Searching for the Underground Railroad
By Ted Pelton

teachers
Underground Railroad educator Kevin Cottrell stands near the site
of Harriet Tubman’s original crossing in Niagara Falls.
Photo by Jim Bush.
I am repeatedly overwhelmed by the heroism of these ordinary people. When I was a little girl it was taught to me that slaves in this country managed to be free because of some very serious well-meaning white people who thought it would be a good thing to do. It never occurred to me that there were these active, organized, serious, life-risking black people who did that all the time. That’s what they did: they had several lives and their principal life was to help escaped slaves.

Toni Morrison, television interview, 1987


The year is 1842. William Wells Brown works on the crew of a Lake Erie steamboat line serving Cleveland, Detroit, and Western New York. Born a slave, successful in his fifth attempt at running away, he has recently moved his family to the new city that lake and canal traffic have made a boomtown—Buffalo. With the first money he had earned after coming North, he’d purchased barley-sugar candy and a spelling book. Now, on breaks during the steamboat trips, he takes pains to teach himself to read and write.

It is illegal in the United States to obstruct Southern plantation owners from recovering their property. William Wells Brown is actually still considered such property and is subject to capture and return.

He worships as a parishioner at the Michigan Street Baptist Church. He’s also a leader in the largest temperance society in Buffalo, preaching against the evils of alcohol for good Christian men and women.

In 1793, Canadian territory passed legislation to gradually emancipate its slaves. By 1842, a person could step across the border and the laws which once declared him less than human no longer applied.

Brown is a political activist, an at-large member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His public speeches are already gaining him a reputation as a skilled orator.

In private, he is part of a network of people dedicated to helping fugitive slaves to free soil, a network which is beginning to be known as The Underground Railroad. In 1842, by his own claim, Brown aids in the escape of sixty-nine fugitive slaves to Canada.

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Buffalo’s Michigan Avenue Baptist Church.
Today, few residents of Buffalo have heard of William Wells Brown. And the great network of which our border region was such an integral part is only sketchily understood. There is no museum of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo, and the only recognition accorded to sites that were historically significant in the escape of fugitive slaves are snowshovel-sized plaques, several of which give incorrect information. The house Brown lived in has long since been destroyed, marked with another snowshovel. The Michigan Street Baptist Church still stands, but its roof is rotting, its paint flaking off, and it overlooks the heaved up sidewalks of one of the poorest and neglected streets in the city.

“The Underground Railroad was one of this country’s first multicultural humanitarian efforts,” says Kevin Cottrell of Motherland Connextions, which does Underground Railroad site tours and reenactments. I’ve seen images of Cottrell in brochures and on the Motherland Connextion website (www.motherlandconnextions.com) in period clothing and chained manacles. Now, he sits across from me in a cafe in street clothes. I can immediately see he’s a man who isn’t afraid to express his opinions. He arrives wearing a New England Patriots cap.

Cottrell is involved with the past but isn’t stuck in it. The Underground Railroad is only one of his ambitions to improve Buffalo in general and, in particular, the hard-luck, impoverished East Side. He is a member of the non-profit Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, for whom the city recently earmarked $210,000 to renovate another Michigan Street landmark, the Nash Home, where Rev. J. Edward Nash, Sr., lived while minister at the Baptist Church from 1892-1953. During this time, numerous figures involved with the early years of the NAACP met and worked with Rev. Nash. The Preservation Corporation has uncovered a treasure trove of historical materials in Nash’s papers, his office in the house having been left as it existed when he died forty years ago.

Cottrell lays out sepia-toned photographs of a dapper African-American man in a tuxedo and a beautiful woman—his wife?—seated, with pearls and a low-necked gown.

“We got stuff, man,” he effuses. “We got books, we got rare manuscripts, we got letters, we got anti-lynching letters, we got photographs.”

He’s enthusiastic but also serious when he says things like, “We’re striving to be the Darwin Martin House of the East Side. Minus about five million bucks.” He grins, but never loses his focus. “We have an area, between Broadway, Nash, Potter and Michigan, with the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which represents nineteenth and twentieth century freedom fighters, many of whom were former slaves.

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Stereoscopic images of historic and now demolished Underground Railroad sites
“People come a long way to see what we have here. You’d be surprised at the numbers we have every year. We have sites in Buffalo, sites in Niagara Falls, Orchard Park, Lancaster, Allegheny, Newfane . . . . They’re all over—the area is blanketed with Underground Railroad sites.” In Southern Ontario, St. Catharines was a large center of free black settlement—Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated figure involved with the Underground Railroad lived there before moving east to Auburn, NY—and many fugitives crossing the Niagara River were headed there. Harriet Tubman herself crossed to Canada via a bridge at Niagara Falls. Cottrell lives in Niagara Falls and his efforts include tours in Canada, but he sees that more could be done. “The hard thing is to get it promoted the way it should be promoted.”

But what exactly was the Underground Railroad? How did it operate? What exactly is a site? Are there still original structures in our area which played important roles in this history?

