Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

Underground Railroad: Seward House

While recently investigating the dismal record of the more-or-less defunct Amistad Commission that was the subject of two posts, I came across the Underground Railroad on the website of the NYSOPRHP. That subject was a topic of an earlier post on March 6, 2014, Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail about efforts in Manhattan to create a freedom trail.

The New York State Freedom Trail today is perhaps even less well-known than the New York State Amistad Commission. It began as a state project with similar high hopes and followed the same trajectory to substandard results.

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.

There was an Underground Railroad traveling exhibit “Journey to the North: New York’s Freedom Trail” which could be borrowed by contacting Cordell Reaves who does still work at the OPRHP. There were hundreds of sites identified. There was a commission which was to issue annual reports to the Board of Regents. The State Education Department supported it unlike with the future Amistad Commission. So what happened? Where are these reports? What action has been taken?

The regulations which is still on the books states:

§ 233-b. New York state freedom trail commission. 1. a. There is hereby established within the department [of Education] the New  York state freedom trail commission. The commission shall consist of  twelve members, to be appointed as follows: three members to be  appointed by the  governor, three members to be appointed by the board of regents, two members to be appointed  by  the temporary president of the senate, one member to be appointed by the minority leader of  the senate, two members to be appointed by the speaker of the assembly, and one member to be appointed by the minority leader of the assembly. Such members shall be representative of  academic or public historians, corporations, foundations, historical societies, civic organizations, and religious denominations. In addition, the following state officers, or their designees, shall serve as members of the commission: the commissioner of education, the head of the state museum, the head of the state archives, the head of the office of state history, the commissioner of economic development, the head of the state tourism advisory council and the commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation.

Impressive group isn’t it? Assemblyman Englebright has gotten nowhere with his attempt to create a state history committee that brings together precisely these state organizations and here the regulation does that but only for the Underground Railroad.

Just as the Department of Education was supposed to provide the support for the Amistad Commission, the OPRHP was to for the Underground Railroad Commission. There was to be a master plan including “sponsoring commemorations, linkages, seminars and public forum[s].” There were to be annual reports for five years beginning no later than 1999 so perhaps it was intended to die in 2004 even though it was never repealed.

Clearly nothing happened afterwards but did anything happen even after the regulation went into effect? A FOIL request in 2016 to the State Education Department was forwarded to the State Historian and produced the following response:

The New York State Museum History Office has no records pertaining to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission. I am under the impression that the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation were involved with this commission. Also note that there is a published book on the commission that may be helpful: New York State Freedom Trail Program Study: Report to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1999.

That report was initiated in 1997. I have a copy of it as I attended a meeting when it was later released. It is not one of the annual reports required by the regulation. The answer as to what happened after the regulation went into effect appears to be that the Freedom Commission like the Amistad Commision like the Heritage Areas like the Path through History was a project of regulations and press releases but devoid of substance.

So let’s see what is going on now. I started with the Parks website. Since Parks was the designated support department, that’s where the website ended up. I clicked on

Discover the many important historic sites, museums and interpretive centers related to Underground Railroad, slavery and anti-slavery themes in New York State which took me to a non-New York State government website. The map contained many hotspots presumably where underground railroad sites are to be located. I selected the Albany flag. I did so because Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, co-founders of The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence and The Underground Railroad History Project in the Capital Region have participated in IHARE Teacherhostels/ Historyhostels, I have been to the Residence with and without teachers, I see them at various conferences, and it received at $70,000 grant in the 2015 REDC Awards announced last December. I have attended their annual conference but it is not held on the Path through History weekend nor is the one in Peterboro. As you might suspect given this buildup when I clicked on the Albany flag a blank inset box appeared. There was no information at all about any underground railroad site in Albany, just a flag indicating there was. It made it look like the project simply had been abandoned in mid-stream.

