"Still They Come": Some Eyewitness Accounts of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo

Article excerpt

Buffalo's status as a destination from which African Americans escaping slavery could cross the Niagara River to reach freedom in Canada is well known. However, when reconstructing Buffalo's involvement in the Underground Railroad, the words of those who experienced it are rarely consulted. We all know that the Underground Railroad was an illegal smuggling operation and that no one kept guest books, but a surprisingly good body of evidence exists in the form of slave narratives and other first-person accounts. This article offers eyewitness testimony from men and women who passed through Buffalo while escaping from slavery and from those who assisted them.

Slave narratives, memoirs of bondage by those who survived it, are the first African American genre of literature. Thousands of slave narratives were published in North America and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today they provide scholars with primary sources-participant or eyewitness accounts--of the means by which Africans gained their freedom.

This tradition continued into the 20th century. In 1936-1938, the Federal Writers Project interviewed elderly African-Americans who were born into slavery. Many of their stories are now available online at the American Memory Library of Congress website. (2) Many slave narratives are still in print and can be found in bookstores and libraries. They are also increasingly available in full text sources such as Google Books (3) and the Internet Archive. Entering the terms "slave narrative bibliography" into a search engine will deliver good author/title lists.

While this author has not yet (bund any first-person accounts if concealment in any of Buffalo's existing buildings, there are some excellent descriptions of what fugitives and runaways did experience when they came arrived in the city. Some stayed overnight, some found employment and knit themselves into the community, some were here so briefly that they didn't describe Buffalo at all, and some offer legends that are very interesting but hard to substantiate.

One early account of Buffalo's role in the Underground Railroad comes to us from abolitionist, orator, historian, and novelist William Wells Brown (1815-1884), who lived in Buffalo ca. 1836-1845 after escaping from slavery. Brown found work on Great Lakes steamboats, which enabled him to carry other fugitives to safety in Canada. In his autobiography. Brown wrote:

  "It is well known, that a great number of fugitives make their escape
  to Canada, by way of Cleaveland [sic]; and while on the lake, 1 always
  made arrangement to carry them on the boat to Buffalo or Detroit, and
  thus effect their escape to the "promised land." The friends of the
  slave, knowing that I would transport them without charge, never
  failed to have a delegation when the boat arrived at Cleaveland. I
  have sometimes had four or five on board, at one time. In the year
  1842, I conveyed, from the first of May to the first of December,
  sixty-nine fugitives over Lake Brie to Canada." (4)

Brown's daughter Josephine Brown (b. 1839) later whole a biography of her father, describing the frequent use of the family home to give unspecified assistance to those journeying to freedom.

  "... Buffalo being a place through which many fugitives passed while
  on their way to Canada. Mr. Brown spent much time in assisting those
  who sought his aid. His house might literally have been called the
  'fugitive's house.' As Niagara Falls were only twenty miles from
  Buffalo, slaveholders not unfrequently passed through the latter
  place attended by one or more slave servants. Mr. Brown was always
  on the look-out for such, to inform them that they were free by the
  laws of New York, and to give them necessary aid. The case of every
  colored servant who was seen accompanying a white person was
  strictly inquired into, Mr. Brown's residence also became the home
  of Anti-Slavery agents, and lecturers on all reformatory
  movements. …