Place is both the barrier to and the enabler of freedom. The freedom of a vacation comes from its being a getaway, but few things feel less free than totally losing a sense of place while traveling in a strange land.
That dual nature applies to more significant experiences as well, as I reflected on seeing the William Hubbard House in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Hubbard moved to Ashtabula from Holland Patent, New York, around 1834. (I could never have predicted that without any planning we’d pass through both of those small places, set on back roads 330 miles apart, on the same day.)
Hubbard became involved in the local antislavery society and town politics. His house was a strategic location for the Underground Railroad, set on the shore of Lake Erie and with his own ferry port nearby. His house was the last stop before a boat ride across the lake to Canada.
Runaway slaves and conductors on the Underground Railroad referred to his home as “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard” or “The Great Emporium.” It is not known how many slaves Hubbard helped gain their freedom, but records suggest that he housed 39 slaves on one occasion.
It was both inspiring and humbling to stand beside the Hubbard home with the vast expanse of Lake Erie and unseen Canada beyond. One can read about the many Underground Railroad locations and the heroic journeys that people took to gain their freedom, but encountering the two-story house, the lake, the Ashtabula river leading to the ferry port, the antebellum era town buildings, and the woods nearby made the bare plotline come alive.
Being there made the slaves’ escape from a place of misery to a place of hope just a little more tangible. I wondered how anyone could be there and not have their sympathy enlarged. Or how they could think about that 19th century quest for freedom and talk so easily (as some Presidential candidates do) about denying freedom to victims of violence and oppression in the Middle East, Central America, or other places today.
In The Particularities of Place (see also Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014, edited by
We embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the fullest breadth of individual human possibility, and share a deep conviction that no one’s horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth. Nothing is more quintessentially American than that conviction. But…. one’s place of origin is seen as an impediment, something to be overcome. “Place” may even point toward notions of social hierarchy that Americans generally find anathema…the idea of “knowing your place” was favored by advocates of racial segregation and the subordination of women.
The plantations were a place that denied not only freedom per se, but the full “breadth of individual human possibility.” Yet the places of the Underground Railroad and the new River Jordan, expanded that possibility.
McClay goes on to see a renewed need for place today:
We now have a new set of problems, born of the pathologies engendered precisely by our achievements. Something is now seriously out of balance in the way we live…. it can be argued that, like it or not, we must recover a more durable and vibrant sense of place if we are to preserve the healthy dynamism of our society as it now exists, and promote the highest measure of human happiness and flourishing.
In seeking to escape from one place, slaves needed to maintain a sense of others. This included both some idea of a lost homeland and a vision of that Railroad leading to a new place of freedom. McClay quotes from William Leach’s Country of Exiles:
People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it.
I’m happy that places such as the Hubbard House have been preserved, to enable a continuity of place, which in turn gives us a human connection across very different life experiences. Visiting it gave me a richer sense of the place in which I live.