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For Tracing the Footsteps of New York City’s Past: "Slave and Underground Railroad Tour"

I believe the saying goes, “if we don’t learn from our past we are doomed to repeat it.” There could be no truer example of this in our country than of slavery and the struggle that occurred during the Civil Rights movement. I have always been interested in the relics of our past that surround our everyday lives. How they lay there beside us as we run to work, out for coffee, off to the theater. We rarely take the time to contemplate how, what, and who has made our lives so comfortable that we have the luxury of complaining about the mundane everyday things that “ruin” our lives.
More so than this, there are artifacts that have no marking, no monument, and instead sit silently as bystanders to history waiting for their chance at recognition. Though they  are too numerous to count, especially in a historical rich section of the world as lower Manhattan, I am becoming increasingly aware of how my everyday movements are stepping back in time. Now I finally have a chance to stop and reflect at what I am passing by and traveling back in time to connect with those who have gone before me and lived in my city but not in my world.
Slavery and the Underground Railroad both have always been topics of interest to me. In general stories of survival or overcoming the odds I find fascinating. I want to know what incredible souls had in their makeup that allowed them to escape their truths and redefine their life paths for themselves. There are lessons to be learned here.
It is this topic which brings me to my most recent outing. Last weekend I completed an item off my 2014/2015 to do list (, a walking tour in New York City devoted to the history of Slavery and the Underground Railroad here.
It was a subject that never really occurred to me to think about in terms of in N.Y.C. I know that sounds ignorant but somehow in my mind the free North didn’t include passageways for slaves and if they did I guess I assumed there were no longer traces of that time period. But you know what happens when you assume….
I had no idea what the specifics would be of this tour and the description was vague but I was so interested and so glad I was getting to finally go. My cousin was my date and she was equally excited which made it even better. It was a beautiful day in our neighborhood for a walk and a talk. And boy is that what we got.
Anyone who has seen The Real Housewives of Atlanta this season knows that to ask where the Underground Railroad stopped leaves some breathless. That question leaves me angered beyond belief. We all know by now that this was the means many slaves used to get from state to state to achieve their freedom by traveling underground so as not to be discovered and killed. There were many helpers along the way, safe houses, as well as the dark, dirty underground tunnels used to connect one secure location to another. Of course nothing was guaranteed and everyone involved was at risk.
I recently saw the acclaimed movie “12 Years a Slave” and although the main character is not apart of the Underground Railroad it shows the difference between freedom and slavery makes in one man’s life. It is very powerful and the risks one may take for freedom, especially regaining one’s freedom, all rise to the surface. Under such palpable, intensely stressful situations daring to flee certainly seems impossible. It is amazing that anyone had the bravery and creativity to find a way to go. How each story differs from one another is what keeps drawing me in story after story.
Prior to this walking tour the only other experience, in real life, I had with the Underground Railroad was during a trip to Memphis in 2011 when I visited the Burkle Estate ( This was a house that was purchased for the purpose of buying slaves and keeping up the appearance they were workers. Then at night the house’s real secret was shown as it was a main transport of the Underground Railroad especially given its proximity to the Mississippi River. The house has artifacts that still remain from that time period and tour guides full of history bringing to life the stories from the past. It is something I highly recommend if you are in the area. The quiet house on the quiet road looks as unsuspecting now as it probably did then.

On the morning of this tour we were to meet in front of the National Museum of the American- Indian (there is also one in Washington, D.C.). Although I have passed this museum many times I never actually stood directly in front of it and took it all in. I have to admit that there are many details I would have missed had our tour guide not mentioned them. I thought it was just an easy meeting point. It turns out it was the beginning of our story.
This museum was originally the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House built 1902–1907 by the federal government to house the duty collection operations for the port of New York York City. This site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The man who created the design for this building, Cass Gilbert, also did the Woolworth building another N.Y.C. infamous building and National Historic Landmark as of 1966.
The four statues that border the entrance to the museum are to represent (left to right): Africa and its slave labor, America on the backs on the Native Americans, United Kingdom on its throne, and Asia. It was so interesting to learn about this building I had always starred at. The details on these magnificent sculptures were coming alive as they were being shown to me.

