The Film:
About the Participants


Safe Harbor is narrated by Charlotte Blake Alston, a Philadelphia-based African American storyteller.  Her strong, steady voice is like a lantern in the darkness, bringing clarity to a legend that was lost over time.  A recipient of the prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts (1994) and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Artist of the Year Award (1997), Charlotte brings stories and songs to festivals, schools, universities, museums, libraries and performing arts centers throughout the United States and Canada.  She performs regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra, hosts Carnegie Hall’s preschool concert series and has been a featured artist on the Carnegie Hall Family Concert Series in New York since 1996.


Charles Kennedy Jr. created orchestrations for the original score and directed music production.  Spirituals arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, a turn-of-the-century composer whose grandfather was a former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad, together with other traditional songs, provide a rich layer of storytelling throughout the program.  Kennedy, who also serves as the character voice for Harry T. Burleigh, earned his master’s degree in vocal performance from Fredonia State University in New York.  He authored and produced a solo musical drama, Deep River, the Burleigh Legacy, and is currently touring with his dinner theatre program, From Abolition to Freedom. 


Charles L. Blockson, whose great-grandfather, an enslaved African, escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad, is a preeminent historian, lecturer and author of several groundbreaking books about the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.  He is co-founder of the African History Museum in Philadelphia and founding member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Black History Advisory Committee.  As chair of the National Underground Railroad Advisory Committee, he worked to bring about the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act in 1998.  The Act instructed the National Park Service to partner with community groups to develop interpretive programs that would tell a richer, better-connected story of America’s first civil rights movement.  The producers spent many hours in the Charles L. Blockson collection housed at Temple University, one of the nation’s leading research facilities for the study of history and culture of people of African descent.

Atty. John Burt, a Pittsburgh historian and abolitionist tour guide, provided context on larger social issues surrounding the Underground Railroad.  A consummate storyteller, he dramatized critical turning points in the anti-slavery movement and contributed to a special Pittsburgh segment for the documentary’s companion web site and DVD.  He is an adjunct professor in the Political Science Department at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh and serves as a member of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Commonwealth Speakers program.  Atty. Burt is the author of numerous articles and professional papers, many of them about peace and justice.  In May, 2000 he received an award from the Pennsylvania Bar Association for outstanding pro bono legal work.

Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. is a Professor of Art and Art History at Howard University and Author of Hidden in Plain View:  A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. An accomplished quilter, he has demonstrated quilting techniques at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum.  Dr. Dobard discussed the importance of verbal and non-verbal symbols in African-American culture and encouraged the preservation of stories passed down through generations.  He describes the secret codes hidden in quilts on the companion DVD. 

John Louis Ford, historian and School Programs Manager at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, is an passionate collector of primary documents and African objects.  In addition to developing programs and exhibits on the Underground Railroad, he lectures widely on contemporary issues and social history.  Ford is an adjunct professor of African and African-American history at the Community College of Allegheny County and serves on the advisory board for the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.  He was a three-time award-winning talk show host for WCXJ AM Radio in Pittsburgh.

David Frew, Ph.D., was recently appointed Executive Director of the Erie County Historical Society and Museums after a distinguished career in teaching and administration at Gannon University.  An avid sailor and an author with more than 20 books and 100 articles to his credit, his publications run the gamut in popular magazines such as Cruising World and Sail.  His books on maritime history of Central Lake Erie have won regional and national awards.

Roland Barksdale Hall, Mercer County, Pennsylvania historian and author of Freedom Road Revisited: Communities of Sanctuary in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, reveals new information about free black communities and their role in the Underground Railroad.  He quietly raises an early story of what could be considered reparations within the segment on “The Promised Land.”

LeRoy T. Hopkins, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Foreign Languages at Millersville State University and a founding member of the Black History Advisory Committee of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.   Dr. Hopkins offered commentary on gradual abolition and role of black church and suggests parallels for doing what’s right in today’s society.

James Oliver Horton, Ph.D., historian and professor at George Washington University, is also director of the Afro-American Communities Project for the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.  He served on the White House Millennium Council “Save America’s Treasures” project and is an advisor to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Dr. Horton is the author of more than nine books, including In Hope of Liberty, press nominee for the Pulitzer Prize.  His exceptional interview provides insight on the value of freedom, inter-racial cooperation and civic responsibility.

Karen James, an historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, has been documenting the lives of African Americans in Pennsylvania for more than a decade.  She is the author of “Finding the History among Us,” in Journey from Jerusalem, and coauthor of “Digging up Bones:  African Americans in Erie, 1800-1830,” published in The Journal of Erie Studies.  Through persistent research and public presentations, Karen is discovering new evidence of free black communities and their role in the Underground Railroad.  She is organizing a statewide network dedicated to Underground Railroad documentation and programming.

