History and Social Justice – Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

October 15, 2018 || Posted by: F. Calarco (NERO) –

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center opened its doors for the first time to visitors in May 2018. Working in conjunction with the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area to share the stories of border crossings related to the Underground Railroad, the heritage center highlights the narratives of freedom seekers and American History.

Several decades in the making, the road to opening the heritage center began 30-40 years ago when community members in Niagara Falls began uncovering untold family histories relating to the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad Heritage Commission was eventually formed and began the process of using these stories to form a heritage center by creating a management plan. A shared staffing agreement was also created with the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area to provide the means of creating and managing the center’s exhibits.

Now located in the former 1863 U.S. Custom House attached to the new Niagara Falls Amtrak Station, the heritage center uses its new space to highlight the narratives of freedom seekers, including the stories of the Cataract House Hotel. The second largest hotel in Niagara Falls during the 1800s, the elegant Cataract House was visited by a number of European dignitaries and Southern slave-owners. The head waiter, John Morrison, coordinated his staff to operate as secret agents of the Underground Railroad. Able to hide in plain sight, the wait staff assisted a number of freedom seekers cross the border into Canada.
Outside view of the brick and glass exterior of the heritage center.
The U.S. Custom House in Niagara Falls was transformed into the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

On the importance of using the term “freedom seeker,” the heritage center’s Visitor Experience Specialist Saladin Allah elaborated, “Oftentimes when people speak about the Underground Railroad they talk about ‘escaped slaves,’ ‘runaway slaves,’ or ‘freed slaves.’ When you refer to a human being that way, you are using the word ‘slave’ to define their identity. Slavery was a condition, not an identity. We don’t refer to people that way, we only refer to them within the context of being a ‘freedom seeker,’ which is much more universal, and applicable to people who are seeking freedom today.”

Many of these stories were pieced together with careful research from historic articles, documents, and the Cataract House registers. Without photos, the heritage center sought to bring the Underground Railroad agents to life in a visually engaging way by working with illustrator E.B. Lewis, who created watercolor illustrations of the wait staff.
Illustration of two men in suits standing in front of the Niagara Falls.
John Morrison (left) and James Patterson (right), Cataract House Waiters and Underground Railroad Leaders. Watercolor on paper, transferred to 11’ x 9’ glass at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. E.B. Lewis, 2017-18.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center / E.B. Lewis

The heritage center also worked with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which provided the center’s staff with facilitated dialogue training. This includes engaging visitors to share their own stories and opinions, with museum staff, as well as with other visitors.

Ally Spongr, Director and Curator of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, stated, “Our mission is to connect memory to action, past to present. We want people to find those connections through their own lives, experiences and perspectives so that they can speak to the larger concept of freedom. We also want our visitors to know that the struggle for freedom did not end in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, it continues today in a variety of forms and in many different ways across the globe. No one is free until we are all free. We want to inspire our visitors to take action, no matter how large or small in their own lives, to help others be free as well.”

In addition to facilitating discussions, the heritage center has also worked on social justice projects in collaboration with other organizations. The center hosted a voter registration drive in partnership with the League of Women Voters. They hosted an event with the Jewish Relations Council of Buffalo, the Jewish Federation, and True Bethel Baptist Church. Since the opening, two Holocaust survivors visited the space. The heritage center also offers free membership to the residents of Niagara Falls, ensuring that community members have access to their local history.
Cataract House Hotel exhibit with tables, silverware, illustrations, and panel text.
The Cataract House Gallery showcases stories of the waiters who aided freedom seekers.

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

To learn more, listen to the NPS National Heritage Area Podcast Episode with Director & Curator Ally Spongr and Visitor Experience Specialist Saladin Allah of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.

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Last updated: October 15, 2018