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Commission historians to do own research on Michigan St. Baptist Church

Historians on the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission will continue searching for any evidence that Michigan Street Baptist Church was a hiding place for slaves on the Underground Railroad, even as they question a recent consultant’s report casting doubt on the claim.

Still, commissioners said the important thing is to recognize that the church has been a beacon in the community for centuries and was central to the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement.

“What is important to us is the fact the entire congregation rallied and [that] very important national and international figures took a stand against slavery,” Chairwoman Karen Stanley Fleming said during Monday’s commission meeting,

The comments came in the wake of the consultant’s report that found no evidence slaves hid out in the church, as many people have contended over the years. Historians and researchers who worked on the study, “If These Walls Could Talk: Uncovering the Historic Past of a Buffalo Landmark,” said they were unable to find any records – oral or written – to confirm that the church was an Underground Railroad stop.

The report, funded by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, was unveiled last month at the church and focused on its construction and history.

It was commissioned by the Buffalo Niagara Freedom Station Coalition and will be used by the coalition to plan the church’s continued restoration and to determine what time period to focus on when teaching the history of the site.

The red-brick church at 511 Michigan Ave. is a key element of Buffalo’s burgeoning African-American heritage tourism district – one of four anchors of the corridor, along with the Colored Musicians Club, the Nash House Museum and the Langston Hughes Institute.

Despite the report, commissioners Monday focused on the church’s overall historic significance.

Dorothy Hill, president of the Langston Hughes Institute, was the only commissioner at Monday’s meeting in the Larkin Building who had attended the unveiling of the report. She said she was “disturbed” by it.

“Because our history is oral, you may never find documents. I got calls from members of the community concerned they said [that] there was no evidence of documentation. It is unsettling in our community. Are they trying to undermine the Michigan Street Baptist Church history?” she said.

“The report was incomplete, and I’m glad we have our historians looking at it,” she added.

Other commissioners agreed.

“I don’t think you can minimize the incredibly important role the church and the community” played in history, said commission Treasurer Howard Zemsky.

Commission member Willow Brost said, “We may never know the whole truth, but the flip side is you can’t discount that it was an” integral part of the anti-slavery movement and the history of civil rights.

Commission member Lillian S. Williams, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo and former chairwoman of its Department of African-American Studies, will continue looking into the history of the church for the commission.

But she made it clear at Monday’s meeting that information about the Underground Railroad was not public knowledge at the time.

Abolitionist “were not going to advertise ‘I’m here,’ ” she said. “But there were oral traditions that said where the safe havens were for former slaves.”

“Most of it was oral history, so what documentation are researchers who conducted the study looking for?” said commission member Felix Armfield, a SUNY Buffalo State professor with a doctorate who specializes in U.S. history, African-American history, archival administration and local black history. Anti-slavery advocates “did not take out an advertisement in the newspaper,” Armfield said.

Commission Vice Chairman George Scott said the Underground Railroad had to be kept “undercover. That’s the whole reason it’s called the Underground Railroad.”

In other business, the commission approved the final draft management plan for the corridor and will forward it to the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Advisory council work groups for outreach, grant seeking, partnerships and history will be set up. The groups will meet over the summer and come up with recommendations for the commission by its next meeting at 1 p.m. Aug. 12.