In 1989-1993, the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University bought and placed seven public sculptures at locations associated with the Underground Railroad in Niagara County. The human-sized, solemn monuments—shaped like elongated houses and called Stations—were first designed by artist Houston Conwill, poet Estella Conwill Majozo, and architect Joseph DePace for Artpark in Lewiston. They now stand in front of a private home in Pekin, at St. John’s A.M.E. Church in Niagara Falls, and at the First Presbyterian Church in Lewiston, among other locations. The locations were often chosen for their symbolic significance and some are not actual historic sites for Underground Railroad activities. In addition to the usual research, this community-minded and metaphor-rich project sent out brochures saying, “We’re looking for a home,” before placing the sculptures.

The structures of wood, concrete, copper, chrome and bronze utilize attic and cellar motifs derived from typical slave hiding places (escaping slave Linda Brent, who spent seven years in an attic which was too confining for her to stand up in, comes to mind). The monuments are adorned with poems Majozo constructed out of the secretive codes thought to appear in period correspondence, in which fugitive slaves making secret journeys might be spoken of as packages, with instructions like “please forward & oblige.” Their impact is powerful.

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A page from the 1839 American Anti-Slavery Almanac.
Courtesy of Christopher Densmore.
Nonetheless, some have questioned whether the locations of these and other local monuments are bona fide sites of historical significance. Christopher Densmore, Archivist at University at Buffalo and an expert on the Underground Railroad, has dedicated himself to determining the historical accuracy of sites purporting to have once served as stations in the Underground Railroad. A scholarly man, his usual demeanor of historical awe turns acid when the subject of unsubstantiated historical sites is raised. Memorials at the Lockport YWCA, for instance, which commemorate the work of a woman named Abijah Moss in providing refuge for fugitives, draw his scorn. “Abijah is not even a woman. Abijah is a man. And this is just typical of the way a lot of these plaques go. The earliest reference I can find to that house being on the Underground Railroad is in an article by a fairly credulous local historian who is repeating family stories in the late 1960s. It’s not even clear from his source what family he’s even talking about.”

To Densmore, to say a site is legitimate without any documentation, purely on the basis of family lore, is the equivalent of perpetuating a haunted house legend. He points out that architectural features supposed to have been tunnels or secret panels can almost always be explained as innocent cisterns, sub-basements, and the like. But Densmore isn’t just a debunker. He is perhaps the most knowledgeable man in Buffalo when it comes to talking about the Underground Railroad

“The biggest Underground Railroad site in the area is the Cataract House in Niagara Falls,” says Densmore, handing me a stereoscopic plate photograph of the stately old hotel. If I had an old viewer, I could look at it in my grandparents’ version of 3-D. The tourist mecca burned down years ago, but for a century it was an integral part of the Niagara Falls experience. “There are many fugitive slave incidences that track back to the Cataract House,” Densmore explains. “There were underground railroad agents working there, who were black.”

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A page from the 1839 American Anti-Slavery
Almanac, showing fugitive advertisements.
Courtesy of Christopher Densmore.
Densmore wants to correct the traditional way of seeing the Underground Railroad, as what he calls, “white people feel-good time,” the mythology of white-owned safe houses serving as way-stations for escaping black people. Not that this didn’t happen. But understanding the importance of the Cataract House is crucial to seeing other ways in which the Underground Railroad operated, with black people helping their own, utilizing the resources of a burgeoning mid-nineteenth century American economy.

At the Cataract House, “the waiters and the stewards were all black people,” Densmore says. “Probably any number of them were quite literate and they could read time schedules just as well as anyone else. So they knew how the transportation system worked throughout the Northern U.S. and into Canada and into the South.”

The case of Daniel Davis, who escaped from his master in Kentucky and was caught and tried in Buffalo in 1851, is an example of how this system may have been used to bring runaways north. As a slave, he was hired out to a steamship on the Ohio River. Densmore: “When Daniel Davis escaped from slavery he was a steward on a packet on the Ohio River running from Louisville to Cincinnati. The Buffalo newspapers and the Louisville newspapers and the Cleveland newspapers advertised this wonderful rail and steamboat service—you could get from Cincinnati to New York City in 48 hours. ... He could have made his run from slavery in Kentucky to Buffalo, NY, in less than 24 hours. And considering that those boats had considerable numbers of black crewmen—usually stewards, cooks and porters—and the trains were full of black baggagemen and porters, he may have just talked to one of his buddies on the boat and said, ‘I want to go to Buffalo,’ and they just took him into the baggage car.”

After having heard the claims of his southern owners, a judge set Davis free, whereupon he immediately went to Canada. “There were a number of legal cases, in Lockport, in Buffalo, in Niagara Falls, where people were caught and defended by lawyers and judges who may not have been abolitionists, but who weren’t terribly happy about sending some poor guy back into slavery either.” The full newspaper account of the Davis case is reprinted on Densmore’s website, www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~densmore.

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Stereoscopic images of historic and now demolished Underground Railroad sites
The inner harbor commercial slip in downtown Buffalo also figures significantly in this history. “A lot of fugitives seem to have come through on boats from Cleveland or Sandusky or Erie or whatever,” says Densmore. “William Wells Brown worked on lake boats. James Whitfield, an African-American poet from Buffalo, worked on these boats. I don’t know if Whitfield was part of the Underground Railroad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t have his fingers in it, because he was at all the black political conventions in the 40s and 50s. He wrote abolitionist poetry and all that sort of thing.”

