The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is a new, experiential museum that reveals authentic stories of Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists in Niagara Falls, and aims to inspire visitors to recognize modern injustices that stem from slavery and take action toward an equitable society. Open since May 2018, the permanent exhibition, One More River to Cross, features the rich stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls, the crucial role played by its location and geography, and the actions of its residents – particularly its African American residents. The Heritage Center’s immersive exhibits and cutting-edge interpretation affirmatively align with the principles of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, whose mission is to connect the past to modern social justice issues – “to turn memory to action.” Emily Reynolds, Marketing Specialist, responded to the CultureBank questions.

Suspension Bridge - Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center ©Kim Smith

Suspension Bridge - Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center ©Kim Smith

CultureBank Questions

Where – in what community – do you primarily do your work?

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center serves the people of Niagara Falls, NY. Niagara Falls is part of the rust belt and is recovering from decades of economic and population decline, but also is the destination of over 4 million tourists each year who come to visit the falls.

What gets you going each day and inspires your current work?

My work at the Heritage Center is inspired by the stories of the people who lived in and moved through Niagara Falls during the era of slavery in the United States.

One of those stories is of the waiters at the Cataract House, and grand hotel that operated in Niagara Falls from 1825 - 1945. Everyone who was anyone stayed at the Cataract House when they visited the Falls including prominent abolitionists as well as enslavers, who often brought their enslaved servants with them. The waiters at the hotel were all African American, and free. Covertly, and at great personal risk, the waiters at the Cataract House aided many enslaved servants of the hotel guests to cross the Niagara River by boat to freedom in Canada.

These stories of unknown heroes, fighting oppression against odds are what keep me inspired every day!

 
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center - Central Hotel Staff, about 1890. Courtesy Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center - Central Hotel Staff, about 1890. Courtesy Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

 

When you work in your community, what are the most valuable assets of the community that you experience aside from real estate and money?

For our work, the most valuable asset in our community is the stories of the people who have lived here through history, and those who live here now. Generations of people in Niagara Falls have incredible stories to tell about things that have happened here.

The other valuable asset is the falls themselves. Currently, they bring over 4 million people to Niagara Falls each year who we hope we can share this history with.

A third asset that we experience is a geographic closeness to the Canadian border. In the time of the Underground Railroad, the line between the US and Canada was the line of freedom for countless enslaved people. Our proximity to Canada is a largely untapped resource for more stories, more history, and cross-national collaboration.

How does your artistic practice inform and/or is integrated into your enterprise?

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center - Cecilia Reynolds and Cataract House Hotel Waiter, illustration copyright E.B. Lewis. Courtesy of Richard Lewis Media Group, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center and E.B. Lewis

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center - Cecilia Reynolds and Cataract House Hotel Waiter, illustration copyright E.B. Lewis. Courtesy of Richard Lewis Media Group, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center and E.B. Lewis

While our museum celebrates history, we have integrated art and culture into every part. Many of the people who we focus on aren’t documented by photography, their stories were necessarily secretive, and objects that populated this history weren’t considered worth saving. To illustrate the stories and help visitors understand the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls we worked with collaborators, including the illustrator E.B. Lewis to bring the stories to life.

What is the impact of your work on your community? Today? Over a long period of time?

Our museum will have been open for one year this May of 2019. In this first year, we have brought untold stories of the Underground Railroad to our community, building a new sense of pride in the history that happened in Niagara Falls. This history of power over oppression feels especially important for the 22% of our city who identify as African American, and many who are descendants of enslaved people.

In ten years, we will have built stakeholders out of our community, who know and own the stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls and amplify them to all who will listen. We will be providing jobs to the people who live here and will have expanded the offerings for tourists in Niagara Falls so that they stay longer and invest more in local businesses. We also hope to be helping other cities mine their own histories and develop similar centers, where untold stories of the Underground Railroad can continue to inspire people and encourage them to take action towards justice and equity.

The Nitty Gritty

When was your organization or project founded?

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center opened May 4, 2018.

What is your staffing situation like?

We have 9 part-time staff members.

What is your annual budget?

Our annual budget is around $300,000


Find out more at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center website!

Emily Reynolds