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

Paul Stewart did write about the residence:

In a similar spirit, the site doesn’t feel monumental—it feels intimate—and it doesn’t act like a traditional museum—it functions as a center for outreach and generates conversation about a history that continues to demonstrate its relevance as part of a lineage of struggle that can easily be tied to the aims of Martin Luther King, and, in our contemporary world, Black Lives Matter.

But not on the Parks website. Sorry Paul, those black lives don’t matter there.

Then in 2013, a change occurred. As reported in New York History Blog

New Map, App Feature NY Underground Railroad Sites

Federal and state partners have recently released a new online map and mobile app to help people explore New York State’s connection to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. The map includes sites, programs and tours that have been approved by the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program or the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.

The New York sites were now part of a national effort led by the National Park Service.

Ruth Pierpont, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation at OPRHP said in a statement issued to the press: “We are happy to partner with the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor and I Love New York in making this user-friendly map available to promote an understanding of this important, and still under-recognized, aspect of the history of our state.”

This map was available on an app and on the web. So now there were two New York maps of underground railroad sites, one at NYSOPRHP and one which can be accessed through the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor if it occurs to someone that for the purposes of the underground railroad in the entire state of New York the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor website is the place to go.

On that map, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence can be located by clicking on one of the stars in the Albany region. The website link for the Residence takes you to “Body and Home Improvement” which asks why you should hire a water damage restoration company, the advantages of metal roofing, and Healthy Meal Prep Options: Lemon Pepper Chicken. Keeping links up-to-date can be a challenge especially if no one is responsible for doing it.

imageimage1

Images from website directed to by New York State Network to Freedom -Underground Railroad

Note: The error on the web link has been corrected – “Note: ugrworkshop.com was once associated with the underground workshop. This website is not affiliated in any way with its previous owners.”

I then decided to try the star for the First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie where I know the Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery Project meets. Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College, one of the founders, did speak to teachers in a IHARE program and IHARE once helped fund a stop of the Amistad replica in Poughkeepsie. The click on the website link from the map took me to “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Finally, I tried the one site in Westchester where I live. It is for Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow which also has participated in IHARE programs. I was a little surprised to see it on an Underground Railroad site since it was Loyalist property that was confiscated after the American Revolution and didn’t exist in the 1800s. The historic site has focused on runaway slave ads from the time slavery was legal in New York and it wasn’t part of the Underground Railroad movement. In this case the link from the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor did work. When I reached the Philipsburg Manor website I did a search on “Underground Railroad” and found nothing which is to be expected.

In case you were wondering, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence is not on the Path through History website either. This makes sense since it doesn’t mean the qualifications of I Love NY for a tourist site regardless of its listing on the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor map.

There is more that could be written about the New York State Freedom Trail/Underground Railroad Heritage trail with its defunct commission, no staff, inadequate websites, and the lack of support for conferences, public forums, and teacher programs but the point should be clear. Unfunded, dysfunctional, silo organized history projects are standard operating procedure in New York State. Although black lives don’t matter in New York State history it’s not because the State is racist, it is because the State’s ineptitude occurs on an equal opportunity basis.

11 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

  1. Thank you very much Mr. Feinman for this article. This is a real shame. Where I live in Montgomery County, I’ve been told by some of the locals that there are several places here in my community of Palatine Bridge, N.Y. also known as Stone Arabia -where slavery existed and also I was shown a home where slaves were allowed to hide during the height of Abolitionists working to help free slaves. I was also given a tour of a home where a slave girl worked and died, etc. The fact that such important history and work has been left to just fade into the shadows is a real shame. I am a folkartist that paints, quilts and do collage work about the history of slavery, abolition and freedom. I want to help people remember the stories about my ancestors who suffered, died and untimately obtained freedom as a result of not giving up, prayer, hard work and the kindness and mercy of many American Whites, Religious Quakers and Freed Blacks who worked tirelessly to see Slaves Escape Slavery to an Uneasy Freedom. I would love to speak with you Mr. Fineman in the hopes that just maybe I can do something to promote the stories of Slavery, Abolition and Freedom here in Upstate, N.Y. Montgomery County. Thank you.

