Take a jour­ney along Ni­a­gara’s Un­der­ground Rail­road

And ex­plore the des­per­ate sto­ries of slaves who risked it all in jour­ney to free­dom

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - ANNE BOKMA

She’s the most cel­e­brated face of the Un­der­ground Rail­road — and it’s a face des­tined to be­come even more fa­mous since the U.S. Trea­sury an­nounced that Har­riet Tub­man will re­place Andrew Jack­son on the front of the $20 bill. Known as the “Moses of her peo­ple,” Tub­man, an es­caped slave from Mary­land, guided other fugi­tives to free­dom in Canada across a wooden sus­pen­sion bridge in Ni­a­gara Falls, of­ten by hid­ing them in fruit wag­ons and rail­road cat­tle cars.

Be­fore the con­struc­tion of the bridge in 1848, the only op­tion for run­away slaves was to cross the Ni­a­gara River by row­boat un­der the cover of night or by climb­ing aboard fer­ries and steam­boats op­er­ated by sym­pa­thetic cap­tains. Some risked their lives by swim­ming across the river at its calmer points or clung to pieces of wood in a des­per­ate at­tempt to make it to Canada, con­sid­ered the Promised Land.

Buf­falo-Ni­a­gara was a hot­bed of Un­der­ground Rail­road ac­tiv­ity from the early 1800s un­til 1865 when the Civil War out­lawed slav­ery. (Canada had al­ready banned the im­port­ing of slaves back in 1793.)

Fe­bru­ary’s Black His­tory Month is an ideal time to visit some of the sig­nif­i­cant sites of this net­work of se­cret routes, safe houses and hid­ing places that rep­re­sented the first racially-in­te­grated U.S. civil rights move­ment in which blacks and whites worked to­gether to ac­tively op­pose the fed­eral laws that con­doned slav­ery.

In Ni­a­gara Falls, the Ni­a­gara Arts & Cul­tural Cen­ter’s Free­dom Cross­ing: The Un­der­ground Rail­road in Greater Ni­a­gara, tells the story of the Un­der­ground Rail­road move­ment in Buf­falo-Ni­a­gara through his­toric pho­tos and ar­ti­facts.

In ad­di­tion to Tub­man and her fel­low fa­mous abo­li­tion­ist, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, you can learn about the lives of many lesser known, mostly anony­mous, “con­duc­tors,” who played a piv­otal role in help­ing an es­ti­mated 50,000 free­dom seek­ers es­cape to Canada.

Th­ese in­cluded the hun­dreds of African-Amer­i­cans who worked as cooks, wait­ers, drivers and porters at grand ho­tels such as the Cataract House, once the largest ho­tel in Ni­a­gara Falls. Th­ese ho­tel work­ers led dou­ble lives, serv­ing rich ho­tel guests — many of whom were plan­ta­tion own­ers, ac­com­pa­nied by their en­slaved maids and valets, who va­ca­tioned in Ni­a­gara Falls to get away from the op­pres­sive heat of the south­ern states — and then help­ing spirit those slaves into small row­boats lo­cated just a few blocks away at the base of the Amer­i­can Falls.

Canada was just a 15-minute cross­ing, but it was a dan­ger­ous ride since bounty hunters and fed­eral agents con­stantly pa­trolled the area.

Lo­cal safe houses are also high­lighted in the ex­hibit, in­clud­ing the McClew farm, now called Mur­phy’s Or­chards, where a hid­ing room un­der a trap door in the barn can still be viewed to­day.

Buf­falo and Ni­a­gara was a hot­bed of Un­der­ground Rail­road ac­tiv­ity from the early 1800s un­til 1865.

