During the past several weeks, part of the discussion of the "Inner Harbor Project" has centered on questions regarding the historic significance of the old site of "Dug's Dive." Specifically, some have questioned whether Dug's Dive, a 19th century Buffalo "waterfront basement saloon and boarding house run by former slave William Douglas," had any direct connection to the Underground Railroad.
According to a recent historical article published by the Preservation Coalition, "Dug's Dive was located in the basement of the Union Block, a narrow triangle sandwiched between the Commercial Slip of the Erie Canal and Commercial Street, just north of the Water Street Bridge." The establishment was located in a block that housed "a mixture of saloons, brothels and boarding houses."
The area was part of the 1850 First Ward. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, about 16 percent (94 of 556) of Buffalo's African-American population lived in the First Ward. The Preservation Coalition article describes "Dug" as a good Samaritan who gave "food and a place to sleep to African-Americans in need of help." After considering the evidence, the author theorized that those in need of help "undoubtedly" included "many fugitive slaves finding their way to Canada with nothing but the shirts on their backs."
Critics of the Underground Railroad connection have claimed that Dug's Dive has no documented fugitive slave connection and therefore has no historic significance.
But sometimes it is not possible to find pre-emancipation documentation or testimony that specifically confirms that a person or institution provided aid to fugitive slaves. That's due in part to the fact that harboring and aiding fugitive slaves was illegal.
The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 provided that any person who "shall harbor or conceal" a fugitive slave shall "forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars." That act was updated by a provision of the Compromise of 1850 that increased the penalty to "one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months." While many persons and institutions provided aid and support to the fugitive slave cause, most understandably did so secretly.
Supporters of fugitive slaves also did not want to provide helpful information to the hordes of bounty hunters and "slave 'nappers" who prowled around Northern cities and towns located on Underground Railroad routes looking for fugitives. Moreover, bounty hunters often had paid informants in every such town or city. Hence, direct evidence from the pre-Civil War period of individual or institutional involvement in aiding fugitive slaves is scarce.
After the Civil War, when slavery was no longer legal and there was no longer any fear of federal prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Acts, people and institutions began to go public with stories of involvement in the fugitive slave cause. By the turn of the century, stories of some individual and institutional support for the Underground Railroad had become legendary. At the same time, many instances of involvement in assisting fugitive slaves were never reported and were simply lost to history.
But even to debate the question of whether Dug's Dive had a direct involvement with the Underground Railroad obscures the real issue.
How many 19th century American historic sites, or remnants thereof, are there of institutions that served as a secular social gathering and entertainment place (saloon, brothel and boarding house) for an African-American fringe group who lived on the fringes of a fringe community? The people who hung out in Dug's Dive were probably not the same people who attended the Michigan Street Baptist Church, or the Vine Street A.M.E. Church. Chances are, Dug's patrons were sailors who worked on ships that plied the Great Lakes, or maybe single men who had no family in Buffalo, or simply people who had nowhere else to go. And yes, some may have been fugitives from slavery who passed through Buffalo on their way to Canada.
At this point, we don't have all of the answers, or even all of the right questions. But we already know enough about the Dug's Dive site to warrant its preservation and development. It also offers a potential laboratory for archaeological discoveries.
Our inquiry into local African-American history is still in its infancy, and a lot of insights will be discovered during the coming decades. The Dug's Dive site should be preserved and developed -- not destroyed.
MONROE FORDHAM is professor emeritus in the Department of History at Buffalo State College.