The Underground Railroad Heritage Center in Niagara Falls opens Friday and when it does will take its place among the nation’s historical sites commemorating the journey of slaves who fled to freedom in Canada. Significantly, it will be the only such museum on the international border.
The center tells the story about a terrible time in American history when humans held each other in bondage. Confronting these awful truths can be difficult but there is a thirst for such knowledge. The center in Niagara Falls will be added to the growing list of heritage tourism sites.
The Niagara Falls center should be an attraction to tourists, and should be actively promoted. William Bradberry, chairman and president of the commission that completed the project, said the effort is not to tell the entire story of slavery, or even the entire Underground Railroad story. Instead, the goal is to focus on what happened in Niagara Falls.
The museum, on the first floor of the former federal Customhouse, built in 1863, is across the street from the remains of a 19-century suspension bridge that Harriet Tubman crossed to lead slaves to freedom. Visitors will learn the story of the Cataract House and its brave African-American waiters who helped slaves pining for freedom.
Pulling together the pieces of a rich culture and history took vision, focused efforts and years effort. The dream gained momentum in 2007 when former City Council Chairman Charles A. Walker and Kevin E. Cottrell pitched what they called “North Star on North Main.”
State funds arrived in 2008, when the State Legislature created a commission to work on an Underground Railroad museum in the Falls. The effort benefitted greatly the following year when the state law governing Niagara Falls’ use of Seneca Niagara Casino money was amended to provide the commission $350,000 a year. That figure was reduced to $200,000 a year in 2011.
The dedicated funding amounted to more than a couple million dollars. Niagara Falls City Hall was an active participant. The result is the realization of a vision to share a critical piece of American history.
It is one that is shared in Buffalo, which has its own Underground Railroad district where enslaved people crossed the Niagara River into Canada. Escaping slaves hid in the Michigan Street Baptist Church and crossed the river from Broderick Park.
The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor has been working to tell its story. Progress has been slow but a determined board of commissioners is focused. The effort in Buffalo lacks the federally-funded and university-supported sister organization, let alone dedicated funding stream. It could use some of the same help.
The support Niagara Falls center received was substantial and worked cohesively to put that money to good use, telling an important American story. The same should occur in Buffalo.
The result will deliver Americans and visitors from around the world a history lesson about a terrible time that we do well to preserve in memory.