Two months ago, a genealogy company invited six strangers from across the country to a Brooklyn church to study their family history. What they learned could be in a movie. In fact, it is.
“Railroad Ties,” a short Sundance film, chronicles the group’s journey of discovery and what went along getting the mind-blowing news that they are all the descendants of fugitive slaves and a determined abolitionist, all with ties to the historic Underground Railroad.
The setting was no accident. Plymouth Church, on Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights, was founded in 1847, and led by a leading abolitionist minister, Henry Ward Beecher, whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The church was an important station on the Underground Railroad through which slaves from the South were secretly transported to Canada. Known locally as the “Grand Central Depot,” slaves were hidden in the tunnel-like basement beneath the church sanctuary.
“We knew that there were some blanks in our family tree,” Gayle George, a Washington D.C., publishing executive says in the documentary. “I was thinking we might find some connections.”
“I went to Canada for two years ago for the first time in my life and felt as home,” George says. “It was a powerful experience.”
Now, she knows why. Several of her slave ancestors, aided by Plymouth Church abolitionists escaped to Canada.
George, at the invitation of genealogy company, Ancestry.com, was invited to the church to meet with other descendants of the freed slaves and a descendant of an influential abolitionist who helped change a family’s life forever.
Their story of discovery is told in the Sundance film.
“One common misconception was that New York being a free state since 1827 was the safe place for African Americans,” Melissa Collom, the church’s historian, says in the documentary. “And it really wasn’t. New York was heavily, heavily involved in the Southern economy.”
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