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Ride on the History Train

Children and parents can explore many of the nearly 30 sites identified as part of the Underground Railroad in Central New York during Black History Month and throughout the year. Visitors who retrace the steps of runaway slaves and tour the homes where ordinary citizens kept the slaves hidden learn how important Central New York was to the Underground Railroad.

”It’s inspiring to see how ordinary these sites look. You don’t have to be rich or powerful to start working for ideals of respect and equality (for) all,” says Judith Wellman, who has worked to get sites designated as part of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. Wellman, a professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York at Oswego, encourages young and old to visit these sites that were key in propelling the abolitionist movement. Many schoolchildren start to learn about the Underground Railroad in third grade.

“It speaks to one of the main themes in American history, which is in the Declaration of Independence, which is that all men are created equal. And, if you read the Seneca Falls resolution, it’s all men and women are created equal,” she notes.

The anti-slavery movement stretched all over upstate New York and was particularly active in Central New York. Residents drive by many of these sites every day without taking notice of their historical value. “It challenges us to figure out what democracy means to us right now,” Wellman adds.

Harriet Tubman, a former slave who settled in Auburn, played a key role in running the Underground Railroad. She is credited with helping about 300 slaves escape from indentured work in the South. Buildings where Tubman’s house was located are open for tours beginning in February each year at the Harriet Tubman Home, 180 South St., Auburn. Visitors can see everyday period items used in Tubman’s home, such as a sewing machine and clock, as they tour the first floor of the house.

Tubman established a nursing home at the site for former slaves who might have no one to care for them in their later years. People of all ages can learn something by visiting the Harriet Tubman Home, part of the National Historic Registry, says Christine Carter, tour coordinator. The site also includes a library and assembly hall constructed by the AME Zion Church, to which Tubman deeded the property.

Tubman’s activities also made her part of the women’s rights movement in the United States, commemorated in nearby Seneca Falls, which also features some tributes to the abolition movement. Tubman’s grave can be seen at Fort Hill Cemetery.

East Syracuse actor and producer Val Ward enjoys taking on the character of Tubman in a one-act drama she first performed in Chicago, where she and her playwright husband Francis Ward ran the Kaumba Theatre for 30 years. A Syracuse production featuring Negro spirituals is planned for February 2008, Ward says.

“I think that the heroism of people like Harriet Tubman should be as routine and common to all Americans as the stories of World War II,” says Francis Ward, an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. “I think it’s important to emphasize for everybody because it’s the kind of thing people are likely to forget.” He believes Tubman’s contribution to our country should be as familiar as the names of the presidents.

Families can design their own freedom trail tours using maps and brochures (available from the Web sites listed below), beginning with Tubman’s home in Auburn and then heading to several sites throughout Central New York known as former stops on the Underground Railroad and marked with interpretive signs. In addition, the Onondaga Historical Association Museum & Research Center offers a year-round exhibit on the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement in Syracuse and surrounding towns. An audio and light projection program depicts the struggles of escaping slaves and the Jerry Rescue anti-slavery event of 1851 in Syracuse. The museum is located in the city at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

Head north for an Oswego stop on your family’s tour at the H. Lee White Marine Museum, West First Street Pier, about a half-mile north of Route 104 on the west side of the Oswego River. The museum features a year-round exhibit on the Underground Railroad. Visitors can get a sense of a former slave’s journey by starting on the second floor where stars are marked on the ceiling. Following the North Star, they descend the stairs, as if through a tunnel, to the first floor, where posters from slave hunters hang. A common shelf of jarred goods fits in the wall under the stairs. But if news of a slave catcher comes, the homeowner tells a fugitive slave (or museum visitor) to push back the shelf. Inside is barely enough room for one person to crawl into and hide until the all-safe signal is given. Former slaves often referred to these spots as “hidey holes.”

Another destination is the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home in Fayetteville. Major remodeling has temporarily closed the house to visitors, but it’s worth a drive to view the historic building at the corner of Walnut and Genesee streets. Restoration and archaeological work at the site can be followed on a Web site maintained by workers and volunteers (http://iis.syr.edu/WP/gage/).

Gage, a Syracuse-area newspaper editor and publisher, was an advocate of abolition who harbored escaped slaves. She also promoted women’s rights. Her sister, Maud, married L. Frank Baum, the author of the book The Wizard of Oz and its sequels. Just last summer, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Library of Feminism opened at 109 Walnut St. in Fayetteville. Exhibits include papers and artifacts of Gage and Baum, and Oz memorabilia.

Central New Yorkers have many opportunities to learn more about the area’s role in the abolition movement with visits to real-life historic locations and virtual visits on the Web, or a combination. For more information, check out the Web site of Heritage New York at www.heritageny.gov and click on Underground Railroad for locations of stops on the trail.      

Experience the Freedom Trail

Historic sites in Central and Western New York explore New Yorkers’ involvement in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman Home
180 South St., Auburn
252-2081; www.nyhistory.com/harriettubman
Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Extended hours during February in honor of Black History Month.)
See actual items used by Tubman and her residents at the site of the home she established for former slaves.

Onondaga Historical Association Museum & Research Center
321 Montgomery St., Syracuse
428-1864; www.cnyhistory.org
Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays,
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free admission, donation suggested.
Exhibit and video on the anti-slavery event known as Jerry Rescue.

Seward House
33 South St., Auburn
252-1283; www.sewardhouse.org
Open February through December, Tuesdays through Saturdays,
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Extended summer hours include Sundays.
Adults, $6; students, $2; under age 12, free.
Slaves were hidden in the house of this prominent abolitionist who served as governor and U.S. senator; tour the beautifully maintained 19th-century home.

H. Lee White Marine Museum
West First Street Pier, Oswego
342-0480; www.hleewhitemarinemuseum.com
Open year-round; Mondays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m.
Adults, $4; ages 5-12, $2; under age 5, free.
Children can push open the door that reveals a secret compartment where a fugitive slave could hide.

Rochester Museum & Science Center
657 East Ave., Rochester
(585) 271-4320; www.rmsc.org
Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.
Adults, $8; senior citizens and college students, $7; ages 3-18, $6; under age 3, free.
Ongoing exhibit on Frederick Douglass, statesman, orator and former slave.

Web sites of note

Underground Railroad in Oswego County:

Preservation Association of Central New York and the Freedom Trail:

Underground Railroad, abolitionism and African American Life in Auburn and Cayuga County:



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