  2. Dear Mr. Feinman,

    Many thanks for your illuminating article. Please tell me what I and others can do to help rectify this shameful and outrageous situation. I am the President of the Friends of the Douglaston/Little Neck Community Library (Queens, New York City), and we Friends have had an ongoing African American history and culture lecture and performance series with our partner, the award-winning program Cultural Caravan TV (www.ccptv.org), produced by its Founder and Executive Director, Louise Dente, and often featuring discussions led by Dr. William Seraile, Professor Emeritus, African and African American Studies, Lehman College (City University of NY). Cultural Caravan TV can be viewed every Sunday at 5:30 pm on, among other channels, Channel 25 (Queens Time Warner Cable). We Friends of D/LN Library and CCPTV are very committed to the dissemination of the history and culture of people of African descent. The Underground Railroad in New York State is perhaps one of the few redeeming episodes in the history of a state whose finance and trade capital supported and profited from slavery. It is noteworthy that many fugitive slaves, including Frederick Douglass, did not linger in New York City because of fear of the slave-catchers who trolled freely on our streets. Your article is a definite call to action. Please tell us how we can help. Perhaps we can draft a petition on change.org or some other online petition service, or start something on Facebook or Twitter. Since you have researched this shameful situation, I would appreciate any advice on what you deem to be the best and most effective ways of correcting this outrage.

    Many thanks again for alerting us to this dreadful situation.

    Sincerely,

    Arline Abdalian
    President
    Friends of the Douglaston/Little Neck Community Library
    http://www.queenslibrary.org/Douglaston
    abdar7@gmail.com

  3. While there’s no denying the facts Peter Feinman has assembled here, there are sites and individuals attending to this subject. Peter mentions The Underground Railroad History Project in the Capital Region (http://undergroundrailroadhistory.org/) — they have activities and programs almost every week. Here are just a few:

    * Jay Heritage Center (http://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/39/details.aspx) has a dramatic program in addition to ongoing interpretation.

    * I See Freedom, an interdisciplinary upper ES unit based on the journals of Mount Gulian gardener James F. Brown, http://lessons.teachingthehudsonvalley.org/component/option,com_units/Itemid,12/unit_id,61/

    * The Missing Chapter: Untold Stories of the African American Experience in the Hudson Valley, online exhibit, 10 lessons, and searchable collection of manuscripts and photos, http://www.hrvh.org/exhibit/aa07/

    * Sing to Freedom: Teaching Music & the Underground Railroad, is 34 pp of learning activities developed by New Yorkers Kim and Reggie Harris in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, http://www.teachingthehudsonvalley.org/wp-content/uploads/sing_to_freedom_.pdf

    * Voyage to Albany: A Living History Program has at least two lessons addressing the underground RR, http://lessons.teachingthehudsonvalley.org/component/option,com_units/Itemid,12/unit_id,20/

  4. One would think the resting place of abolitionist John Brown, located in the town of North Elba, in Essex County N.Y. would be mentioned.

  5. The Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad site is at 339 West 29th St., bet. 8th & 9th Ave. in New York City. It is the only documented and landmarked underground railroad site in the borough of Manhattan. There is a church in Brooklyn Heights, of the Pilgrim, where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother was the minister; this is landmarked. See the books by Tom Calarco for photos and descriptions of other Underground Railroad sites in New York City and New York State.

    Julie M. Finch, co chair with Fern Luskin,
    Friends of Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad site &
    Lamartine Pl. Historic District

  6. PS we are on Facebook, Friends of Gibbons Underground Railroad site.

    Thank you so much for this blog.

