Family’s Slave History Sparks Woman’s Creativity
For Sandra Burgette Miller, an amazing journey began with a question, “Why are we settling in Scranton?” That question, put years ago to her father, an ex-Air Force officer beginning civilian life again, prompted a simple answer: “That’s my home. That’s where I was raised.” However, it set off a chain of events that led to extensive research into her family history, to discovering imaginative skills she didn’t know she had and to a dramatic re-creation, in prose narrative, in poems and in artful photographs, of the world of her great-great-grandfather, a slave daring to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Sandra looks forward to meeting celebrated writer and activist Lorene Cary, who will receive the Distinguished Author Award at the University of Scranton on Oct. 13. Remarkably, Miller’s not-yet-published work seems to echo and extend Cary’s true life stories in “Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad.” After talking to older relatives and consulting records, Sandra discovered that Thomas Sumner had been a slave near Hagerstown, Maryland, but escaped in 1844. On a railroad car going north, he changed his last name to Burgette, a town he had passed, to make him harder to track for slave hunters. Finally, he began his new, free life in Waverly. He worked hard as a field laborer in order to get the right to own the land he worked and started a new family, which grew to 12 children. Records and recollections don’t reveal much about him, but one account provides a glimpse of his humor. Appearing as a witness in a court hearing about a domestic dispute between a couple called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, he was asked to describe what Mrs. Johnson was doing: “She was throwing stones at Mr. Johnson.” Question: “What was Mr. Johnson doing?” Answer: “Why sir, he was dodging them.” Burgette died before he owned his land outright, but his son, Benjamin, took over and became a landowner. Benjamin also had 12 children. From then on, the Burgette family has continued to expand and to make its mark in the world. What Sandra discovered about her ancestors affected her deeply and in some surprising ways. She began to dream about the slaves and the ex-slaves and when she woke up, it seemed that there were voices whispering, telling her to write their stories. When she did, poems emerged on paper, even though she never liked poetry nor read much of it. Her mind seemed to explode in a sudden creative period. She wanted to make the emotions and experiences in the poems visible and so, without any previous training, she turned to photography, persuading her children and other relatives to put on handmade costumes and pose in arranged settings, so that the pictures she took would bring to life the images from her imagination. Now those photographs, whether we see them in the manuscript containing the prose narrative and the poems, or in a series of large posters, convey what Sandra imagined, what she felt. They make us feel the desperate determination of a slave on the run, or the innocent charm of a beautiful child. How to explain the phenomenal, multidimensional work Sandra has produced? She says she was a rather lonely child, especially while her father was based in England, where the “color barrier” tended to separate her from other children. That’s when her imagination began to flourish; when it was raining, as it often did, it could seem to her that God protected her from the rain. She acknowledges influence from the hymns she heard in Bethel AME Church of Scranton, where her grandfather was a pastor. It seems clear that she is a naturally gifted, creative person, but those gifts might have remained underused and unappreciated. She has had a busy life outside of the arts. After graduation from Scranton Technical High School in 1980, she trained at the Baltimore Studio of Hair Design and pursued a professional career she still maintains. She married and raised 10 children. We should be grateful that the discovery of her family history triggered her imaginative powers and revealed her talents. Although she would like to make the unique family history she has created available to a wider audience, Sandra says she’s not sure she will write more poems or books. Perhaps the opportunity to talk with Lorene Cary, whose works include “The Price of a Child,” the story of a woman’s extended journey from slavery, will provide a fresh spark to Sandra’s imagination.