PLATTSBURGH - The name Lavinia Bell may not be as common as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, but her story is just as important.
According to North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association president Don Papson, Bell was a slave who escaped to freedom in Canada, passing through Rouses Point as she did so.
"She was born a free person in Washington D.C. and when she was a child she was kidnapped and sold into slavery," explained Papson. "Her story is really pretty awful because the man who owned her was extremely cruel."
Papson added Bell tried to escape at one point with her husband, but were caught and he was beat to death. At the time however, Bell was pregnant.
"She ran away again and she was pregnant and she gave birth to twins and one of the babies died," he explained, adding she was caught again after that.
"Then she ran away again. Her son was taken away from her," said Papson. "What is interesting, is every time she ran away, the man who owned her punished her more severely than he had before."
According to Papson, the wife of Bell's owner said "You need to follow the Northern Star or he's going to kill you."
From Texas, where Bell had been enslaved, she traveled the country finally making it to Rouses Point in the winter of 1861. There she met a man who helped her across the border into Montreal and brought her to a refugee family.
"She was extremely ill and so they called a doctor in and her story was on the front page of the newspapers in Montreal," said Papson. "That's how we know the story."
The story will now be reenacted for the public Friday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh's Krinovitz Recital Hall in Hawkins Hall. Actress Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux, who has portrayed Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, will play Bell in the world premier of "Never Give Up: The Story of Lavinia Bell."
Waddy-Thibodeaux first got in contact with Papson in 2009 after she heard NCUGRHA got the National Park Service to recognize the old steam boat landing in Rouses Point as an Underground Railroad site. The location is now where the Sportsman's Club is now located.
Papson and Waddy-Thibodeaux decided to collaborate and have Waddy-Thibodeaux write the play based on the historical information NCUGRHA was able to dig up.
"It's really one of our great stories for the Champlain line of the Underground Railroad," said Papson. "This is the most powerful story that we have of anyone that we know of that escaped through our area to Canada and it is an example of the good will on the part of the people up here."
Waddy-Thibodeaux will also be offering performance workshops for students at the SUNY Plattsburgh and Clinton Community College during her stay. On Feb. 12, she will be performing at the Negro Community Center in Montreal.
For more information, contact Papson at 561-0277 or e-mail NCUGRHA@aol.com.
"This is a universal story," said Papson. "No matter who is oppressed and where they are oppressed, a person will try to go where they can to live a better life. That's what she did, and people up here helped her."