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State of New York State History

The Haunted History Trail versus the Underground Railroad in New York State

         Casper the Friendly Ghost 

After my post on the abysmal state of the state Underground Railroad effort, I received comments from around the state about the situation. Below are the highlights of some of what is going on at the grassroots level.

Buffalo (Erie County) – The Director of Library and Archives reported that she had created a UGRR page for Buffalo. After I forward the information to Judy Wellman, she put them in touch with the Niagara Falls UGRR group in the hopes of them forming a western New York contingent. On a personal note, during the NYSHA conference in Niagara Falls when Wallenda walked across the Falls, as Judy and I were walking to the park from the parking lot, she pointed out various buildings that had been locations for the Underground Railroad.

Cayuga, Wayne, Seneca, Onondaga counties all studied and published underground railroad discoveries from their area with the assistance of Judy Wellman. In a subsequent email from Judy, she added Oneida County to this list submitted by Cayuga County and the North Country.

Haverstraw (Rockland County) – will be celebrating its first Juneteenth this year. The village is investigating its own slavery history in the 18th century and working with neighboring Nyack on the Underground Railroad in the area.

Manhattan – private group attempting to develop an equivalent to Boston’s Freedom Trail focusing on the underground railroad especially in lower Manhattan.

Montgomery County – a private citizen posted a comment on New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in telling the story of slavery in the county.

Queens – The President of the Friends of the Douglaston/Little Neck Community Library posted a comment to New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in the telling the story of slavery in the borough.

SUNY Oneonta – Students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program last semester with recommendations for the Harriet Myers residence in Albany did a comprehensive study on the travelling exhibition that was part of the original Freedom Commission under Governor Pataki.  The college is interested in making the work of its students and the exhibition better known throughout the state.

My response was:

As you might expect, I favor Teacherhostels/Historyhostels [and attached an example of an underground railroad program for teachers in New Bedford, MA]. One recommendation is to create two-day (weekend) programs throughout the state featuring the NYSOPRHP traveling exhibition which your students have updated. Day one of the program would focus on content including the exhibit while day two would be based on field trips to the appropriate locations in your area. While the exhibit would make the circuit the speakers wouldn’t necessarily have to and could be drawn from local resources whenever possible. 

I have cced people from the North Country, Capital Region, Hudson Valley, New York, the Finger Lakes and western NY in addition to you in the Mohawk Valley who all might serve as regional hosts. I think there is more to be gained by announcing a statewide program than in doing things individually or waiting for the State to get its act together. I don’t know if it is too late for this summer or not but they also could be done during the school year. It might even bring in tourists if marketed properly.

A second suggestion is to present at various conferences such as the social studies councils and MANY.

Underground Railroad Consortium – private organization of 21 sites which incorporated in the fall of 2015. It recently met in conjunction with the Underground Railroad Project Conference at Russell Sage College. The consortium was organized in part to compensate for the lack of state leadership.

This list excludes the comments about New York State including those that are fit to print.

What are the lessons to be learned from these responses and my posts:

  1. There is no mechanism at present for people to share information about they are doing. Neither New York History Blog nor private emails to me can compensate for the lack of an effective statewide communication system. In theory the New York State Freedom Commission and/or Underground Railroad Heritage Trail at OPRHP could but as we all know there is no chance of that happening.
  2. There are incomplete and multiple different sources of information. With the NPS, NYSOPRHP, and private efforts, there is no one reliable comprehensive source for the locations of actual Underground Railroad sites and for debunking the false sites as well (a feature on the Buffalo site).
  3. The Underground Railroad Consortium represents a major step in the right direction. My impression is that the group was created by dedicated private individuals who are already involved in maintaining their own local sites and do not have the staff or funding to take on administering a statewide program.
  4. Judy Wellman is the key person in New York State at this time.

One should add that the same issues could be mentioned for other areas of New York State history such as the Women’s Suffrage centennial or the American Revolution. There is no racism here by New York State, when it comes to State history, the government is dysfunctional on an equal opportunity basis.

My recommendation is that as soon as the new state historian is hired in May, the Underground Railroad Consortium hold a meeting in Albany to discuss an Underground Railroad agenda. The Consortium should invite all the players from the defunct Freedom Commission including from

the state sphere: the NYS Archives, NYS Education Department, NYS Historian, NYS Library, NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, SUNY

the non-state public sphere: APHNYS, NYLA, NYSCSS

the private sphere: MANY, NYCH

as well as the grassroots members of the Consortium. And of course, the press like me, Bruce Dearstyne, and John Warren. The purpose of the meeting would be to determine

  1. an agenda of what needs to be done
  2. who is going to do it
  3. what resources are needed.

Waiting for hell to freeze over is not a viable option.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the Haunted History Trail, the subject of my post to New York History Blog on April 21, 2014, Can New York History Sites Compete with the Supernatural Sites?”

In my post, I reported speaking with Kelly Rapone of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce which serves as the County Tourist Department. She informed me of the collaborative effort among various county tourist departments to get this trail up and running. I was reminded of this project by a newspaper article dated May 1, 2016, just over two years later. The number of participating counties has increased from 12 to 31 with each contributing $1500 annually (Do they do that for paths through history?). So far this year, website visitors have requested over 22,000 guidebooks, almost ten times the number from 2013. Rapone uses Facebook and social media to promote the trail. There is a “come for the ghosts, stay for the history” attitude expressed by Paul Lear, Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego who reports an increase in attendance following the Fort’s appearance on the TV show Ghost Hunters. Spooky, isn’t it? Maybe I Love NY should hire Kelly to create paths through history for the Underground Railroad and other areas as well.

Tubman

Harriet Tubman (courtesy of NPS)

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