W. Thomas Mainwaring, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Washington and Jefferson University, has lectured widely on the subject of the Underground Railroad, including presentations on “The Mythology of the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania,” and  “Abandoned Tracks:  the Underground Railroad in Washington County.”  Dr. Mainwaring provided behind the scenes consultation and script review.  

Diane Miller, National Coordinator of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom for the National Park Service, provided commentary on the importance of historic preservation.  Miller speaks from experience, having worked closely with the National Register of Historic Places and state historic preservation offices since 1984.  She holds dual bachelor’s degrees in history and anthropology, and a master’s degree in history with a focus in African American history.

Captain Walter Rybka speaks from experience when he describes the life of a sailor aboard a nineteenth century sailing vessel.  The Senior Captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara and Program Director for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Erie Maritime Museum, he has been a shipmaster for many years, specializing in the operation and preservation of historic sailing vessels. Even after managing sailing programs in Texas, California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, he considers himself both a student and teacher of traditional maritime skills. 

Loren Schweninger, Ph.D. is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and co-author with John Hope Franklin, of Runaway Slaves, Winner of the 2000 Lincoln Prize.  Director and editor of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, he shared groundbreaking research on the nature of resistance to slavery and helped the producers interpret primary documents.

Jean E. Snyder, Ph.D., a professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, has focused on the life and works of African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh and the American art song for more than a decade.  Her publications include essays on Burleigh in the International Dictionary of Black Composers, 1999; and "'A Great and Noble School of Music':  Dvorak, Burleigh and the African-American Spiritual," in Dvorak in America, 1892-1895, ed. John Tibbetts, 1993.  She is currently preparing her book on Burleigh for publication.  Jean’s commentary on the spirituals is a special feature found only on the Safe Harbor DVD and companion web site.

Tracey Weis, Ph.D., Professor of History at Millersville State University, assisted the producers in developing related multi-media content for schools.  Dr. Weis is coordinating the American Social History Project at Millersville University, one of six regional centers in the United States selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop multi-media instruction in the humanities.

Greg Wilson, an Underground Railroad historian and author of A Sojourner’s Sketch of Sugar Grove, is the descendant of abolitionists.  His family letters, diaries, photographs and scrapbooks provide a rare, first-hand account of the Underground Railroad.


Main Street Media, Inc.
For more than 25 years, Lisa and Rich Gensheimer have worked as researchers, writers, videographers and editors for both print publications and broadcast-quality video programs. Known for their creative energy, resourcefulness and dependability, this husband-and-wife team has completed hundreds of productions on time and on budget for corporations, foundations and non-profit organizations. 

The Gensheimers share a respect for the past and an interest in producing shows that help diverse audiences learn from local and regional history.  Ida Tarbell:  All in the Day’s Work is currently airing on 60 public television stations across the country and earned a media award from the Erie County Historical Society and Museums in 2001; The Rise and Fall of a Tin Toy Dynasty:  A History of the Marx Toy Company, was a 1993 media award recipient and continues to be popular 10 years after it was completed for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network; a program produced for Union City Memorial Hospital’s 75th Anniversary, which explored the importance of rural hospitals, earned a local preservation award in 2001.   The Gensheimers recently completed a living history program for the Battles Museums of Rural Life in Girard, a Civil War era farm that includes 130 acres of farmland and woods and two houses.

Safe Harbor, a story about the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania, was released in February, 2003. The project includes a one-hour documentary for national distribution on public television, a web site featuring an online teacher guide, and a DVD for schools, museums and libraries.

Their next documentary, already in production, is Tracks Across the Sky, a program about the Kinzua Viaduct, a National Historic Site and Civil Engineering Landmark.


Mike Sparks is an accomplished producer, director and editor, having worked in the video production business since 1982.   He was production manager for a communications center and supervised the design and building of a new independent UHF television station where he was responsible for on-air operations, satellite acquisitions, studio and remote production.  He was production manager and chief editor at Parrot Productions before joining the corporate communications department of a major insurance company in 1992.  He currently serves as the company’s producer, director/photographer, off-line and on-line editor for innovative video and DVD projects. 

In his “off” time, Mike teams up with Main Street Media to produce documentaries and multi-media programming.  He has studied “Electronic Cinematography” and “Directing Corporate Video” at the International Film and Television Workshops in Rockport Maine.  A recipient of the level II editor certification from the National Institute for the Study of Digital Media (NISDM), he is one of only 14 people in the world who have been granted the NISDM’s Media 100 training certification.