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State of New York State History

The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism

U.S. Civil Rights Trail

The South shall rise again. What can dysfunctional New York learn from the South on Civil Rights tourism?

By coincidence just prior to the awarding of the grants for 2017, a problem with the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) funding process was exposed in an article in the Travel Section of the Sunday New York Times (12/3/17). The problem directly relates to the shortcomings of the Empire State Development on precisely those two areas near and dear to the history community: funding and history tourism. The article is entitled “New Civil Rights Trails in Both South and North.” It describes the process whereby representatives from southern state tourism departments met two years ago at Georgia State University to begin the creation of what is called the nation’s first civil rights trail.

As part of that process, Lee Sentell, the Alabama state tourism director, noted that while many civil rights sites were thriving they were not connected to each other.

“No one had even done an inventory of civil rights landmarks. They saw themselves as one-offs and didn’t realize they were part of a network.”

If this sounds like exactly what the Underground Railroad sites in New York are going through today, it is because it is. Of course, the same could be said for American Revolution sites in the state, or War of 1812 sites, the Dutch sites, or the immigration sites, or the sites related to any of the themes in the I LoveNY Path through History project.

Faced with this problem of the lack of connectivity, these southern tourist directors then decided to do something about the situation. They collaboratively and cooperatively acted together to promote cultural heritage tourism in the area of civil rights [did we do that?].

1. They drew on research experts at the university [did we do that?].

2. They created a map linking the sites they researched including directions of how to get from one site to another [did we do that?].

3. They planned to officially launch the US Civil Rights Trail on January 1, the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln [and this in in the Confederacy! Did we publicly launch any individual paths through history?].

Four weeks later the launch date arrived and the trail is now up and running. The southern states chose the motto:

 What happened here changed the world.

4. The website will contain explanations of the importance of each site and feature interviews with relevant people to those sites [did we do that?].

5. The website will explain the connections as one site affects another [imagine knowing how one War of 1812 site relates to another!].

This website allows you to explore the destinations important to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as plan your journey to cities along the trail. On this site, you’ll find places to see and things to do at each destination. Plus, you’ll find in-depth explorations crafted to allow you to experience the destination or event in a more comprehensive way. Discover the trail. Discover the fight for civil rights. And make sure the true stories that changed history are never lost.

Some of these details resemble what the Path through History site does. But see how much more was accomplished in the grouping of sites such as those relating to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Emmett Till. See how the more detailed text provides a more enriching experience. The website is still new and naturally is experiencing growing pains but it is a conceptually more advanced model than New York chose to implement. One might wonder how is it that tourist people were able to develop a more meaningful website than one would expect from tourist experts.

The answer is quite simple. Contributing to this process was the cultural heritage consultant for the state department of economic development [we have marketing consultants but have you ever heard of a cultural heritage consultant or staff person in I LoveNY or the REDC? For a recent article on state spending of ads and to ad firms see $354 Million: How Much NY Spent on Tourism, Business Ads].

In other words, the tourist departments in the south realized that to develop a history-based website, they should consult with experts in history and not just spend money on marketing and advertising companies or erecting signs.

The NYT article did mention Black Heritage Tours in New York. It began operations in 2016. I met founder its Jennifer Tosch once at a presentation through a Dutch consulate program. Her Hudson Valley trip focuses on the Dutch-African experience. There was an I LoveNY familiarization tour for it. According to the website for 2018 there is a two-day tour Feb. 10-11. A full itinerary is not provided and the description of this February program is somewhat questionable:

Experience New York’s Fall Foliage starting in Harlem we’ll travel upstate through the Hudson River Valley to witness the brilliant transformation of the autumn leaves.

I suspect the description from a fall tour in 2017 was carried forward.

Imagine if New York was serious about wanting to promote its story in the Underground Railroad, what would it do? There is a grassroots effort with people like Judy Wellman, an annual conference in the Capital Region led by Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, and cultural heritage tour initiated by Lori Solomon of Akiba Travel. The next Underground Railroad conference will be March 8-10 in Albany but I don’t think tourism is part of the program.

This April will be the two-year anniversary of my post

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

The post examined the Freedom Trail established 1997, its defunct commission, and the various weird website links which have cropped up over the years. I ended in my usual delicate and tactful way that has endeared me to government officials:

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 [as required by its formation] 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 [i.e., all the themes identified in the Path through History].

