While recently investigating the dismal record of the Amistad Commission, I came across the Underground Railroad portion of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (State Parks) – there I found reference to the New York State Freedom Trail, which began as a state project with similarly high hopes and followed the same trajectory to substandard results.
According to the State Parks webpage: “The New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 proposed the establishment of a Freedom Trail Commission to plan and implement a New York State Freedom Trail program to commemorate these acts of freedom and to foster public understanding of their significance in New York State history and heritage.”
There is an Underground Railroad traveling exhibit “Journey to the North: New York’s Freedom Trail” which can be borrowed and there were hundreds of Underground Railroad site identified around the state. There was even a Freedom Trail Commission which was supposed to issue annual reports to the Board of Regents.
So what happened? Where are these reports? What action has been taken by the Freedom Trail Commission?
The regulation establishing the Commission is still on the books:
§ 233-b. New York state freedom trail commission. 1. a. There is hereby established within the department [of Education] the New York state freedom trail commission. The commission shall consist of twelve members, to be appointed as follows: three members to be appointed by the governor, three members to be appointed by the board of regents, two members to be appointed by the temporary president of the senate, one member to be appointed by the minority leader of the senate, two members to be appointed by the speaker of the assembly, and one member to be appointed by the minority leader of the assembly. Such members shall be representative of academic or public historians, corporations, foundations, historical societies, civic organizations, and religious denominations. In addition, the following state officers, or their designees, shall serve as members of the commission: the commissioner of education, the head of the state museum, the head of the state archives, the head of the office of state history, the commissioner of economic development, the head of the state tourism advisory council and the commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation.
Just as the New York State Education Department was supposed to provide support for the Amistad Commission, the State Parks department was tasked with supporting the Freedom Trail Commission. There was to be a master plan that included “sponsoring commemorations, linkages, seminars and public forum[s].” There were to be annual reports for five years beginning in 1999.
Clearly nothing happened after the establishment of the Commission. A FOIL request in 2016 to the State Education Department was forwarded to the History Office of the New York State Museum and produced the following response:
“The New York State Museum History Office has no records pertaining to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission. I am under the impression that the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation were involved with this commission. Also note that there is a published book on the commission that may be helpful: New York State Freedom Trail Program Study: Report to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1999.”
That report was initiated in 1997. I have a copy, as I attended a meeting when it was later released. It was submitted to the Freedom Trail Commission, it’s not one of the annual reports required by the regulation.
It appears that the Freedom Trail Commission, like the Amistad Commision, and much like the Heritage Areas Program, and the Path through History Program, were all press release programs, devoid of real substance.
Following receipt of the answer to my Freedom of Information Law request, I wanted to check on the progress of the Freedom Trail Commission and its work. Since State Parks (a.k.a. OPRHP) was the designated to support the effort, I started with the State Parks website.
There I found a page dedicated to the Underground Railroad in New York State, and there I found a link to the state’s “many important historic sites, museums and interpretive centers related to Underground Railroad, slavery and anti-slavery themes in New York State” – a Google Map.
The map includes what are presumably some Underground Railroad sites. I selected the only marker in Albany, because I know it has an active historical community interested in the Underground Railroad. For example, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart are co-founders of The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence in Albany and The Underground Railroad History Project in the Capital Region, which recently received a $70,000 grant through the competitive Regional Economic Development Council process. The organization plays host to an outstanding annual conference on the Underground Railroad in Troy.
When you click on the Albany marker on the Google Map provided by State Parks, a blank box appears. There was no information at all about any Underground Railroad site in Albany. (There is no marker at all for Troy, the location of several sites related to the Underground Railroad; ditto for Schenectady.)
In 2013, a new Underground Railroad Map was developed, as reported in The New York History Blog:
“Federal and state partners have recently released a new online map and mobile app to help people explore New York State’s connection to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. The map includes sites, programs and tours that have been approved by the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program or the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.”
The New York Underground Railroad sites have now become part of a larger effort led by the National Park Service. In that New York History Blog report, Ruth Pierpont, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation at OPRHP was quoted in a statement issued to the press: “We are happy to partner with the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor and I Love New York in making this user-friendly map available to promote an understanding of this important, and still under-recognized, aspect of the history of our state.”
This map is available on an app and on the web at www.jimapco.com/eriecanalway/ugrr.
So now there are two New York State maps of underground railroad sites, one on Google, found at the State Parks website, and one on the website of a private map company accessed through the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor – if it occurs to someone to look through an Erie Canal website to find the the statewide Underground Railroad map.
On the “improved” Erie Canal – Underground Railroad map, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence in Albany is included. The link takes you to an unrelated page titled “Body and Home Improvement” which asks why you should hire a water damage restoration company, the advantages of metal roofing, and provides healthy meal prep options.
Keeping links up-to-date is a challenge, especially if no one is responsible for doing it.
I decided to click the map marker for the First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie, where I know the Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery Project meets. The website link there took me to “Oops! That page can’t be found.”
Finally, I tried the one site in Westchester County near where I live: Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow. I was a little surprised to see it on an Underground Railroad site since it was loyalist property that was confiscated after the American Revolution. It didn’t exist in the 1800s and wasn’t part of the Underground Railroad movement. This time the website link worked, but when I reached the Philipsburg Manor website a search “Underground Railroad” returned – as expected – no results.
There is more that could be written about the New York State Freedom Trail and its defunct commission, lack of staff, poorly executed and out of date websites, and the lack of support for conferences, public forums, and teacher programs, but the point should be clear – unfunded, dysfunctional, silo organized history projects are standard operating procedure in New York State.
Photo of The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence courtesy of Lakestolocks.