Millions of visitors a year come to Niagara Falls. And many of them go to see the famous water crashing over the cliffs and not much else, observed Bill Bradberry, a native of the place and former city manager. Many tourists, and even residents, don’t know the key role that the city of Niagara Falls played in the history of the Underground Railroad. Now, with a museum dedicated to this history opening May 4, Bradberry, the chair of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, aims to change that.
Bradberry’s mother grew up in Auburn, New York, and as a boy, he would hear references to another Auburn resident — Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous conductors who led people to safety on the Underground Railroad. Bradberry describes reading about Niagara Falls in the encyclopedia under the covers with his Boy Scout flashlight as a kid, and discovering his city’s role in helping slaves escape to Canada.
The Niagara River at the base of the falls was a pivotal point for crossing into Canada. “If you look at pictures, it’s logical,” Bradberry said. “The river looks like a millimeter of nothing — you step across this little puddle and suddenly you’re free. It was a lot easier than massive Lake Erie or Lake Ontario.”
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, the first new attraction in town in 35 years, will be at the site of the 1863 US Custom House, next to the train station. Through interactive exhibits, a recreation of the suspension bridge where Tubman and others crossed the imaginary line from slavery to freedom, and voiceovers, the goal is to tell the stories of those who sought freedom — and those who helped them get there.
One of the galleries will recreate the Cataract House, the largest hotel in Niagara Falls with a wait staff of exclusively African American men. Bradberry says John Morrison, the headwaiter, whose story is told at the museum, trained the men to march in unison and to perform for the guests. While the diners were entertained in the restaurant, the waiters would help the slaves whom visitors had brought with them escape out the back.
Director and curator Ally Spongr says although she grew up 30 minutes away from where the museum stands, she had never heard these stories, and it’s changed the way she sees the city.
“It’s incredible to look at the falls, and I look at them differently knowing these stories,” Spongr said. “It really speaks to me to know that these were people’s final moments in the land of slavery, and they went down a staircase and got into a little wooden boat and in 15 minutes got to Canada.”
Spongr says although the museum does include information on famous people like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the emphasis has been on telling stories of people who are unknown.
Saladin Allah, a descendent of slaves and human rights commissioner and preschool teacher in Niagara Falls, believes these stories are important. His great-great-great-grandfather, Josiah Henson, isn’t completely unknown — he wrote The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, and it’s widely believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe based elements of her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on his life. Knowing that his relative helped his wife and four children to Ontario, in spite of being disabled after an overseer broke his arm, made a difference in Allah’s life, he says.
“Many people played a role in the transition from slavery to freedom, and it’s important that these were everyday people helping freedom seekers — then people see it in themselves,” Allah said. “When we talk about civil rights, we talk about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but there are names that are unsung who did a lot of the work.”
Most of the people involved in the Underground Railroad were not lauded or famous — and many were African American, says Fergus Bordewich, a historian and author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America.
“It’s an extremely important history that was literally forgotten about for 100 years because a biracial movement with African Americans as leading agents and motivators and financiers just didn’t fit with Americans living in long, long Jim Crow era,” he said. “It’s to the point where there’s only one person we know about, but there were hundreds of Harriet Tubmans. She wasn’t unique. Remarkable, but not unique.”
Having a center to tell these stories and dispel some mythology of the Underground Railroad (Bordewich says there’s still a belief that people traveled through tunnels) is particularly necessary now, the historian thinks.
“Some people still think the leaders were kindly white people helping terrified and passive black people. That’s not the truth at all. It’s wrong,” he said. “When racism seems to be flourishing again in this country, it’s important we know about this movement where African Americans played a major role.”
Spongr says they wanted to create engaging content — not just text on a wall. One way they decided to bring the stories to life was by hiring illustrator and fine artist E.B. Lewis to draw pictures of the people whose histories they were telling.
Lewis, who’s been doing work on the black diaspora for the past few years, says he was fascinated by the research that uncovered these stories and did his own research to find out details like what kind of clothing people would have worn and what the coaches looked like then.
Lewis came up to see the large animations made of his drawings and describes it like walking into a book with a roof over it. “It was humbling to know that I’ve been able to put a little mark on this,” he said about the museum. “What is your purpose as an artist? It’s to use your craft so when an opportunity presents itself, you can convey something you feel impassioned about, and now I’m able to leave something behind that my great-grandchildren will see and know I was part of this process.”
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission (825 Depot Ave W, Niagara Falls, New York) opens to the public on May 4.