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State and national efforts to keep the story of the Underground Railroad alive were highlighted Saturday in the historic former Michigan Street Baptist Church, a key site on the journey from slavery to freedom prior to the Civil War.

Representatives of the National Park Service and Western New York lawmakers are urging approval of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Bill, now before Congress.

The bill would recognize the historic significance of the underground railway network that played a vital role in the escape to freedom in Canada of thousands of beleaguered slaves.

Michigan Street Baptist Church is a nationally recognized site of the underground railway network.

Thousands of runaway slaves were harbored in the church basement during the waning years of slavery, and many key African-American historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois visited the site.

"We wanted people to know what's happening on a national level," Kevin Cottrell, director of the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation, said Saturday. "We here in Buffalo are just a link in a long chain of history, and we need to do what we can to demonstrate the importance of the local grass roots movement."

Vince DeForrest of the National Park Service, added: "The underground railroad network story is a holistic one. It is a story that is now going on in Bosnia and in many other parts of the world. With the passage of the bill HR 1635, we will be able to determine where we have to go and what we have to do to keep this story alive.

"Buffalo is a border connection, where people worked together to further the protection of humanity and assist those seeking freedom and safety into Canada. It is a people's movement, and we have to pass this legacy on to our children and the yet unborn. If we do not, then it will be lost forever."

Richard Clark, representing Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, said: "Assemblyman Eve and Assemblyman Dale Volker have introduced the Freedom Trail Bill in New York State, which we have every reason to believe will soon be approved. That passage may well influence a faster passage of the national bill and most certainly recognizes the efforts of all who struggled to support the thousands who came through New York State to find their freedom."

The former Baptist church, at 511 Michigan Ave. near Broadway, stands as one of the first houses of worship for African-Americans in the city.

Now home to Bishop William H. Henderson's El-Bethel Assembly, it was built in 1845 for one of two African-American congregations in existence when the city was incorporated in 1832.

The church is one of two Buffalo sites that has a marker noting it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The other is at the foot of West Ferry Street, where fugitive slaves boarded boats to cross the Niagara River.

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