  7. Peter,
    YES THEY DO! Come and Celebrate Juneteenth with us!
    Date: Saturday June 18, 2016
    Time: 1:00 PM
    Where: 39 Clinton St, Village of Haverstraw,
    Please join us and see what these very dedicated and talented residents and an inspired Mayor can do –
    I am very fortunate to be invited to work with Mayor Kohut of the Village of Haverstraw and the “Haverstraw African American Connection, HAAC”, founder Virginia (Ginny) Norfleet, who will be sponsoring the Village’s very first Juneteenth event (to be annual). To honor African American’s ancestry, history, achievements and struggles. It is said that this is the Town whose bricks built Manhattan. From slavery to the great migration from the south to the brickyards in the north the contributions of the African Americans must be recognized.
    In our research, Lord Cornbury’s 1702 census showed 33 slaves in “Orange County” (which we were until 1798). In the 1790 census there were 238 slaves in the Town of Haverstraw. We are still working on how the escaped slaves working with Nyack’s underground railroad got to Poughkeepsie and missed the Towns of Haverstraw, Grassy Point and Stony Point.
    We have authenticated a cornerstone brick from the “Haverstraw African Methodist Episcopal Bethel Church” , 39 Clinton St. organized on June 22, 1846, sixteen years prior to the start of the Civil War. The property is on the south western edge of what was known as the Haverstraw Brickyards, prior to the landslide in 1906. The brickyards are rich in African American history.
    Some interesting facts we have uncovered:
    In the discussion of Jazz,
    “Leonard Feather, an influential jazz writer “ recorded an interview with the early New York stride pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith that he modeled on the LARKIN, Lomax/Morton interviews. At one point Feather asked Smith where jazz began. The Lion confidently answered that “jazz was first played in the brickyards of Haverstraw.”
    Our own Ms. Norfleet’s Grandfather Cleo Crawford, recognized for his contributions to early African American Art, “They Taught Themselves:” Sidney Janis (Christmas, 1937, displayed in the Entienne Gallery Manhattan).
    Just to name a few,
    Throughout Haverstraw’s 400th celebration we have worked with our children to show them the importance of their heritage. We will be dedicating the Village’s African American Park (at the foot of Clinton St) as well as our first Juneteenth, I hope all will come and celebrate FREEDOM with us.
    This is our opportunity to document the rich contributions of the African Americans. We invite you to help us share our story and make sure our culture, historical accomplishments and contributions both to Haverstraw and New York State are not forgotten.
    The Mission of the “ Haverstraw African American Connection, HAAC” is to research, recover, preserve and teach the rich culture and contributions of African American’s with emphasis on the African American people of Haverstraw N.Y.
    Our Vision is that through public outreach and dialog, exhibits and other community initiatives we will promote knowledge, acceptance and appreciation of our past and honor it. Will you partner with us by attending, sharing and or contributing to our journey, which will Engage the present and improve it, create our future and accomplish it.
    Please feel free to call with any questions, I can be reached at – 845-942-5030, or Ginny 914-414-0482, We look forward to hearing from you,

  8. For your information, Cayuga, Wayne, Seneca, Onondaga counties all studied and published underground railroad discoveries from their area with the assistance of Judy Wellman. I worked on the one for Cayuga County while I was the Cayuga County Historian. Wellman may have taken on more counties since then. The Seward House presentation was from the one conducted in Cayuga County. Sheila Tucker, former Cayuga County historian and present Fleming Town Historian.

  9. Just read you fine article criticizing the power that be for their obvious political treatments of the Amistad and Freedom Trail Commissions.
    How about another one pointing out that due to state inaction the sites themselves have organized into a Underground Railroad Consortium which will pursue the kind of agenda thy should have pursued. Perhaps the state should contract with that consortium to provide what they seem uninterested in.
    Thanks,
    Paul

  10. Hello Peter – I write from the Cooperstown Graduate Program a few hours upstate from where you are. As it turns out, the traveling exhibition you reference is our work and last semester our students did a comprehensive study with recommendations for the Harriet Myers residence in Albany. I wonder if there might be a way to engage our students in efforts that would better fulfill the unrealized intentions you outline below. What are your initial thoughts on this?
    Thanks,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.