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Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail

The wheel is about to be reinvented. In response to an earlier post on the State Tourism Advisory Council, Rosemary Vietor wrote the following comment:

Peter – Perhaps you saw the article in yesterday’s WSJ NY section on the underground railroad (not precise title) tourism sites proposed for Manhattan. It is an effort to link those sites (most of which no longer exist) into a walking tour. There has been for a number of years a similar effort in Flushing, the Flushing Freedom Mile. It links sites such as the Quaker Meeting House, Bowne House and others. There are markers so one can do this tour. Here is a great example of what might be done to increase history tourism – link both sites and others around the city. Why is this not done? It’s so obvious. As for Mystic Seaport, I can tell you from involvement there that CT has long recognized the importance of history and tourism and has devoted substantial funds to those efforts. New York seems indifferent at best. NY Culture.

Being the investigating reporter that I am, I pursued this lead and read the article “Freedom Trail Idea on Move in New York City: Activist Pushes to Commemorate City’s Place in the Abolitionist Movement” by Jennifer Maloney. Her article tells the tale of the efforts since 2007 of Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, to create a Freedom Trail commemorating the city’s role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

The effort became news when he found a donor, Jim Petrucci, a real-estate developer based in Asbury, NJ, to put up $180,000 in seed money. With that donation Morris is now doing what startups typically do with money to begin the process of bringing his vision to fruition. His models are the existing historical trails in other cities such as the most famous, Boston’s Freedom Trail. The article concludes on a positive note:

David Levering Lewis, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois and an adviser on the project, said it was surprising that it had come together based on the efforts of a single activist. “It just goes to show,” he said, “how much history depends on those who care enough about it to find it and explain it to the rest of us.”

Careful readers of The New York History Blog and/or longtime participants in the New York History community in general or specifically on the issue of slavery, will recognize the Freedom Trail legacy. When the Path through History project first emerged, I wrote about previous efforts to accomplish the same goals using similar incentives but with one difference: paths were called trails then…or sometimes routes. One such proposed route was the Freedom Trail.

“The New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 proposed the establishment of a Freedom Trail Commission to plan and implement a New York State Freedom Trail program to commemorate these acts of freedom and to foster public understanding of their significance in New York State history and heritage.”

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library led a one-year study of the issue. The result was a report issued in October, 1999 entitled New York State Freedom Trail Program Study. It contained among other things recommendations on tourism, education, preservation, and development. It included pages of sites throughout the state which could be included in the Freedom Trail, a narrative history, some lesson plans, bibliographic information, and names of people participating.

I received my copy of the study, which is the source of the information above, when I attended the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail Public Forum program on December 16, 2003, at the Martin E. Segal Theater, The Graduate Center (CUNY). Richard White-Smith, Executive Director of New York (the title sounds a little like one the Path project should have but doesn’t) made the opening comments.

Cordell Reaves, Coordinator of the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail, spoke on the grant program. He is with the NYSOPRHP and still involved in slave-related programs. The grant program referred to a $1,000,000 matching program announced by then Governor Pataki, the same amount current Governor Cuomo announced at the Path kickoff in 2012, but without the matching requirement. The purpose of the grant was to “facilitate a high quality visitor experience” according to the draft distributed at the public forum.

What ever happened to the Freedom Trail? What ever happened to the Path through History? Will anything ever be done at the state level or is everything up to dedicated locals including those who don’t even live in the state for New York to seriously embrace its own history and create the trails, routes, itineraries, and paths that can be offered to tour operators? These are some of the questions I have about what is really going on at the state level in behalf of cultural heritage tourism.


20 thoughts on “Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail

  1. Peter: At long last, the Village of Ossining is poised to launch a project called “Museum in the Streets” (MITS). It will consist of a series of numbered panels with archival photos and text that depict and briefly describe fifteen 19th century buildings and structures in this Village’s historic downtown district. The descriptive panels will be on or very proximate to these places. When they are in place (hopefully in the summer of 2015) they will enable people to take a free, self-guided walking tour of this district, on a 24/7 basis.
    The District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1978. However, with no signage to call attention to it, it was a hidden, unheralded and neglected community asset. MITS will be accompanied by a paper map that facilitates the walking tour and available at stores and other businesses to encourage patronage and if funds become available in the future, it will have an electronic narrated guide via cell phones.
    Although MITS funding did not come about because of New York State’s “Path Through History” program, it did get aid from the States’ Historic Preservation Office as well as from the Community Block Grant Development Fund and other sources. Ossining’s MITS was conceived by the Village’s Historic Preservation Commission with the assistance of the Ossining Historical Society Museum.

