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Program History

National Park Service (NPS) involvement with the Underground Railroad began in response to Public Law 101-628, enacted in November 1990, which directed the agency to study alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the Underground Railroad.

Guided by an Advisory Committee[1] as specified in the legislation, the NPS completed a Special Resource Study in 1995.Several alternatives for commemorating the Underground Railroad were evaluated, including establishment of a commemorative and interpretive center, improvement and expansion of interpretive programs, visitor interaction with a concentration of Underground Railroad resources over a broad geographic area, development of a single commemorative monument, and establishment of a series of trails.The Advisory Committee recommended that "all the alternatives … be pursued with equal vigor and simultaneously as appropriate."[2]

Three findings of the study were especially important in setting the stage for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, which established the framework for an on-going NPS program.

  • No single site or route completely reflects and characterizes the Underground Railroad.The story and resources involve networks and regions rather than individual sites and trails.
  • There is a tremendous amount of interest in the subject, but little organized coordination and communication among interested individuals and organizations.
  • A variety of partnership approaches would be most appropriate for the protection and interpretation of the Underground Railroad.These partnerships could include the federal, state, and local governments, along with a variety of private sector involvement.

These findings continue to inform the development of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, as authorized by P.L. 105-203.




Influenced by the increasing grass roots efforts by communities and descendants across the country to preserve their UGRR heritage and the recommendations of the Special Resource Study, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act was drafted.

From its inception, the authors conceived of the Network to Freedom Program as a unique effort to honor and commemorate the people of the UGRR, past and present.  A three-pronged program was outlined:

  • Educate the public
  • Provide technical assistance for documenting, preserving and interpreting UGRR history
  • Create a Network of historic sites; interpretive and educational programs; and research and educational facilities with a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad. 
UGRR Logo

o   Design a unique logo to identify sites, programs, and facilities accepted in the Network

Community Consultation

 

An essential ingredient in formulating the program envisioned in the Network to Freedom Act, was consultation with community advocates and local researchers.  If the Network to Freedom was to represent the significance of the Underground Railroad, its inception as the manifestation of community memories had to be respected.  NPS invited community representatives to participate in several meetings and charrettes focused on these issues.  Most significantly:

  • July 1999, Columbus, Ohio—determine the types of sites, programs and facilities that should be recognized in the Network and guiding principles for use of the logo
  • January 2000, Charleston, SC—clarify the standards for “verifiable association”, the use of oral traditions to document UGRR associations, and issues related to historic preservation of UGRR properties    

The prevailing sentiment expressed in these meetings was that the Network to Freedom should be inclusive in the types of sites, programs, and facilities that could qualify.  However, the need to maintain clear standards for documenting a verifiable association was emphasized.  Most of the participants, having researched Underground Railroad history for many years, were keenly aware of the perception that accurate information about the Underground Railroad is not available and that many claims for association are rooted in myth.  Above all, community researchers are concerned with the importance of this history and the need for credibility in claims of Underground Railroad association.     

With this in mind, however, there is also a strong feeling that oral traditions must be respected as a legitimate source of information on the Underground Railroad.  The NPS Network to Freedom Program acknowledges the centrality of oral traditions in learning about the Underground Railroad.  To include sites in the Network to Freedom, however, the NPS requires additional documentation to substantiate details before oral traditions (or written evidence) may be used to validate site associations.  As with all historical research, more than one source of information—written or oral—is generally required for corroboration  For guidance on researching UGRR history, click here.  

As the Network to Freedom staff developed the mission statement for the program, the process and application form for nominating members to the Network to Freedom, and guidance on using oral traditions to research, we continued consulting and working with community members and NPS staff skilled in interpretation, curation, and archives.

Jerry Gore speaking in Independence Square Director Stanton and logo designer Shelley Harper unveil the freedom star logo
Network to Freedom Launch Event, October 12, 2000

 

NPS and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) officially launched the new logo, application process, and website on October 12, 2000 at Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Network to Freedom Day centered on the story and significance of the Underground Railroad and highlighted the new NPS program developed to commemorate this history.  Most significantly, the freedom star logo and original program website were unveiled for the first time.     

          

Among the day’s events:


  • Participants received a First Day Issue Cancellation, Network to Freedom Day provided by the U.S. Postal Service.

  • “In Their Words”  Breakfast

  • Self guided walking tours of area Underground Railroad sites

  • National Press Conference (Independence Square)
    Featuring the unveiling of the Network to Freedom logo by NPS Director Robert Stanton and comments by Tom Kiernan, NPCA President

  • Network to Freedom Walk
    Participants from across the United States celebrated the  Network to Freedom and raised awareness of the Underground Railroad by walking from Independence Square to Mother Bethel AME Church.

