The Inception of the Network to Freedom
Influenced by the increasing grass roots efforts by communities and descendants across the country to preserve their Underground Railroad heritage and the recommendations of a Special Resource Study, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act was drafted. The goal of the program is to honor and commemorate the people of the Underground Railroad, past and present. A three-pronged program was outlined:
- Educate the public,
- Provide technical assistance for documenting, preserving and interpreting Underground Railroad history,
- and, create a Network of historic sites; interpretive and educational programs; and research and educational facilities all with a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad.
An essential part of formulating the program envisioned in the Network to Freedom Act was consulting with community advocates and local researchers to correctly respect the community memories of the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service invited community representatives to participate in several meetings to focus on these issues. The most significant meetings were:
- July 1999, Columbus, OH: determined the types of sties, programs and facilities that should be recognized by the Network and the guiding principles for use of the logo.
- January 2000, Charleston, SC: clarified the standards for "verifiable association," the use of oral traditions to document Underground Railroad associations, and issues related to historic preservation of Underground Railroad properties.
The prevailing sentiment of 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. Many of the participants, having researched the Underground Railroad history for many years, were aware of the perception that accurate information about the Underground Railroad is not available and many claims for association are rooted in myth. Above all, there was concern for the importance of the history and the need for credibility in claims of Underground Railroad association.
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, staff continued to consult and work with community members, as well as, National Park Service staff skilled in interpretation, curation and archives.
The Launch of the Network to Freedom
The National Park Service and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) launched the freedom star logo, application process and program website on October 12, 2000 at Underground Railroad "Network to Freedom" Day in Philadelphia, PA. The occasion centered on the story and significance of the Underground Railroad and highlighted the new National Park Service program developed to commemorate the history. The day's events included:
- Participants received a first day issue cancellation, "Network to Freedom Day" provided by the U.S.. Postal Service;
- an "In Their Words" breakfast;
- self-guided walking tours of Underground Railroad sites in the area;
- a National Press Conference at Independence Square, featuring the unveiling of the Network to Freedom logo by National Park Service Director Robert Stanton and comments by Tom Kiernan, NPCA President;
- a Network to Freedom Walk, in which participants from across the United States celebrated the program and raised awareness of the Underground Railroad by walking from Independence Square to Mother Bethel AME Church in Pennsylvania;
- an "In the Spirit of the Ancestors" performance at Mother Bethel AME Church, including a musical performance by "Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters" depicting the communication networks used during the Underground Railroad;
- and a Spirit of Freedom banquet, featuring a 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. 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, many of the reviews since 2011, have been conducted through conference calls.
The Network to Freedom Today
Today, the Network to Freedom consists of over 650 listings and counting, from over 40 states, plus Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Network to Freedom works with its members to tell the stories of the Underground Railroad from across the nation.
Last updated: October 7, 2020