Historian Georgette Grier-Key will talk about the role of celestial...

Historian Georgette Grier-Key will talk about the role of celestial navigation in African Americans' quest for freedom at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan on Friday. Here, she is seen at the Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, where she curated an exhibit exploring the role of African Americans in the whaling industry. Credit: Rick Kopstein

When Harriet Tubman led escaped slaves on their perilous journey to freedom, she looked to the heavens for guidance.

It wasn't only spiritual inspiration the famed abolitionist sought, Bellport historian Georgette Grier-Key told Newsday. Tubman and the other so-called "conductors" of the Underground Railroad used the stars to point them to liberation, she said. 

Traveling by night to avoid slaveholders and lawmen, runaway slaves and their guides followed one of the brightest lights in the sky -- Polaris, which sits almost directly over the North Pole -- to northern states, such as New York, where slavery had been outlawed, Grier-Key said.

“When we think about the north star, Polaris, this was a star that they knew didn’t change," Grier-Key said. “The North Star stood for a symbol of freedom, a symbol of hope, and it was the guiding light for most of the people on the Underground Railroad.”

The role of celestial navigation in African Americans' quest for freedom is the subject of a talk Friday at 5:15 p.m., led by Grier-Key and astronomer Jackie Faherty at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

Part of the museum's "TeenSci Cafe" series for adolescents, the talk will use the museum's Hayden Planetarium to re-create the terrifying path taken by tens of thousands of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad from the late 18th century until approximately the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

The program is free and open to anyone, museum officials said. To register, go to the museum website, amnh.org/calendar/star-navigation-black-freedom-seekers.

Faherty, senior scientist in the natural history museum's astrophysics department, said the planetarium's projections will be calibrated to show exactly what the night sky would have looked like on a specific date when the Underground Railroad was ferrying its "passengers" to their new homes. Special effects will replicate the sounds of travelers walking through desolate woods, she said. 

“We don’t necessarily want to scare people, but we want people to understand what the moments of anxiety might have felt like,” she told Newsday. 

Nick Martinez, the museum's assistant director of youth initiatives, said the program was designed as "an opportunity for students to not only understand science, but to understand the connection between science, technology and culture.

“Lots of people look to the stars. This particular story [is about] … looking to the stars for a glimmer of hope.”

Historian Georgette Grier-Key at the Whaling Museum and Education Center in...

Historian Georgette Grier-Key at the Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, where she curated a current exhibit exploring the role of African Americans in the whaling industry. Behind her is a display featuring prominent Black Americans inducted into the Whaling Hall of Fame at the Cold Spring museum. Credit: Rick Kopstein

Grier-Key spoke to Newsday on Tuesday at the Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, where she curated a current exhibit exploring the role of African Americans in the whaling industry. The two-year exhibit runs through December 2024.

Whaling was just one of the 19th century industries that used astronomy as part of its work, Grier-Key said, adding that Tubman used her navigational acumen as a Union spy to plan raids during the Civil War.

“The moon and the sun and the cycles of the Earth was something that survived with them through the slave trade, so they were able to continuously use that even in their escape to freedom," Grier-Key said. 

But she said 21st century students, including Black children, seem to have lost part of the heritage that helped early Americans navigate the seas -- and aided African Americans fleeing slavery.

She said she hopes programs like the one at the Museum of Natural History will help nurture a greater appreciation of the wonders of the night sky.

“One of the things [about] living out here on Long Island, there’s some places you can’t see the stars because there’s so much light," she said. "It makes it a shame that we can’t be connected to the stars, which have been so important to us.”

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