Abolitionists like Brown and Whitfield were church-going men who believed in temperance. So they wouldn’t have been caught with one foot in Dug’s Dive, the legendary Negro basement speakeasy in the harbor district. Yet it’s not unlikely that it played some role in the Underground Railroad drama. Dug’s Dive was so central to African-American life of the period, and so proximate to where lakeboats came into Buffalo, it surely is part of the tale. “It’s not a matter of whether it was a site,” says Cottrell. “The important thing is that it reflects African-American life and history, and it’s fair to say that anybody of color coming through there either knew of slaves or were slaves themselves.

“The Underground Railroad was such a pervasive thing that any black people living on the border would be involved with it.”

A clearer purpose was enacted at what is now Broderick Park, where the Black Rock Ferry used to run back and forth to Canada. This was a frequent point of passage for freedom-seekers. Densmore has unearthed the story of an 1835 skirmish which took place on this site involving black abolitionists, “including William Wells Brown,” who had stolen back a fugitive family caught by slave-catchers. Just as they were about to board the ferry to Canada, there was “a minor battle, with casualties.” They “had to fight their way back to the ferry, aided by a couple of white lawyers, who were giving them legal advice while they were busy getting their heads beat in by local police.” Again, Densmore stresses his point about being true to the history we can document: “This is a real incident, and it really happens at a particular place.”

“For a still existing structure,” says Densmore, “The Michigan Street Baptist Church. If we look at fugitive slave activity in Buffalo, the Vine Street AME Church was every bit as active as the Michigan Street church, and in fact maybe even a bit more so. The two churches were very near to one another. But unfortunately the old Vine Street church does not exist, whereas the Michigan Street church does.”

I go again to look at the old church on a
teachers
Stereoscopic images of historic and now demolished Underground Railroad sites
cool but sunny Saturday. This time when I see it, the building retains its dignity despite the years of neglect. It is square and compact, built in a time when people themselves were shorter and their numbers smaller. To my surprise, the front door is slightly ajar.

Inside is Bishop William Henderson, who for twenty-six years has led the congregation which now calls the church home, the El-Bethel Assembly.

Because of laws preventing public funds from being given to religious orders, such care as the old building has received over the years has come through and from Henderson, an aging but still active man with a face the shade of coffee ice cream beneath wisps of reddish brown hair and a Jewish yarmulke cap. His congregation combines Jewish and Christian faiths. “This is the oldest property in the city continually owned by blacks,” he tells me proudly. Built in 1845, it is also “the first black church built from the ground up, as a church.” He leads me on a tour. When we get to the basement he tells me that fugitive slaves often slept here, hiding from authorities. Christopher Densmore has already told me that this is not substantiated and I bite my tongue, but Henderson anticipates my reaction. “There are no records of this today, it’s true. But there were no records kept of slaves who came through here, purposely.”

This is the paradox of finding out today where the Underground Railroad actually operated. When it operated successfully, it had to do so without being known, and documentation may well have only resulted because of failures in successfully conveying people to freedom. The most perfectly operating way-station for fugitives might well be one for which no records now exist.

Henderson brings me further down into the back of the Michigan Street church, where a bathroom has now been put in. One wall has been left uncovered, and one can look into where, in the foundation of the church, a small nook juts out, creating enough space for a person to crouch. Henderson movingly evokes the fugitives who once, according to oral history, squatted here, awaiting passage onward. “They would come in ragged, in tatters, chased, thin, and hungry. When there was the threat of slavecatchers coming, most of the people would be farmed out to houses in the neighborhood. The ones that were too sick to move would be kept back here.”

teachers
Stereoscopic images of historic and now demolished Underground Railroad sites
Metaphorically, the church can be said to have sheltered fugitive slaves, as it gave spiritual strength to those who sought with their very lives to combat oppression. It sheltered those who had been slaves, who wanted to see the end of slavery, and who took the daring leap to a freedom that wasn’t available in the United States.

“Look, the real heroes of the story are the fugitives, because they’re the ones who took the major risks,” says Densmore. “The kind of risk you took in aiding a fugitive, particularly if you’re here in Buffalo, wasn’t terribly great. ”

In August, for the sixth consecutive year, the Buffalo Quarters Historical Society staged a crossing to freedom in Broderick Park. Police boats were used to bring reenactors across to salvation and a waiting welcoming party in Fort Erie, Ontario. Bishop Henderson was one of the party who went across. “That’s where they went. They went across to Canaan, which is what they called Canada.” Henderson has led me up the back stairs to the top of the church, to a shallow pool behind the pulpit, the baptistry. His legs creak a little coming up here, but as he tells me about having made the trip across, he grows young with excitement. “I rushed right up there,” he tells me, and I can see him using every bit of life in his legs to get up on the boat. “I couldn’t wait to make that trip, the trip to freedom.”

Novelist and Americanist Ted Pelton is a professor at Medaille College.


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