Professor to help Underground Railroad sites gain recognition

Dr. Judy Wellman of SUNY Oswego’s history department will help several communities use their connections to the Underground Railroad to get on track with tourists under a state grant.

The $23,250 grant to create and upgrade signs and historical interpretation comes from Heritage New York, a program of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The grant covers identification and education for 27 Underground Railroad Heritage Trail sites around the state. “This program will do signage for all of them, exhibits for many of them,” Wellman explained.

Oswego County sites will include the Oswego Public Library, Starr Clark Tin Shop in Mexico and the Bristol Hill Church in Volney. Other Central New York places include the Tubman and Seward houses in Auburn, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home in Fayetteville and the Gerrit Smith House in Peterborough.

In the mid-19th century, the region was pivotal to the Underground Railroad because it was a nexus of east-west and north-south travel located near Canada, Wellman said.

“Oswego was the most important port of trade with Canada,” she said. “It was a natural place to come. Gerrit Smith owned the whole eastside harbor area and was a known abolitionist. You knew once you reached The Cove, as Smith’s operation was called, you reached a point of freedom.”

The first step for Wellman is meetings at historical sites to gather information, cultivate ideas and start envisioning what type of interpretation may work. A team from Heritage New York, probably including a scholar, a facilitator and a designer, will elaborate on the initial study.

“We hope when the project is done, this will be marketed as a whole trail so people from around the country can visit these remarkable places,” said Wellman, who retired from full-time teaching—but still teaches some online courses for SUNY Oswego—in 2000 to start her own consultancy, Historical New York Research Associates.

“It’s really a tool of economic development for a lot of these communities as well as an educational component about what we have in Upstate New York,” Wellman said. “We have beautiful scenery, great stories and historical buildings. We’re primed for heritage tourism, which I think is really taking off.”

Wellman also hopes the project will remind local communities to take pride in their heritage and will convey some facts that are not widely known. “For instance, sometimes large groups of freedom seekers stayed in Oswego instead of going on to Canada,” she noted. “There were more than 300 African-Americans in Oswego County in the 1850s, according to census records.”

The Underground Railroad also, to Wellman, represents an uplifting story showing everyday people standing up and banding together against what they felt was an unjust system—and a legacy passed to future generations by grassroots historians throughout the state.

“It’s such an affirming project,” Wellman said. “Here are people working locally to keep alive stories about people who worked to bring about freedom and uphold the Declaration of Independence’s idea that all men are created equal. It’s really exciting.”

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(Posted: Aug 22, 2007)