History Worth Fighting For: My Trip to the Underground Railroad Heritage Center
by Jackie McGriff
Do you ever walk away from visiting a place knowing that it's going to be a core memory? You know that its left a mark, but one that will change you for the better.
That was my experience walking through the halls of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. I knew that I was going to walk away knowing a bit more about this history that's not taught to us more in depth, but I also knew that I was going to walk away a little different.
I arrived just in time for their Freedom Conversation tour. My docent, Jasiah Jackson, led our small group through the museum telling us the stories of both enslaved (soon-to-be freed) and freed people and all of the ways they'd found their freedom into Canada. We were taken through the history surrounding the Undergrown Railroad, the economy of slavery and how both the North, the South, and Canada (WHAT?!) benefited from it, and how we still see the impacts of slavery in our system today (with a nod to the 13th amendment).
One exhibit that particularly stood out to me was about the Cataract House. According to Jackson, this would be considered a "5-star hotel" by our standards today. It's where many dignitaries from all over the world would stay. Members of the Parkhurst and Celinda Whitney family owned the Cataract House and hired only African-American men. These men served patrons AND helped enslaved people escape. Not only would they do that, but they'd often protect formerly enslaved people from being recaptured.
Some enslaved people would visit Cataract House with their masters and they were written in the guest book as "servants". Jackson told us a story about one woman who was freed by her husband with the help of the staff. You could say that the staff also doubled as spies (and you can't convince me otherwise). The head waiter, John Morrison, often rowed enslaved people to freedom and was so secretive that there aren't any photos of him except for a sketch.
Upon hearing and reading all of this, I immediately felt like I'd been punched in my chest. Niagara Falls is only a little more than an hour away from me. Why was I JUST learning about this now? Why weren't we taught this in school? Why has it taken me this long to hear detailed stories about the Underground Railroad aside from Harriet Tubman being a conductor?
And what was even more devastating -- why am I just hearing about Black people helping other Black people to freedom? While I acknowledge that there were white, Indigenous people (John Morrison was Black and Indigenous, Y'ALL!) and other people of color who helped enslaved people escape to freedom, I almost never hear about Black people helping other Black people and these stories are just as important to learn.
You need to RUN, not walk, to this museum. (And, if you need a buddy, I'm always up for another trip!) I am incredibly thankful and grateful for my visit to the Underground Railroad Heritage Center, especially to the staff there who engaged us not only with these vital stories and deeper looks into this vast network of folks fighting for freedom, but also to their dedication in making sure that we all know this history and its impact on our policies today.