The ex­hibit also fea­tures the f amous im­age of “Gor­don,” a run­away slave with dozens of hor­rific welts on his back — the re­sult of whip­pings by his over­seer. This photo was mass pro­duced in the early 1860s and rec­og­nized as a sear­ing in­dict­ment of slav­ery,

In nearby Lewis­ton, N.Y. the Free­dom Cross­ing Mon­u­ment is a larger-than-life bronze sculp­ture that hon­ours the courage of fugi­tive slaves and de­picts a f am­ily of four be­ing loaded into a row­boat on the banks of the Ni­a­gara River by the town’s Un­der­ground Rail­road “sta­tion mas­ter,” Josiah Ty­ron. He served as the pas­tor at Lewis­ton’s First Pres­by­te­rian Church, also a safe haven for es­cap­ing slaves.

Buf­falo’s Brod­er­ick Park once housed the docks for the Black Rock Ferry, which was a key means of es­cape for fugi­tive slaves, es­pe­cially be­fore bridges were built over the Ni­a­gara River.

Also in Buf­falo, the Michi­gan Street African Amer­i­can Heritage Cor­ri­dor fea­tures a trio of sites with a sig­nif­i­cant African-Amer­i­can his­tory. The Michi­gan Street Bap­tist Church, one of the old­est black churches in the U.S., played a cen­tral role in the strug­gle to end slav­ery. Run­away slaves found safe har­bour here — a se­cret room hid­den by a stair­case at the back of the church can still be viewed. It was also an im­por­tant meet­ing place for abo­li­tion­ists and anti-lynch­ing ac­tivists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

The nearby Nash House Mu­seum, the el­e­gantly pre­served home of Rev. J. Ed­ward Nash, the pas­tor of the Michi­gan Street Bap­tist Church for 60 years, is billed as “the home where a com­mu­nity was built.” Nash, a found­ing mem­ber of the NAACP, en­sured his church was a fo­cal point of civil rights ac­tiv­ity at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

A short walk away is the re- nowned Col­ored Mu­si­cians Club, cel­e­brat­ing its 100th year. It was not only the union hall for black mu­si­cians at a time when unions were seg­re­gated, but also a favourite in­for­mal stop for jazz greats such as Dizzy Gille­spie, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Count Basie, Duke Elling­ton and Ella Fitzger­ald.

The mu­sic con­tin­ues to this day up­stairs on the sec­ond floor while the first floor is de­voted to a mu­seum with mul­ti­me­dia dis­plays and in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits that of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to learn the dif­fer­ence be­tween blues, swing, be­bop, rag­time, Big Band, boo­gie-woo­gie and New Or­leans jazz.

The Un­der­ground Rail­road was one of the most sig­nif­i­cant so­cial protest move­ments in Amer­i­can his­tory and this cel­e­brated route is about be fur­ther com­mem­o­rated with the open­ing next year of the $1 mil­lion Ni­a­gara Falls Un­der­ground Rail­road In­ter­pre­tive Cen­tre. It will be lo­cated in the old U.S. Cus­toms build­ing — right across the site where Tub­man once guided fugi­tive slaves to free­dom.

Sev­eral tour com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Moth­er­land Con­nex­tions, are avail­able to es­cort vis­i­tors to his­toric Un­der­ground Rail­road sites. The Ni­a­gara Falls Un­der­ground Rail- road Heritage Area or­ga­ni­za­tion also lists more than 25 key sites and has a self-guided driv­ing and walk­ing app for mo­bile phones: https://ni­a­garafall­sun­der­groundrail- road.on­cell.com/en/ home-36462.html


The sus­pen­sion bridge near Ni­a­gara Falls that Har­riet Tub­man used to spirit slaves across the bor­der into Canada.


The Free­dom Cross­ing mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing the Un­der­ground Rail­road in Lewis­ton N.Y. por­trays a fam­ily be­ing loaded into a boat to make the Ni­a­gara River cross­ing.


Im­age of African Amer­i­can wait­ers who played a key role in help­ing the slaves of south­ern ho­tel guests es­cape.


Ge­orge Scott, pres­i­dent and band leader at the Col­ored Mu­si­cians Club and Mu­seum.


Har­riet Tub­man

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