  • “In the Spirit of the Ancestors" (at Mother Bethel AME Church)
    Including a performance by “Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters” depicting through song the communication networks used during the Underground Railroad

  • Spirit of Freedom banquet and performance by Melba Moore

 

 

Network to Freedom Application Review Meetings


In keeping with the NPS commitment to public consultation and participation, the process developed for adding new sites, programs, and facilities to the Network to Freedom included opportunities for public input.Applications are considered in two "rounds" of review each year.Candidates under consideration for inclusion in the Network to Freedom are posted to the program's website and included in the program's newsletters.The review committee is comprised of all Network to Freedom regional staff and at times an historian from the NPS National Register of Historic Places.The committee discusses the applications at public review meetings and then votes on whether the standards for documentation and connection to the UGRR are met.In order to make these meetings as more accessible, NPS has held them at various locations around the country.Due to federal budget and travel considerations, however, as of summer 2011, applications will no longer be reviewed in face-to-face meetings.

Dates and Locations of Application Review Meetings

Round

Date

Location

1

April 4, 2001

Washington, DC

2

September 20, 2001

St Louis, Missouri (cancelled due to 9/11, reviewed by conference call)

3

April 3, 2002

New Orleans, Louisiana

4

October 10, 2002

Cleveland, Ohio

5

April 2, 2003

Denver, Colorado

6

September 17, 2003

Buffalo, New York

7

March 31, 2004

San Bernardino, California

8

September 15, 2004

Baltimore, Maryland

9

April 2005

Indianapolis, Indiana

10

August 31, 2005

Natchez, Mississippi (Cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina, reviewed by conference call)

11

March 15, 2006

Miami, Florida

12

September 13, 2006

Auburn, New York

13

March 28, 2007

Santa Fe, New Mexico

14

September 12, 2007

Georgetown, Kentucky

15

April 9, 2008

Detroit, Michigan

16

August 26, 2008

Sonora, California

17

April 1, 2009

Natchez, Mississippi

18

August 26, 2009

Leesburg, Virginia

19

March 17, 2010

Little Rock, Arkansas

20

August 18, 2010

Portland, Maine

21

April 6, 2011

Wilmington, North Carolina


Statistics on Network to Freedom Listings


33 states

436 listings

290 sites  

88 programs  

58 facilities

 

Annual UGRR Conferences


The Network to Freedom has joined with local partners to present an annual UGRR conference beginning in 2007.  These conferences bring together a mix of grass roots researchers, community advocates, site stewards, government officials, and scholars to explore the history of the Underground Railroad.  Rotated to different parts of the country, the conferences highlight the unique history of various regions along with new research.

 

Conference locations

September 10-15, 2007

Georgetown, Kentucky

September 15-20, 2008; celebrating 10 Years of the NTF, "On the Right Track"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

September 16-19, 2009

Indianapolis, Indiana

July 28-31, 2010

Topeka, Kansas

June 15-18, 2011

Clermont County, Ohio (Cincinnati)

June 2012

St. Augustine, Florida

 

Other Collaborations and conferences

 

May 18-19, 2001

Borderlands Conference with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Northern Kentucky University's (NKU) Institute for Freedom Studies, focusing on the Middle Ohio River Valley from Marietta to Evansville, held at the NKU campus.

 

May 31-June 2, 2002

"Underground Railroad Activities on the Maritime Great Lakes"conference, with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan;

 

February 27-March 1, 2003

Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in American History and Legend

Conference, Community Tribute, and Cultural Fair with the Smithsonian Institution

National Museum of American History, Behring Center Program in African American Culture and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

 

May 29-31, 2004

"Freedom in the Florida Territory;American and Caribbean Connections to the Underground Railroad"conference, with National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Florida Underground Railroad Project, hosted at the University of Miami, in Miami, Florida.

September 28-October 8, 2006

"The Underground Railroad Experience" exhibit at the Tulsa State Fair, featuring an exhibit of artifacts by Jerry Gore and photographic artwork by Stephen Marc


Endnotes

[1] The Advisory Committee included nine members with expertise in African American history, historic preservation, museum work, and public programs.The members were Vivian Abdur-Rahim, Thomas Battle, Ancella Bickley, Charles Blockson (chair), John Fleming, Barbara Hudson, Rose Powhatan, Glennette Turner, and Robin Winks.

[2] U.S. Department of the Interior, "Underground Railroad:Special Resource Study, Management Concepts, Environmental Alterrnatives", 1995, p. v.