremendous sense of humility. As a student I would often use the quality of his work as the standard by which I would measure the performance of his peers. Cohens diligence earned him the Distinguished Scholar Award in 1994 from the American University Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Cohen continued excellent work when he served as a research contractor for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. He documented oral and living history, gave lectures, and developed interpretive programs for the historic Oakley Cabin site, a remnant of tenant farm housing dating to the Civil War that likely sheltered both slaves and free blacks. This project prepared Cohen for his next monumental undertaking, the Underground Railroad walk.

From the beginning to the end of the journey, the National Parks and Conservation Association- a private, nonprofit advocacy organization that educates people about the national park system-supported Cohens efforts by providing a website on the World Wide Web. Cohen updated the pages weekly and also provided his itinerary, maps, and answers to questions that students and others left him via electronic mail. To prepare, wrote Donovan Webster in Smithsonian, Cohen did little physical training-escaped slaves wouldnt have had such a luxury. Instead, he spent hundreds of hours

At a Glance

Born Anthony Cohen, December 27, 1963, in Silver Spring, MD; son of Charles F. Cohen (an entomologist) and Joan E.Foster (a teacher); Education: American University, B.A., American Studies, 1994.

Historian, writer, lecturer. American University, Washington D.C, Administrative Associate, 1994; Maryland National Capital Parkand Planning Commission, research contractor, 1995; re-enacted Underground Railroad experience, 1996, and wrote book about the experience, 1997.

Awards: Distinguished Scholar Award, Office of Multicultural Affairs, American University, 1994; Distinguished Alumni Award, American University, 1997.

Member: Montgomery County Historical Society; Lincoln Group; Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Addresses: Office-Box 2129, Silver Spring, MD 20915. E-mail [email protected].

in the Library of Congress and other archives, where he poured over documents and slave accounts to nail down routes and transport modes. Vowing to wear just one pair of shoes throughout his excursion, as a runaway slave would have done, Cohen started his walk with a pack containing one days change of clothing, a medicine kit, a camera, and maps. Dr. Winston Anderson of the Sandy Spring Slavery Museum presented him with an Ethiopian walking stick that is more than 200-years old. The staff represented a gift from his ancestors-to guide and protect him through this long journey. Cohen stayed with people who gave him shelter along the way and carried one days worth of food that they provided.

The first leg of the trip went through Montgomery County. Due to the research for his first book and his development of an Underground Railroad sites tour, Cohen knew the area well. He chose Sandy Spring, Maryland-a Quaker community-as his starting point. By 1777, Sandy Spring Quakers had outlawed the practice of importing, buying, and selling slaves, and espoused disownment of church members who did. Quakers began to give assistance to runaway slaves. One story written about the runaways, according to Rebecca T. Miller at the 1917 centennial celebration of the Sandy Spring Meeting House, was of a fugitive tapping at a window late one night and asking, Mr. Bentley, can you please point me out the North Star? The North Star, besides the north-to-south flowing rivers in America, was the guide to freedom under the British flag in Canada. For this reason Cohen used North Star as part of his electronic mail address during his walk.

Each day Cohen usually walked 10 to 25 miles-occa-sionally hitching a ride with historically-accurate methods of transportation such as horseback, buggy, or boat--but he seldom traveled at night as slaves did. As the days passed, he wound his way through Pennsylvania and New York. At a National Parks and Conservation Association Live Chat Event courtesy of America Online in December of 1996, when asked to describe the most difficult night he had spent on the walk, Cohen replied, Running thirty-seven miles along the Erie Canal. The mosquitoes and dogs and police... you can imagine how happy I was. After reaching Plymouth, Pennsylvania, Cohen decided to try the harrowing escape method of Henry Box Brown, a slave from Richmond, Virginia, who had himself shipped in a crate to Philadelphia in 1848. Cohen was boxed into a crate registered with Amtrak as freight destined for New York City. Amtrak mismarked the crate they thought held books. After two hours on the loading dock, half an hour on top of a fork lift, and a rocking train trip inside a freight car whose door had slid open, friends luckily found Cohen before the train headed for Long Island. Since the temperature in the crate had risen as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and since the two-hour trip stretched to more than five hours, Cohen required several days to recover his energy and the body fluids he lost.

In Buffalo, before crossing the river to Canada, Cohen told Webster, It sounds corny, I know . . . but after walking all that way, I thought this would be the happiest moment of the whole trip. Instead, I feel incredibly sad. More than any other time in the past six weeks, Im suddenly understanding how difficult this trip must have been. The fugitive slaves had families theyd never see again. They were leaving the only life theyd ever known. They were leaving it all behind, right here. After reaching Amherstburg, Ontario, a town founded by fugitives from America, the Metro City Council of Toronto presented Cohen with an award.

As he undertook the journey in 1996 and throughout the following year, Cohen worked on a book detailing the walk, The Underground Railroad, and a documentary film on the project. The book gave special attention to the ethnic, religious, social, and political communities involved with the Underground Railroad in order to illuminate its history. Cohen planned more investigations into likely hiding places for escaped slaves and more walks along other routes of escape from slavery. By continuing to spread the word at universities, on radio and television programs, and through his writings, Cohen hoped individuals and the government would support National Park System efforts to establish the Underground Railroad as a unit of the parks system before more of its history is lost forever. In one of his 1996 walk reports Cohen wrote, Because it was a secret effort, places that were important stops would not have been widely known even during the time of slavery. This means that we have to be even more persistent and keep our eyes and ears open for signs that the Underground Railroad may have passed through our neighborhood.

Selected writings

The Underground Railroad, Scribners, 1998.

The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County, Maryland: A History and Driving Guide, Montgomery County Historical Society, 1994.

Contributor of articles to such periodicals as Home and Away and National Education Association Magazine.



Smithsonian, October 1996, pp. 48-61.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from: Northstar Productionss World Wide Web site, The North Star: Tracing the Underground Railroad, last updated May 23, 1997, (accessed April 8, 1997); the National Parks and Conservation Associations World Wide Web site, The Walk to Canada: Tracing the Underground Railroad, last updated February 12, 1997, (accessed April 8, 1997).

Information also received from the National Parks and Conservation Associations live chat on America Online, December 3, 1996; from Professor Edward C. Smith, Director of American Studies & Special Assistant to the Dean, American University, College of Arts and Sciences; and from Dr. Winston Anderson of the Sandy Spring Slavery Museum in Sandy Spring, MD.

Eileen Daily