So what has changed in the nearly two years since then? How come the South can get its act together on civil rights tourism and New York State can’t on any history theme? Perhaps our Governor who wants to be President should travel to the South to learn how state governments can promote cultural heritage tourism and apply that model not just in civil rights but in all the themes of the Path through History and in sites both upstate and downstate. After all, what happened here changed the world.

13 thoughts on “The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism

  1. This is not the first time that other, “less fancy” jurisdictions have shown up the Empire State. The governor seems so intent on establishing a national reputation (for what?) that he forgets that what is most impressive for a governor aspiring to the presidency is the demonstrable ability to get simple administrative tasks done. What can the incumbent point to: “Start Up New York?”

    1. A while ago I wrote a post about the Amistad Commission created by New York State to address the issue of slavery in the United States. My recommendation is that it would have been more helpful to focus on the history of slavery in the state rather than to lecture the rest of the country about the ills of slavery in their states. Unfortunately the history community is woefully weak in making its concerns known.

  2. For example: Take a village or area and gather whatever is of interest. e.g. Auburn. It was named after the village in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem. It has various historical claims: first electric chair execution. big tent factory. Young lawyer Seward defends a black man who axed to death family and avoids the death sentence by pleading insanity one of the first times in US . A great Black woman (I forget whom) I think lived there and may be buried there. Now search on the computer what happened in the counties and locations all over the state and people can look up and find out what interests them all around the state… Civil rights? Crime, etc. etc. etc. Battle of the Minisink? Kodak? etc. etc.

    1. You are right David that alot can be done through the computer. The goal here is to simplify the process particularly if one is interested in a theme or topic and not just a single location. And, yes, the Harriet Tubman House is located in Auburn.

    1. Thank you Ken. I will be resuming the issue of a leadership organization for the New York State history community in some upcoming posts. We need a New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH) that can work with the national organization (AASLH).


  3. Wow, killer prose. You are GREAT. LOVE that delicate rhetoric!

    “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 [i.e., all the themes identified in the Path through History].”


    1. Our Governor has a sincere but superficial interest in New York State history and no appreciation for the importance of local history to health and wellbeing of the state.

  4. Peter, your post seems to have lost sight of the 2015 incorporation in NYS of Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State, a partner organization composed of 16 of the 26 Underground Railroad sites and organizations that have been admitted to the NYS Freedom Trail and/or National Park Service Network to Freedom and whose purposes include promoting NYS’s UGRR history and its relevance with us today, collaborating on funding opportunities, and providing professional and technical support as needed to sustain and expand the work of the Consortium Partners. And while tourism is quite the buzz word these days, and with some reasonable rationale for this emphasis, Underground Railroad history is about more than tourism. It is about re-educating academics, professionals, and the general public alike about the legacy of the institution of slavery and its relationship to who we are today.

    1. Hi Liz, I have not returned to the websites I previously wrote about to see the changes which have occurred. My current post was strictly about tourism based on the article about the states and their equivalents of our REDC and I LoveNY have done to promote such tourism. There certainly are additional components to the stories whether it be the Underground Railroad in New York or the civil rights struggle in the South. The article in the travel section didn’t address those larger issues and I have no basis of comparison for what is being done in the two regions. I invite you to write a pot about the mission and activities of the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State as well as your wants, wishlist, or “asks.” Maybe we can talk about it the next time I see you in Albany.


  5. Would like to be able to print this but somehow it doesn’t print…
    Meanwhile, I am the Westfield NY Town and Village Historian and would like some help as to how to research and perhaps document an underground railroad site… please advise…

    Also, having read through the above ihare post, I would like to know how to help with changing the situation of the lack of direction and respect for the work of the public appointed historians in our state… as well as the needs expressed in the above article.

    Please advise…

    1. There is a print button on the IHARE website for the blog at

      To further research your own Underground Railroad locations you may wish to contact one of the people I mentioned in the post who are most involved with it in New York: Judy Wellman at or Mary Liz Stewart at

      As far as the larger issue of the place of state history in the political arena today, that is the precise issue I have been writing about most recently in series of posts of the vacuum in leadership of the history community with the formal dissolution of NYSHA which wasn’t doing the job in the first place. That will be the subject again of my next post.

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