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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.

The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?

“In 2005 [during Governor Pataki’s administration], New York’s Legislature created an Amistad Commission to review state curriculum regarding the slave trade. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country. It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

This excerpt comes from the website of the Amistad Commission which is part of the Department of State in the organization chart of New York State (http://www.dos.ny.gov/amistad/index.html).

The legislation authorizing the commission is New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Article 57B (57.51-57.54). It provides the historical background for the importance of the subject:

1. During the period beginning late in the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, millions of persons of African origin were enslaved and brought to the Western Hemisphere, including the United States of America; anywhere from between twenty to fifty percent of enslaved Africans died during their journey to the Western Hemisphere; the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was part of a concerted effort of physical and psychological terrorism that deprived groups of people of African descent the opportunity to preserve many of their social, religious, political and other customs; the vestiges of slavery in this country continued with the legalization of second class citizenship status for African-Americans through Jim Crow laws, segregation and other similar practices; the legacy of slavery has pervaded the fabric of our society; and in spite of these events there are endless examples of the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.

It calls upon our civic and moral responsibility to remember what happened.

2. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.

It declares the policy of the State to fulfill this responsibility through the schools.

3. It is the policy of the state of New York that the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the depth of their impact in our society, and the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country is the proper concern of all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of the state of New York.

Finally, it authorizes the establishment of a commission to act to fulfill that policy.

4. It is therefore desirable to create a state-level commission, which shall research and survey the extent to which the African slave trade and slavery in America is included in the curricula of New York state schools, and make recommendations to the legislature and executive regarding the implementation of education and awareness programs in New York concerned with the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country, and the contributions of African-Americans in building our country. Such recommendations may include, but not be limited to, the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty; (emphasis added) and suggestions for revisions to the curricula and textbooks used to educate the students of New York state to reflect a more adequate inclusion of issues identified by the commission.

Section § 57.52 establishes the unfunded Amistad commission of 19 people with details about the composition, duties, and term of office. The commission includes as one would hope the Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education is called upon to provide technical assistance for the completion of the task as needed.

Section § 57.53 details the duties and responsibilities. The commission has a very broad mandate and scope truly national in perspective.

1. to survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.
2. to compile a roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers (emphasis added) on the subject of the African slave trade, American slavery and the impact of slavery on our society today, and the contributions of African-Americans to our country; and
3. to prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings (emphasis added) and recommendations on facilitating the inclusion of the African slave trade, American slavery studies, African-American history and special programs in the educational system of the state.

On paper, this clearly is a major undertaking.

Turning now to the commission in charge of fulling this mission, one does indeed note the listing of the Commissioner of Education as part of the team. However, the name of the Commissioner listed is John P. King; he, of course, has not been the Commissioner for over a year. This raises the question of whether or not the Amistad Commission is a viable entity. Surely if it still functioned, the new Commissioner of Education would be listed. It is reasonable to conclude that this Commission is defunct and has been for years but lives on only on the New York State website.

The website has a tab for upcoming meetings. When I first checked it several months ago, none were scheduled. That is still true as of the writing of this post. The Commission does not appear to be functioning and hasn’t for a long time.

Need more documentary proof? Under a listing of current exhibitions at the New York State Museum, one finds:

An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War
Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
Exhibition Hall
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/CivilWar.cfm

I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell
Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
South Lobby
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/tarbell.cfm

Is it necessary to point out that is hasn’t been 2013 for several years now. The Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region conference for 2014 is listed but the one from 2015 is not. This is a website that needs serious work.

However, someone is still adding items to the Amistad Commission website under Resources. There is a notice about one event for the 2016 Martin Luther King Day holiday. There is a listing for AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY OF WESTERN NEW YORK which when clicked takes you to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Buffalo. There is a link to the SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE which does seems appropriate and does work. Then there is a link to the Governor’s announcement in November, 2015, of a new Path through History website which is of questionable relevance to the purpose of the Amistad Commission. Several additional conferences, exhibits, and events from 2015 are listed so evidently some effort was spent to stay current. One should note that these are not events created by the Amistad Commission but items listed by the Commission somewhat like the Path through History listing events without creating them either.

Finally, let’s return to the emphasized items above in the legislation.

the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty;

roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers

prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings

While other organizations do things in this subject area, I did not locate any information on the website listing the rooster of these individuals, any programs the Amistad Commission has developed, any evidence that it functions as a coordinator for such events, or any reports that have been submitted. Perhaps if the Governor can be persuaded to call a history meeting in Albany as recommended in my New Year Resolution post, a decision can be made to fish or cut bait with something that at present only exists on the web and not in the real world.