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For more than a decade, archaeologist Dr. Cheryl LaRoche has been researching and physically exploring the landscapes of 18th and 19th century free Black communities, their churches, cemeteries and institutions, and their relationship to the Underground Railroad.
She is a historical and archaeological consultant who combines law, history, oral history, archaeology, geography, and material culture to define nineteenth century African American cultural landscapes and its relationship to escape from slavery. She often works at the sometimes contentious interface between the public and scholars, professionals and municipalities.
She has physically walked historic landscapes from New Hampshire to Missouri to Canada. Her first book Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance was published at the beginning of 2014 by the University of Illinois Press. In 2011, The Society for Historical Archaeology awarded LaRoche the John L. Cotter Award for her exemplary work in bringing a multidisciplinary approach to the study of African American archaeology.
Dr. LaRoche teaches in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lectures on a wide range of historical topics; her work has taken her across the country, from New England to the banks of the Mississippi River and beyond. She has consulted for the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, the African Meeting House in Boston and Nantucket, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore, and a number of other historical sites and projects. She has worked for cultural resource firms such as URS Corporation and John Milner Associates. She was the cultural heritage specialist for the President’s House archaeological site for URS and the National Park Service in Philadelphia. Most recently she served as a project historian for the Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. LaRoche was one of the authors of the National Significance of the Harriet Tubman Historic Area for the National Park Service and she was the lead author for “Resistance to Slavery in Maryland: Strategies for Freedom” for the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service. She worked as an archaeological conservator for the African Burial Ground Project in New York City where she was responsible for conserving the grave goods from the burials.
In this enlightening study, Dr. Cheryl LaRoche employs the tools of archaeology to uncover a new historical perspective on the Underground Railroad. Unlike previous histories, which concentrated on frightened fugitive slaves and their benevolent abolitionist accomplices, LaRoche focuses instead on free African American communities, the crucial help they provided to individuals fleeing slavery, and the terrain where those flights to freedom occurred. Exploring the religious and fraternal institutions at the heart of these free African American communities, LaRoche demonstrates how the AME and Baptist churches and Prince Hall Masons, in addition to Quakers, provided both physical and social structures that fostered escape from slavery.
Cheryl LaRoche worked with Time Team America on PBS and the Josiah Henson project in Montgomery County, MD using archaeology to bring to light a new interpretation of Josiah Henson. Henson’s narrative, The Life of Josiah Henson, was long thought to have been the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stow’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ArchaeologistLaRoche, who usually works on and in the ground, takes to the air with the show's producer to interpret the totality of Henson’s world.
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