By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — As this month draws to a close we are, hopefully one year closer to ending “Black History Month” as we know it and one year closer to fully integrating all of America’s history into a collection of stories that more truthfully defines our heritage and more fairly sets the course for our future.
But the nationwide events commemorating the150th year anniversary of the American Civil War gives us good reason to reflect on how we got to where we are today and an opportunity to review the role that Niagara Falls and vicinity played in forging the framework of modern America.
Like them or not, the release last year of Quentin Tarantino’s Golden Globe and Academy Award winning albeit, controversial movie “Django Unchained” and Steven Spielberg’s revealing historical drama, “Lincoln” both attempt to portray the agony that the country suffered as the world confronted the evils of that wicked institution of slavery and the scourge of racism.
Published almost simultaneously with the release of the movies, a number of very important and, by the way, very readable and good books emerged, one by Henry Wiencek “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” and another by Fergus M. Bordewich, “America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union.”
Both books by men who have spent a great deal of their careers researching, documenting and publishing books about the conflicts that led up to the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery emphasize in their work, the high degree of trust, respect, cooperation and collusion among people of diverse cultures and between the races in order to accomplish what they all agreed was paramount, that “all men are created equal” despite their differences.
Meanwhile, here in Niagara Falls, at almost the same time that the movies and books were being released and published, research for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area focusing on the people, places, and stories in and around the City of Niagara Falls that illuminate our historical role in the Underground Railroad was also published.
That research “included reviews of primary and secondary sources such as manuscripts, census records, historical maps, memoirs and autobiographies, local and county histories, newspapers, and oral traditions, as well as interviews and collaboration with local historians and extensive community outreach.”
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Management Plan’s “Survey of Sites Relating to the UGRR, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Niagara Falls and Surrounding Area 1820-1880” documents and celebrates “the courage of the men and women who sought, and/or helped others to achieve, freedom from enslavement during the mid-nineteenth century” and it helps to put into perspective the role that our community played in the nationwide movement as detailed in a few of Fergus Bordewich’s items in a timeline below excerpted from his earlier published “Bound For Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War For the Soul of America”:
• LATE 1790s: Quaker Isaac T. Hopper and African-American collaborators begin helping fugitive slaves in Philadelphia. Their cooperation set the pattern for the Underground Railroad.
• 1831: William Lloyd Garrison establishes the Liberator, in Boston. It is the first newspaper to call for the immediate abolition of slavery. Garrison’s passionate advocacy will sway the hearts and minds of countless Americans.
• 1833: The American Anti-Slavery Society is founded in Philadelphia, at the first national conference of abolitionists in American history. Many members of the society will become activists in the Underground Railroad.
• LATE 1830s: David Ruggles creates the African-American underground in New York City. He will help more than one thousand fugitive slaves. One of his closest collaborators is Isaac Hopper.
• 1844: The earliest representation of the Underground Railroad as an actual train appears, in an abolitionist newspaper in Illinois, the Western Citizen. As iron railroads spread across the North, the lingo of railroading— “stations,” “station masters,” “cars,” and “passengers” — became the coded language of the underground.
• 1848: Thomas Garrett, one of the underground’s most important station masters, is put on trial in Wilmington, Delaware for helping the escape of six fugitive slaves. After his acquittal, he defiantly declares that he will add another story to his home to accommodate more fugitives. The first national women’s rights conference is held in Seneca Falls. Women have long been active in the underground. Increasingly, they identify their own oppression with that of slaves.
• 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. She will return to Maryland at least 13 times to rescue slaves, and guide them to safety in the North, becoming the most famous “conductor” on the underground. Thomas Garrett and William Still will be among her closest collaborators.
• 1850: Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act. The law requires all citizens regardless of their personal beliefs to collaborate with public officials in capturing and returning fugitive slaves to their masters. Protests against the law erupt across the North. Recruits flock to help the Underground Railroad.
• 1850s: Fugitive slaves in Canada number more than 20,000. Communities mature and prosper. Fugitive slave, underground activist, and journalist Henry Bibb establishes the Voice of the Fugitive, which reports details of fugitives’ arrivals in Canada. His rival, Mary Ann Shadd, the daughter of an underground station master, becomes the first black woman to publish a newspaper in North America.
• 1861: South Carolina troops fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. The Civil War begins.
• 1861-1865: The Underground Railroad is superseded by the Civil War. Wherever Union armies march, slaves flock to their protection.
• 1870: The Fifteenth Amendment extends suffrage to African-Americans. Underground veteran Levi Coffin proclaims that the underground has reached its symbolic end. “Our work is done,” he declares.
While the work of the Underground Railroad may have come to a symbolic end, the war to end racism and the efforts to fully integrate our entire history has only just begun…Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org