By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — Physically unable to get to a movie theater, and personally unwilling to watch it on a bootleg DVD, the long wait felt like an eternity, so I must have been one of the very first to watch it at home when the 2012 Academy Award winning movie, “Lincoln” was finally released for some limited cable television viewing last week; I must admit, it was well worth the wait.
I’m no film critic, and this is not intended to be a critique of the movie. I do consider myself a passionate student of history with a keen interest in my hometown’s role in some of the major events that helped shape our nation, so my comments might be better construed as a critical analysis of the media’s interpretation of history.
Right now, during the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War my curiosity and my concurrent relegation to a relatively disengaged, but highly opinionated bystander status has drawn me into a critical review of Niagara’s role in the national debate leading up to, during and after that period when we were engaged up to our necks in the struggle to abolish slavery and thereby preserve the Union.
“Lincoln,” in the most compelling, though, at times historically questionable way, does a remarkable job of framing the issues surrounding the painfully eventual Post Civil War adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment which ostensibly ended slavery.
In a most interesting, if not entertaining way, the Spielberg film brings to life some of the key players; Abraham Lincoln, nearly perfectly portrayed by Daniel-Day Lewis, Mary Todd Lincoln, brilliantly played by Sally Field, Thaddeus Stevens superbly performed by the ever versatile Tommy Lee Jones, the remarkable, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, and of course, Jackie Earle Haley as the wretched, self avowed racist Alexander H. Stephens each of whom, in their own dramatic ways raise the essential question, “do we hold these truths to be self evident?”
Unfortunately, as some hasten to point out, the film fails to sufficiently emphasize the equally critical role that the fervent abolitionists, both in the Congress and, in some important cases, in Niagara County played in the process which, most regrettably took nearly 600,000 lives on both sides of the War to eventually settle.
The film reminded me that, although Niagara Falls and Western New York never saw any actual physical battle at home, considerable evidence of our literal participation in some of the fiercest conflicts surround us.
Indeed, some of our very own Niagara natives of every conceivable race, culture, religion and economic station sacrificed their lives on the battlefields of Bull Run, Cold Harbor and Fredericksburg all not that long ago, none all that far away.
In fact, as many before me have clearly documented, Niagara County, and more specifically what eventually became the City of Niagara Falls was a virtual and literal hotbed of high-pitched anti-slavery, abolitionism hosting, as historian-writer Fergus Bordewich has written, as many as “21,000 members of the Niagara County Anti-Slavery Society” as far back as 1837 nearly twenty-five years before the War began, voicing their vociferous opposition to slavery adding substantial fuel to the fire in the form of dollars and good sense in a sustained effort to fight the best way they could in support of the cause for freedom.
The movie reminded me that-well told stories can serve as powerful motivators toward action; it also served to remind me that some of the churches and other landmarks built here during the height of the developing conflict successfully escaped the 1970s Urban Renewal bulldozers giving us precious historical treasures which could, if properly and respectfully preserved will add to this Region’s tourism and economic development assets.
Houses of worship such as the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 822 Cleveland Avenue begun in 1853, the same year that the now famous Cataract House and International Hotel waiters came to the rescue of escaped slaves like “Martha” who, with the help of head waiter John Morrison and many others made their way across the river to freedom in Canada.
The cornerstone to that church, laid two years later in 1855 should also serve to remind us of Harriet Tubman who, as heroically as Nik Wallenda repeatedly risked her life (she without a tether) crossing back and forth to and from Canada leading escapees to freedom.
Likely, other churches like the First Presbyterian Church of Niagara Falls, begun in the mid 1820s, and the present stone structure erected in 1841 and still standing on First Street in downtown Niagara Falls where a number of original members as well as frequent guests including such notables as the Porter Family, Samuel DeVeaux, and General Lafayette participated on one side or the other in the abolitionism debate.
Likewise, the First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, New York, a short distance down-river from Niagara Falls, today serves as neighbor to the Marble Orchard, a reference to the next door cemetery where abolitionist activist Josiah Tryon who bravely served as a secret Underground Railroad Station Master is buried.
These places and their stories and many others like them in our community need to be properly respected and preserved as in the language of the Underground Railroad Heritage Area’s Mission Statement, “to educate and inform the community about the rich local heritage associated with the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist movement, and to conserve and enhance the historic, cultural, economic and architectural resources of Niagara Falls.”
In my personal humble opinion, and as a member of the Underground Railroad and the National Heritage Commission it should be self evident that doing so is at least as important an investment this community can make in its economic future as paving roads and patching potholes.Contact Bill at email@example.com