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Black history champion makes the Underground Railroad museum her life’s work

NIAGARA FALLS – There’s a certain twinkle in Denise Easterling’s eyes and a wit that makes for a fun discussion, but her humor can quickly turn to anger if challenged on the history of Harriet Tubman’s role in the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls.

Easterling, 65, the vice chair of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, has been a member since its inception. Her dream for more than 20 years – to build a museum – is close to reality with the Underground Railroad Heritage Museum set to open next year in the Customs House, adjacent to the new Niagara Falls train station.

But her roots in fighting for recognition of black history go back to her youth when she and a group of like-minded students walked out of their junior high in Niagara Falls to protest the lack of black history education.

It’s fitting that her second husband, the late Simba Mlee, who died in 2010, was an activist and photographer for the Buffalo Challenger, a Western New York newspaper that celebrates the black community.

She often tells people about local history through an alter ego she created – Mrs. Queenie Rivers, who she said is a cook like her grandmother had been. In the world she has imagined, Mrs. Queenie works at the Cataract Hotel, where slaves often were hidden on their last stop across the border to freedom.

“People want you to be Harriet Tubman. But I’m no Harriet Tubman and I didn’t feel I knew enough to portray her. As Queenie I can tell the story of the Underground Railroad for all of Western New York and Southern Ontario,” said Easterling.

Easterling was born and raised in Niagara Falls and graduated from Niagara Falls High School. She has a bachelor’s degree from Niagara University in tourism and a master’s degree in educational leadership.

She is a two-time breast cancer survivor who hit the 10-year mark of being cancer free in June. She is also the mother of two adult daughters and has four grandchildren. She’s a member of St. John’s AME Church.

She met with The Buffalo News in the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, where “Freedom Crossing,” a history of the Underground Railroad, is on display. The installation was moved to the NACC this year after it had previously been at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University for many years.

How long have you been trying to bring the Underground Railroad Museum and Interpretive Center to Niagara Falls?

It’s been a long time. I started in 1993. I think it started (long before that) when my grandmother gave me a book, “100 Facts about the Negro.” It’s a hundred facts you won’t learn anywhere. … I knew there were things we didn’t know that will make us proud.

How did that love of history become concentrated on the Underground Railroad ?

It’s something I kind of pushed my way into. I was a consultant on the Freedom Crossing (at the Castellani) in 1993. (I was part of) a group of people that did a retracing of an escape. We started in Atlanta and came up the East Coast to New York City and crossed to Auburn (N.Y.), Harriet Tubman’s home, and then we crossed here over the Whirlpool Bridge. That was our retracing. Kevin Cottrell and I started doing tours after the retracing.

You must have a real love of the history.

I knew if the word Underground Railroad was mentioned I couldn’t run from it because I had done all of this research on my own.

Have you ever written anything?

I need a publisher. I put together packets for tours, multipage packages. I have written it, but not in the book form.

Have you taken classes on this?

There are no classes to take. I had to go to the county and the library in Lockport to do research. Doing the research on the Underground Railroad I really fell in love with black people. I didn’t know or think it would happen. To me the Underground Railroad is the best medium to study history because African-Americans, European Americans and Native Americans all look good. And talk about all the things these schizo people did. You had to be a little crazy to be a slave and think you should be free, because where are you going to go? And you had be crazy to be a free black person to help a slave, or be a European and put your family and livelihood in jeopardy or Native Americans which gave them a place to hide. … But no one ever wants to give black people credit for helping themselves. Do you think this would have worked if black people weren’t helping?

Tell me about the museum.

The placement (in the Customs House) could not have been more perfect. When you stand and look out the windows it makes me cry. It’s beautiful. There’s no better place to stand, to be there, and get an idea of what it must have been like to be that close to freedom. If you stand between the two windows and don’t feel something you are dead. If you look at Harriet Tubman’s biography, the story about Joe, she talks about the point when the train goes halfway across, as you incline, you can see the mist of the falls. Today you can stand there in that building and see the mist. It’s small in size, but it’s big in experience.

What will be in there?

We will have kiosks, with interactive audio and visual opportunities. There will be panels. I hope to have artifacts. We are doing a dig at the Cataract House and hope to have artifacts from there, because the Cataract played a big part. Some of the waiters (black waiters who helped to hide slaves) lived there. We can’t take a lot of donations, but we would accept some artifacts. We want to make sure we have the perfect conditions for museum artifacts. The Castellani Museum did have iron cuffs that were used and we hope to get them.

What is Freedom Crossing?

The suspension bridge is one of the two times we know Harriet Tubman crossed (into Canada from Niagara Falls.) The suspension bridge is now called the Whirlpool Bridge. We know she crossed it twice, once on the train and once walking.

Was she leading slaves to freedom both times?

Yes. In her biography it’s the story of a slave named Joe with her on the train. It was a group of about eight or so.

How do we know that Harriet Tubman crossed from Niagara Falls?

I’ve heard people say that, but all you have to do is read her biography. In her biography she talks about crossing the suspension bridge. It’s written by Sarah Bradford in the 1850s. She wrote for Harriet because she couldn’t write.

What about the Lewiston crossing monument?.

Don’t get me started on that. It’s a lie. There’s no proof she was in Lewiston or participated in any type of escape. First there’s people that want to negate that she crossed the suspension bridge. That’s simple, it’s in the biography. Yet people would rather believe she didn’t. People want to use that same uncertainty to put her someplace where you have no proof. They want to exploit Harriet Tubman and the history and the story. It’s so funny to say, “She could have,” but then not believe she crossed the suspension bridge. … If you are ready to believe this story (of the Lewiston monument) and then not ready to see it here (at the Freedom Crossing suspension bridge) then there’s something schizo. We have feelings, and the history connected to it.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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