More than 150 years ago, a young black slave escaped to freedom through the Pacific Northwest’s version of the Underground Railroad, but was quickly forgotten. Now, people are finally starting to learn his story.
An award-winning composer and the Newport High School symphony orchestra presented the original piece “Free Boy: Secret Voyage” on Feb. 17 at the All-Northwest Music Educators Conference. The work was based on the life of Charles Mitchell, a 13-year-old boy who stowed away on a ship heading for Canada, enduring the rough seas and a subsequent legal battle before eventually getting his freedom.
“I mean, who the heck knew the Pacific Northwest had an Underground Railroad?” Newport High School orchestra teacher Christine Gero said.
As a part of her plan for the school’s orchestra this year, Gero had decided to work with a living composer and create a piece of music with a Pacific Northwest hero as inspiration. While scouring the internet for inspiration late one night, Gero stumbled upon local authors and historians Judith M. Bentley and Lorraine McConaghy’s nonfiction book “Free Boy.”
She immediately knew it was the perfect source material for her project.
“I wanted diversity to be a part of the project in some way. I had asked my students a few months ago how many of them had not been born in the United States, and I was shocked when almost my entire class raised their hands,” Gero said. She added that as a Pacific Northwest transplant herself, it was great for she and her students to all learn something about the Pacific Northwest together.
Before Bentley and McConaghy wrote their book in 2013, there was very little information known about or discussion of Mitchell’s story. Most of the information was through Mitchell’s owner, politician and the territory’s first surveyor general, James Tilton.
“If not for this book, it felt like Charles would have just been a footnote in James’ story … To see what people are doing with this story is very exciting,” said Bentley, whose son and daughter both graduated from Newport High School and were involved in the school’s music program.
Gero applied for and received grants for the project through the Newport PTSA and the Bellevue Schools Foundation. She also connected with locally bred composer Tim Huling, who was an instructor at Bellevue College before joining the faculty at Berklee College of Music and composing scores for the film “Monster” and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I didn’t know anything about the railroad. But, I consider myself a storyteller through music, so I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of this project,” Huling said.
Over the last few months, Gero and her students worked with Huling on the original composition. The orchestra was able to give feedback and request changes or additions to the piece when Huling visited in December 2016 and again last week.
Gero said she wanted her students to learn about the process of composing a piece of music, remarking that it’s a rare experience for young musicians.
“It was really interesting in terms of the journey, seeing how the book translated to music … It was also cool to see what avenues there are for musicians,” Newport senior Malick Sere said.
Gero and Huling are planning on creating two more pieces based on “Free Boy.” All three compositions will be performed at the orchestra’s May 23 showcase.