Do your kids know who Harriet Tubman was? How about Frederick Douglass? Or William Still? These are some of the heroic ‘conductors’ of the Underground Railroad, the celebrated route to freedom for an estimated 50,000 African-Americans who escaped slavery by travelling along a network of safe homes and hideouts to freedom in Canada.
Visit Buffalo-Niagara in New York state during February’s Black History Month to learn more about the Underground Railroad, one of the most significant social movements in history, when blacks and whites worked together to actively oppose the federal laws that condoned slavery.
Get a (free) history lesson at the Freedom Crossing exhibit
The Niagara River that divides Canada and the U.S. was a major crossing point for slaves. Before the construction of the first suspension bridge in 1848, the only option they had was to cross the river by rowboat under the cover of night or climb aboard ferries and steamboats operated by sympathetic captains. Some risked their lives by swimming across the river in a desperate attempt to make it into Canada.
You can learn about the significance of this crossing point – and the famous Tubman, known as “the Moses of her people” for guiding fugitive slaves into the “Promised Land”— as well as many lesser known “conductors” who played a pivotal role helping slaves cross the border — at the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center’s free exhibit, Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara.
Visit the hiding places of runaway slaves
Buffalo-Niagara was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity from the early 1800s until 1865 when the American Civil War ended slavery. (Canada banned the importing of slaves more than 70 years earlier). While many of the hiding places along the route remain unknown or have been destroyed, some still exist, including the secret room hidden behind a staircase at Buffalo’s Michigan Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in America. (It’s also one of the featured attractions along the Michigan Street African American Corridor, which includes The Nash House Museum, the private home of Rev. J. Edward Nash a pastor at the church for 60 years who helped ensure it was a focal point of civil rights activity.)
You can view another secret hiding place, a room that could fit several people and is hidden under a trap door of a barn, at Murphy’s Orchards, a 65-acre apple farm in Niagara County. It was once a way station for slaves who escaped in farm wagons travelling across the border.
Stand at the place where slaves crossed the river
Canada was just a 15-minute crossing by boat, but it was a ride made dangerous because of the bounty hunters who patrolled the area and who were rewarded for returning slaves to their “masters.”
Buffalo’s Broderick Park, situated within view of the Peace Bridge, was once home to the docks of the Black Rock Ferry, a key means of escape for fugitive slaves before bridges were built over the Niagara River.
In nearby Lewiston, N.Y., the bronze Freedom Crossing Monument on the banks of the Niagara River is a dramatic depiction of a family of four being loaded into a rowboat by the town’s Underground Railroad “station master,” Josiah Tyron, the minister of the local First Presbyterian Church, also a safe haven for escaping slaves.
Celebrate the role of music in the civil rights struggle
Tubman and other conductors on the Underground Railroad used signal songs such as “Wade in the Water” and “Go Down Moses” as a strategy to convey coded information to escaping slaves as they moved along their secret routes.
The importance of music in the struggle for civil rights is also in evidence at the renowned Colored Musicians Club, formed 100 years ago as union hall for black musicians at a time when unions were segregated. It was also a favourite after-hours stop for jazz greats who performed in the area, including Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
A significant part of the still-operating jazz club has been turned into a family-friendly museum, which offers kids a chance to engage in educational and entertaining multimedia displays. They can learn the difference in sound between a trombone and a saxophone, listen to the music of famous jazz artists and figure out how to distinguish blues, swing, bebop, ragtime, Big Band, boogie-woogie and New Orleans jazz.
African-American summer celebrations
Buffalo’s Juneteenth Freedom Day Festival (June 17-18) commemorates the June 1865 proclamation that signalled the end of slavery. The festival includes a main entertainment stage, book fair, Underground Railroad tours, children activities tent and African drum and dance lessons.
Jazz festivals also reign supreme in Buffalo during the summer months. During the first two weekends in August The African American Cultural Center honours the legacy of jazz with the free Pine Grill Jazz Reunion, which pays tribute to some of the finest jazz musicians to play in Buffalo, at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park.
Sample some food for the soul in Buffalo
Liberian-born chef Fred Daniel serves up his signature dish — chicken and red velvet waffles with syrup and a sprinkle of powdered sugar — along with menu faves such as fish and grits, jerk chicken, crab cakes and traditional mac ’n cheese, at Freddy J’s, a small restaurant with row of ten seats right in front of the kitchen. Matti’s Restaurant is a longstanding soul food diner that’s billed as serving “the best breakfast in town.”
If you go
Several tour companies, including Motherland Connextions, are available to escort visitors to historic Underground Railroad sites.
Family-friendly Buffalo hotels include Hampton Inn & Suites (free parking and breakfast). Two newer hotels with great views of the city’s picturesque waterfront are the Marriott Harborcenter and Courtyard by Marriott Downtown/ Canalside.