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Learning the history of freedom seekers

Bold graphics and brief yet thoughtful wall texts immediately draw in visitors to the new Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.

The Center, which reveals authentic stories of Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists in Niagara Falls, is housed within the Niagara Falls Amtrak depot and an adjoining, preserved former U.S. Customs House that now serves as both the Center’s home and an office for the U.S. Immigration and Border Patrol.

The Center’s exhibits are timely, inviting us to connect the experience of freedom-seekers risking their lives to escape horrible circumstances with the struggle of millions of people today, whether they are citizens, refugees or asylum-seekers, those seeking freedom from oppression, violence and danger.

Starting in the lobby of the depot, the small space takes full advantage of every inch its planners had available. Ironically, being located in an operating train station can be confusing, since there are common misconceptions about what the Underground Railroad was. Neither a railroad nor actually underground, it was a secret network of guides and hiding places to help freedom seekers along the dangerous journey north.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center | Buffalo Magazine

Escape Interactive, One More River to Cross Exhibition. (Copyright Kim Smith 2018)

“Our interpretation really focuses on a less-frequently told narrative,” said Center director and curator Ally Spongr. “Rather than the earlier focus on those who helped, we put the freedom seekers at the forefront; as the main actors in their own lives, they found the courage to resist and escape. This is important on a national and even an international level; there are still so many people on the edge of freedom and fighting for freedom.”

No one knows exactly how many tried to escape via the Underground Railroad. It has been discovered that a final part of the experience for many, upon arrival in Niagara Falls, was an organized network of black waiters who worked at the Cataract House, a fancy hotel and restaurant.

By day, these highly trained waiters served white people with formal precision; by night they helped black people, traveling with their “owners,” to begin their journey across the Niagara River to Canada and freedom.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center | Buffalo Magazine

The Arrival Gallery at the One More River to Cross Exhibition. (Copyright Kim Smith 2018)

Lacking many historic photographs or other visual documentation, the Heritage Center employs an effective combination of interactive technology, voiceovers and stories to contextualize the freedom seekers’ experience. Watercolors by well-known illustrator E.B. Lewis lend a warmth to the interpretations.

At one point, visitors walk through a tunnel-like space that mimics the final steps freedom seekers might’ve taken to cross into Canada — as you walk through, your gaze is directed through a window to the actual bridge they were crossing; in the near distance is the Canadian border, where freedom lay.

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