    1. That’s good news. It sounds a little like what Hastings-on-Hudson did with its signs in the street but without the new technology. Even though this was not done as part of the Path through History, it still is possible to create a Hudson River Path through History with a day in each of the rivertown communities and by working with Metro North.


  2. Is Cordell Reaves really involved in “slave-related programs,” as you describe them? Or,might other terms be used? This has to do with the issue of African-Americans’ “agency” in American history, a factor many historians have overlooked until recently.

    1. You raise a good point. Since the topic was freedom trails, the path people took from slavery to freedom, it was an easy choice but that doesn’t mean it was the best one.

  3. There is a group in Fishkill unearthing a known site. If there is anyone with knowledge of the Freedom Trail along present day Rt. 9 – Cold Spring/North Highlands, do be in touch.

    1. sister fern at the fern tree in peekskill(open sat. on s. divison st) has been giving underground rail rd tours

      it was said Robert Purdy traveled the trail escaping slavery in N>O> assisted by quakers to Scarsdale,ny

  4. And don’t forget the “upstate branches” of the Trail….
    among other sites that help document the movement in NY History.

    I do remember the statewide plan – they were supposed to have regional hearings about it – I even tried to submit a grant for a regional conference on the URR to some rural grants program in NY awhile back – because many of the communities in upstate involved in the movement were – and still are – rural – but the reviewers kaboshed it! Just as some federal reviewers kaboshed a proposal I submitted for an IMLS grant on the Erie Canal – said it wasn’t significant enough nationally….who are these people anyway who get to decide how our history gets told?!

    Heidi Bamford
    DHP Regional Archivist

    1. Heidi,

      Although there is no specific Freedom Trail project at the state-wide level, there is a Path through History. Despite its major shortcomings, it’s all that exists so perhaps we need to talk about Freedom Paths though History and submit grant requests through the REDC.

      I will be writing about lobbying and developing grassroot forces in future posts.

  5. Dear Mr.Feinman,

    This would be great! I go all around the country performing so it would be great to perform in my own back yard including as possible tour sites like the Lafern Josephs UGRR tours in Peekskill, New York and the May 18th 2014 “Pinkster” Celebration at the Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York, Sojurner Truths Trail in Kingston , New York (see Professor A.J.Williams Myers-SUNY New Paltz , or Professor Emeritus Carlton Mabee.)

    Peace and Balance,

    Carolyn Evans-Histodramatist
    AKA Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Cord.

  6. Peter,
    You and I communicated years ago about a possible dig at what might have been a slave burial site in Highland NY. That didn’t work out but I’m happy to say, it got me on your email list.

    I read with interest this latest message by you. I wonder if you know how I might obtain a copy of the study you refer to: New York State Freedom Trail Program Study.

    I’m eager to learn if any listed sites are in my part of the state. Thanks for any leads you can suggest.

    Donna Deeprose

    1. For Ulster County , Eagles Nest and Kingston Courthouse are listed as sites, Sojourner Truth as a person, and the Slave Conspiracy of 1775 and sale of Sojourner’s child as events. I didn’t see anything for Greene County.

      Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
      515 Malcolm X Blvd
      NY, NY 10037

      is listed as the preparer in 1999 of the New York State Freedom Trail Program Study report to the New York State freedom Trail Commission, an inter-agency commission which probably doesn’t exist anymore.

      I hope this helps.

  7. Hello, Peter,

    Thank you for this information. I thought the Freedom Trail legislation was about more than the history of NY slavery…..

    In addition to that history, I’m very interested in a NY Trail that includes NY women important in our history, and often left out….Anne Marbury Hutchinson, Sybil Ludington, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger just off the top of my head!

    Do you have any information about a broader approach for the Freedom Trail idea?



    Activist for Women’s Rights/Human Rights/Peace
    Coordinator, Annual Anne Hutchinson Birthday Celebrations
    Founder, Hutchinson River Restoration Project (HRRP)
    Director Emerita, Women’s Herstory Association

    1. I have been collecting data for a post on women in New York history but still have to get around to writing it. One difference between a possible trail for women is that the National Park Service would be more involved.

  8. yes i would like to get copy also. and i am interested in the highland burial site . have relatives in the rye aa burial ground

    info can be left at the fern tree south division st peekskill ny

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