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WALKING THE FREEDOM TRAIL

More than a century and a half ago, enslaved Africans desperate for freedom fled the American South and traced cautious paths northward toward the promise of Canada. Their simplest direction was to follow the arc of a constellation they knew as the Drinking Gourd - and for many, Buffalo was the North Star.

Station by station, one major route of the storied Underground Railroad led to Western New York and to Buffalo. Here, fugitive slaves broke a final link in a chain of fears and gathered their courage and their hopes for a final push across the waters to liberty.

It is time to remember our history.

Buffalo stands poised on the brink of a new push toward the promise of cultural tourism. The city stands ready to showcase its restored architectural masterpieces, its heritage of cultural and historic treasures and the remnants of its storied Erie Canal. In its hope for a new era of economic recovery and freedom, it is turning to reminders of a glittering and colorful past.

The Underground Railroad is a part of that story that should not go untold.

We can make this month more than a token salute to black history. We can make it the start of a new chapter in the history of the Freedom Trail.

From the Quaker Meeting House in Orchard Park to the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo to Suspension Bridge in Niagara Falls, there are tales to be told. They are stories that combine the real courage of blacks risking everything for freedom with the true compassion of whites who, despite risks, helped them on their way.

It's a regional story, and it deserves regional telling. A good first step would be for Erie County to convene a volunteer, multitalented and multicultural commission to explore the impact the Underground Railroad had on this region's past and could have on its future.

Start with the commissioning of comprehensive research into the Underground Railroad in this area, to draw together existing research efforts and add as much detail as possible to the story of the Underground Railroad in Western New York. Ensure that our retelling of that story is deeply grounded in authenticity, not legends.

And focus, eventually, on creating a major cultural tourism destination at a site of true national significance to African-American history from the slave era through the Niagara Movement that helped launch the NAACP. That site exists, in the East Side block centered on the 1845 Michigan Street Baptist Church - a church that sheltered fugitive slaves, witnessed the preaching of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, was visited by Booker T. Washington and provided the spiritual base from which Mary Talbert and others launched the Niagara Movement and the NAACP near the turn of the last century.

Efforts to turn that 500 block of Michigan Avenue into a Black Historic District rivaling Atlanta's Auburn Avenue have stalled. They must be revived. The church badly needs restoration, and the Michigan-Broadway area remains rich in other potential attractions, from the Freedom Trail era to the cultural contributions of the Colored Musicians Club.

Other areas have equal or better claims to Underground Railroad fame. Buffalo was but one of four "main lines" that crossed New York State to Canada in the decades before the Civil War.

But the full sweep of the freedom fight from abolition to the Niagara Movement is best told here. The work already is started. Local preservationist Kevin Cottrell has spent a decade boosting church preservation and the historic district and leading Underground Railroad tours. Historian Paul Leone, through the Chautauqua County Press, recently republished the memoirs of a Southern Tier "conductor" who helped scores of slaves to freedom. Sandy White and the Buffalo Quarters Historical Society stage an annual re-enactment of a river crossing from Broderick Park.

It's time to gather this history together, and give it a home that will draw visitors to the power of its story. The Underground Railroad worked because blacks, whites and Native Americans worked together here on a common goal. Retelling its story offers the same opportunity. History can be celebrated with action, and not just words.

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