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Secrets of Lewiston’s Freedom Crossing monument come to light

LEWISTON – Timing is everything. The double meaning of a 7-year-old puzzle on a bronze monument overlooking the Niagara River that honors fugitive slaves and the volunteers who helped them escape to Canada recently has been revealed.

The mysterious inscription focuses on two members of the Underground Railroad – Lewiston tailor Josiah Tryon and famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The news about Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill brought the inscription’s meaning to light.

The “Freedom Crossing” monument, which was dedicated in 2009, depicts a slave mother, father and child ready to be taken across the river by Tryon, a volunteer “station master” on the slaves’ secret route to Canada in the mid-1800s. The monument’s fifth character is Laura Eastman, heroine of Margaret Goff Clark’s 1969 novel, “Freedom Crossing,” which inspired the sculpture. All five characters bear secret codes for the public to find.

Members of the Historical Association of Lewiston invite visitors to the Water Street sculpture to find the words, “Mourn the Rainbow Heart” etched into the folds of the slave woman’s dress. The figure is seated in the rowboat with arms open wide, ready to receive her baby, being handed her by Tryon.

The phrase refers to Tryon’s death in 1886. He was called the man with the “rainbow heart” because he embraced people of all colors and creeds.

But the words also mean something else.

They are an anagram for “We honor Harriet Tubman.”

Zach Collister, HAL president, explained, “When the Historical Association dedicated the Freedom Crossing Monument in 2009, we weren’t about to forget Harriet Tubman’s courageous efforts in the struggle for freedom. We wanted to include a message that honored Josiah Tryon and Harriet Tubman at the same time.

“With the recent announcement that she will replace Andrew Jackson’s image on the $20 bill, millions of people are learning more about the American abolitionist and humanitarian,” he said. “After escaping her own slavery, she turned around and helped dozens of others do the same and guided the fugitives to freedom in Canada. She stands today as a respected and inspirational freedom fighter.”

Lee Simonson, who served as volunteer project director for the monument, helped devise the anagram, as well as hidden codes on the other four statues.

“We wanted to make this landmark more interesting and interactive,” he recalled. “Some have found these codes on their own, but we thought the timing was right (to reveal) this one, because of the news of Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This is a big deal.

“We wanted to honor Harriet because she has had such an impact on American culture and is such a symbol of determination, courage, bravery and freedom,” Simonson said. “We have no proof she was ever in Lewiston, but as Lewistonians, we believe there is a strong chance that she was here, and for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that it may have been safer at times to cross here to Canada than from Niagara Falls or Buffalo.”

Collister concurred, adding, “We’re not claiming that Harriet Tubman was ever here, but we wanted to honor her in our monument and we wanted to honor our own people, our own volunteers.”

Pamela Hauth, HAL’s museum curator, said that while historians can only speculate that Tubman had been in Lewiston, “It makes sense that she would have been here because we do think she was in St. Catharines. We know Frederick Douglass sent people (slaves) to Lewiston, so he must have known Josiah Tryon. We know that Douglass knew Tubman. And sometimes, it was dangerous to cross in Niagara Falls and there would have been fewer bounty hunters here in Lewiston.”

Collister added, “We don’t have written proof – as most towns don’t, we have legend and folklore. But we wanted to draw more attention to the history. … We know Josiah was a tailor here, who made different color jackets for the slave hunters (so they could be avoided) and we know the Hampton (Virginia) Choir traveled here to honor him after he died.”

Collister said he enjoys seeing visitors studying the monument created by Lewiston artist Susan Geissler, who also created the Tuscarora Heroes monument on Center Street in the village.

“I see people at the monuments, posing to have their pictures taken,” he said. “I hope we’re educating people. It gives students a 3-D, life-size look at history.”

Collister elaborated on the other four hidden messages in the Freedom Crossing monument – one engraved on each statue.

On the father slave’s left pant leg are the words, “Though some may fail, those who try on and on will succeed. Sometimes folly leads to freedom and the rabbit escapes from the trap.” This is a quote from the Freedom Crossing novel and a play on the words “try on and on,” which refers to Tryon. The novel’s ISBN number is found on the inside of the coat of the statue depicting the young Eastman. On the baby’s shoe is found Exodus 5.1, which refers to the biblical verse, “Let my people go.” And, the GPS coordinates for Tryon’s grave in the Lewiston Cemetery are etched on the pant leg of this humble local hero.

“We never really publicized these hidden little things, it’s just a way to get people to look into it more, and gives links so people can learn more about this,” Collister said.

“For hundreds of years, the Freedom Crossing Monument will represent Lewiston’s role in the Underground Railroad movement,” he added. “Today, along with the entire nation, we stand proud as a community that recognizes and celebrates Tubman’s life and contribution to our country.”

In nearby Niagara Falls, the new Niagara Falls Transportation Center is set to open in July with an Underground Railroad Museum in the adjacent Customs House, according to city officials. The deeds of Tubman and other heroes of the Underground Railroad will be part of the interpretive center. However, plans for a Tubman statue, which had been considered for placement in a plaza bearing her name, have been put on hold due to the cost variables and the need to move forward on opening the station, officials stated.

Niagara Falls Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis said organizers want to take their time and be more deliberate in their plans. He said the Tubman statue will be part of plans for Phase II in 2017, but they have not yet solicited proposals or chosen an artist.

For more information on the Freedom Crossing monument or to view it on a live webcam, visit: www.HistoricLewiston.org.