Freedom from slavery, freedom to read: Students experience the past through artifacts of history

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Freedom from slavery, freedom to read -- Students experience the past through artifacts of history

Lehigh’s Special Collections brings its unique and fascinating rare books and materials to the classroom, offering undergraduates and graduates unforgettable learning experiences using cuneiform tablets, rare maps, atlases, books, manuscripts, photographs, and other audio-visual materials.

“Follow the drinkin’ gourd”: Maps of the Freedom Trail

Follow the drinkin’ gourd / For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom -- This African American folk melody refers to the Big Dipper, the constellation that guided the men and women escaping enslavement in the South.

In Professor Joan Ramage Mcdonald’s E&ES 090-011 class  “Following the Drinking Gourd: How Natural Features Shaped the Underground Railroad,” students delved deeper into the lore and the reality of the Underground Railroad, exploring the geological aspects of the Underground Railroad by utilizing historical publications on slavery, rare maps, and atlases. In an intimate, personalized session, students saw and experienced rare maps and corresponding literary narratives -- ranging from one man's journey from Georgia to Connecticut to Underground Railroad activities that occured in our very own Lehigh Valley -- to better understand the lived human experience of the journey to freedom. Special Collections Librarians, Science Librarian Brian Simboli, and Education Librarian Jasmine Woodson guided the students in exploring this segment of United States history.

Freedom to read what I want: What’s your favorite banned book?

The students in Charles French’s ENGL 11 course, titled Censorship and Book Banning, were asked “What’s your favorite banned book?” Several of them pointed to Huckleberry Finn and The Call of Wild on display in a special session in Linderman Library’s Scheler Family Humanities Forum. Special Collections Librarians and Humanities Librarian Heather Simoneau presented first editions of wide-ranging banned books from Das Kapital and Mein Kampf to The Scarlet Letter and A Farewell to Arms. The focus of this session was why libraries collect, preserve, and provide access to banned books despite controversial content and publication histories. The professor, librarians, and the students made comments on their favorite titles in the context of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

Professor French led the discussion with questions about why certain books have been considered dangerous in certain times and countries, pointing out how literature can teach how even ideal democracies can slowly slide into totalitarian regimes. This slide into totalitarianism is exemplified in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 semi-satirical dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which the author imagines the rise of totalitarianism in the USA similar to Fascism of Italy and Germany in the early 1930s. The book concludes that “it can happen” here, too. "Censorship and book banning are the tools of dictatorship and oppression. A free and open society must always protect freedom of speech and of expression in writing,” said French. “As academics, it is also our responsibility to protect such freedoms."

These sessions are just two examples of Special Collections philosophy of outreach to undergraduates, engaging students, and bringing history and its artifacts into the classroom. Please contact Special Collections if you’d like to arrange a session incorporating primary source materials into your class. We look forward to hearing from you at inspc@lehigh.edu!

  • A firsthand look at cuneiform tablets, rare maps, atlases, books, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials in Professor Ramage Mcdonald’s class “Following the Drinking Gourd: How Natural Features Shaped the Underground Railroad"
    A firsthand look at cuneiform tablets, rare maps, atlases, books, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials in Professor Ramage Mcdonald’s class “Following the Drinking Gourd: How Natural Features Shaped the Underground Railroad"
  • Students explore the geological aspects of the Underground Railroad by utilizing historical publications on slavery, rare maps, and atlases
    Students explore the geological aspects of the Underground Railroad by utilizing historical publications on slavery, rare maps, and atlases
  • Tracing the journey to freedom
    Tracing the journey to freedom
  • Huckleberry Finn, among the banned books discussed in Charles French’s ENGL 11 course, "Censorship and Book Banning"
    Huckleberry Finn, among the banned books discussed in Charles French’s ENGL 11 course, "Censorship and Book Banning"
  • Students examine banned books on display
    Students examine banned books on display