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Proof of church claim is lacking

A blue and gold historic marker stands in front of Michigan Street Baptist Church, marking it as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Runaway slaves would climb through the ceiling of the choir loft to hide in the attic space, then jam poles and sticks against the rafters to keep anyone from coming in, according to Bishop William Henderson.

In the basement, a false wall concealed another hiding place, said Henderson, who has been guiding tours at the church since 1974. His tours highlight the widely held belief that the church was a station on the Underground Railroad.

But was it really?

Historians who worked on a recent study funded by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo were unable to find any records – oral or written – that confirm that the church was indeed an Underground Railroad stop.

Still, they say, the red-brick church at 511 Michigan Ave. – a key element of Buffalo’s burgeoning African American heritage tourism district – was central to the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement.

“We didn’t find any evidence, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used” as a hiding place for runaway slaves, said Judith Wellman, a Syracuse historian and researcher for “If These Walls Could Talk: Uncovering the Historic Past of a Buffalo Landmark.”

Does it matter if the church wasn’t a railroad stop, given its historical significance?

After all, Frederick Douglass spoke there during an 1843 anti-slavery gathering, according to a University at Buffalo website.

And printed programs found in the nearby Nash House Museum show that Booker T. Washington gave a speech at the church in 1910.

Wellman did uncover documentation and first-person post-Civil War recollections as evidence that other sites in the state were stations on the Underground Railroad.

She found a diary entry by Wesleyan minister in Syracuse that said he helped 60 people escape to Canada.

She also found a notice in a Syracuse newspaper advertising the home of the Rev. Jermain W. Loguen – a former slave – as an Underground Railroad safe house.

In another document, suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage publicly offered her Fayetteville home to harbor runaway slaves.

But no similar evidence relating to Michigan Street Baptist Church has been discovered, researchers said.

Still, Henderson is not swayed. He remains convinced that escaping slaves were hidden in the church on their journey to freedom in Canada.

“I know they were,” he said.

The study, commissioned by the Buffalo Niagara Freedom Station Coalition and unveiled last week at the church, focuses on the construction and history of the church.

The coalition will use the report to plan the church’s continued restoration and to determine what time period to focus on when teaching the history of the site, said City Judge Robert Russell Jr., chairman of the organization.

The church is one of four anchors of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, along with the Colored Musicians Club, the Nash House Museum and the Langston Hughes Institute.

There are reasons why researchers did not find definitive evidence that the church was a station on the vast network of hiding places and secret trails, historians said.

For one, during slavery, information about the Underground Railroad was passed along orally. After slavery, it became a matter of oral history, which is a tradition of Africans.

“We as blacks have passed on stories by word of mouth,” Henderson said. “A lot of our black history is word of mouth. Even today, when our black families get together, it’s oral history. Nothing is written down. This is our inheritance.”

Henderson said another possible reason researchers did not find written evidence is because slaves were not allowed to read or write.

“Many of us did not know how to write. We could not have written anything down because we would be breaking the law,” he said.

In addition, anti-slavery activists would have been breaking the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by hiding runaways in the church, which was built in 1854. Under the law, the minister would have been imprisoned if a runaway slave was discovered there, and other church leaders would have faced heavy fines. And the building would have been demolished, Henderson said.

“So how could you find anything in records that this church was not a part of the Underground Railroad?” he said.

Beyond the documentation issue, Henderson said the report is “fairly good” and “has a lot of good, valuable trinkets we can use.”

He will incorporate the report’s findings into his tours “without hesitation.” But he will continue to present the site as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“I will tell the story,” he said.

Just because researchers did not find definitive evidence that the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, doesn’t mean it wasn’t, said Elizabeth Crawford, senior associate at Crawford & Stearns Architects and Preservation Planners, the firm that produced the report.

“It’s still an amazing place because of the history that transpired there and around there,” she said.

In the early days, the church’s membership included abolitionists and black people who were born in the South. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of slaves escaped to Buffalo on the Underground Railroad and settled here instead of in Canada, said Wellman, who was born in North Tonawanda.

Many became deacons or ministers in the church and community organizers. And some of the speakers at the church were former slaves. It was a strong community, Wellman said.

For instance, Henry Bibb, an escaped slave and abolitionist who wrote his autobiography in 1849, was a speaker at the church, Crawford said.

Peyton Harris, who was enslaved in Virginia and fought in the War of 1812, settled in Buffalo in the 1830s. He became a trustee at the church, Crawford said.

The Rev. Rufus Perry, who escaped slavery in Tennessee in 1852, lived in Buffalo for a short time and was a minister at the church in 1861, she said.

And Kentucky-born William Wells Brown was a fugitive slave who in 1853 wrote “Clotel,” which is considered the first novel written by an African American. For many years, he lived near the church and was very active in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movements.

“Michigan Street Baptist Church was a nest of people who had themselves escaped on the Underground Railroad or helped other people escape on the Underground Railroad,” Wellman said.

“What emerged was an incredible picture of how cohesive and active the African American community was in organizing meetings for [human] rights, the Fugitive Slave Law, voting rights.”