OLEAN — Sarah Johnson came to Olean in 1833.

A runaway slave, Johnson was befriended by Dr. Andrew Mead, who taught her how to be a midwife.

And Johnson became one of the most well-known and best-loved people in Olean.

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“She wound up being responsible for a lot of births, including many of the ancestors of people who live here now,” Della Moore, director of the African American Center for Cultural Development, said. “She was an icon at the time.”

On Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m., Moore will take on the role of "avatar," as she describes it, playing Johnson so that the public will have the opportunity to converse and have tea with the Olean legend. The event, a fundraiser for the center, will be at the Fannie Bartlett House, 302 Laurens St.

Moore intends to "walk around and talk about her life and how things were in Olean, and answer questions afterward."

And, she added, “The tea will be served in cups and saucers, similar to what it would have been served in during Johnson’s time.”

Johnson was in her early teen years when she arrived in Olean; in 1850, she became the first woman to be deeded a house in the city.

When Johnson passed away in 1905, her services were held at the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Olean.

“They said it was the largest funeral ever at the facility,” Moore said. “She was then buried in a Protestant cemetery in Allegany.”

In the 1970s, the Bartlett House was the site for a three-act play about Johnson’s life. Titled “North to Freedom,” each act focused on a different stage of Johnson's life, and each was staged on a different floor in the three-story house.

Moore said that Sunday's tea-and-conversation event will not only be important for learning about the life of Sarah Johnson but also the history of Olean.

“Any time I’ve taught, I urge young people to talk to their parents and grandparents," Moore said. “Don’t talk to them with your iPhone in your hand. Listen to them. It is very important to know your history. 

“If you don’t, you’re like a tree with no roots.”

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