From here we began our walk and stopped when we hit a familiar scene to me; Fraunces Tavern. The Tavern was home to the Sons of the Revolution in 1904 and was New York’s oldest building. When I had visited previously and took the tour inside ( I was intrigued that George Washington had spent the night here after saying goodbye to the Continental Army in 1783. The building’s block was entered as a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Next we walked down to Wall Street where the slave markets were held. From that vantage point we could see the building directly across the street that was the former offices of the Tappan brothers. The two men were wealthy abolitionists and devoted their money and time to helping the cause. 
We proceeded to walk to a former home that was notably part of the Underground Railroad. When we got there, there were many things to see. First of all you will note the square like impressions in the freshly repaved concrete. These are the marks from the wall (how Wall Street got its name) that slaves had built to surround the city. Though that wall has long since been demolished these marks and holes remain as scares to bear witness.

Here we also can see Trinity Church. Until skyscrapers were built this was the highest building in Manhattan. Many famous and revolutionary figures are buried here including my hero Alexander Hamilton.
Everyone knows about Harriet Tubman. Her middle name should be Underground Railroad. But beyond that I learned that she continued to help slaves escape until she was well into middle age. She often carried both a gun and a live chicken under her dress. The chicken was to use in case she needed a distraction during an escape and the gun in case anything went wrong. At one point she was the most wanted woman and there were posters of her picture, name, and even the fact that she could not read so that she could be identified and captured. One day during a close call as a man approached her she pretended she was reading a book, the man assuming he had the wrong woman backed away and she remained free. Harriet lived long enough to see slavery come to an end in 1856. She died in 1913 at the age of ninety-one.
It was at this point when our guide, Sean, told us his favorite stories of escape. These are my two favorite; the stories of Henry “Box” Brown and William and Ellen Craft.
Henry Brown earned his nickname “Box” from the inventive way he found his path to freedom. He was from Virginia and in a desperate ploy he packaged himself into a box with only a few holes for air and mailed himself to the Philadelphia offices of abolitionists. He managed to arrive there, not having made a sound the entire time, and when his box was opened the first thing he said was “hello gentlemen”. Frederick Douglass asked him to keep this story to himself when he went around lecturing about his life so that other slaves could use the same method of escape.
This next story Hollywood couldn’t even dream of. The fact that it really happened and that it ended so wonderfully makes it all the more astounding. It begins in 1848 and two slaves we were going to escape from Georgia. This pair was a married couple, with the wife being half white and half black as the child of a slave mother and master of the house. In order for their plan to work people would have to people that Ellen was a deaf and injured white man and her husband William was her loyal helper. Ellen’s hair was cut short and she wore bandages over her face and her arm in a sling. This way it covered most of her feminine features and she would not be required to sign her name while traveling. As a “deaf man” her slave would do all the talking for her.
The Crafts first took a train to Charleston, South Carolina and then eventually to Philadelphia. Fearing the Fugitive Slave Act they sailed to Britain where they had five children and lived out the rest of their years. They had never been found out and in 1860 published their story, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (a story that can be found in the book listed in the links below). In 1868 they moved back to America and opened a school for freedmen’s children.

It is ironic that this tour ended at the African Burial Ground. This is a place I have visited before ( and loved. The second time around made no difference. This time I was showing my favorite parts to others on the tour and taking it all in again. It still overwhelmed me and these exhibits, though small, help establish the reality for those buried here. We had come full circle on our walk through time.
Up next I plan to visit Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. They both were huge stomping grounds during these times and have very powerful reminders still left in on their premises despite still being available for services. Tours are available for both if you make the arrangements. I am eager to continue on this journey and seek out what remains to be learned from those who time has not forgotten.
What I ultimately learned from this tour, as it made me further reflect on this history, my thoughts then turned to humanity. It should be the link between generations and cultures. But sadly there are so many instances where it is lacking. It is hard for me to image that all of these things really happened because I cannot image having lived it or worse being the kind of person who could inflict such damage- no matter what I was taught to believe.
I realized then that the thing that separates one individual from another is the ability to have compassion. But alas compassion is a gift. Compassion cannot be taught.
For Information on This Tour:
For Similar Sites I Have Already Visited:
For Future Underground Railroad Sites I Plan to Visit:
For Further Reading:


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