NY museum celebrates region's history with Underground Railroad

KEESEVILLE, N.Y. (WCAX) We celebrate and honor Black History Month in February. But a museum in Northern New York celebrates the special connection our region has with black culture in America year-round. Our Kelly O'Brien takes you there.

"There is such rich history here. I think the rest of the U.S. needs to know about it," said Jacqueline Madison of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum.

Inside the museum are artifacts, films and maps that all that show the trails fugitive slaves would travel using the Underground Railroad fleeing to freedom.

"We're close to the border," Madison noted.

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and hideaways runaway slaves would use to escape to the free north. But it only worked through secrecy; slaves would travel to trusted spaces like homes or churches.

"You had to know who to network with to get to the next area," Madison explained. "That network really was the link to many of those individuals getting to freedom."

There is no way to tell how many people came through the region using the Underground Railroad.

"Didn't really have anyone keeping records per se, it was more hush, hush," Madison said.

But some of the men and women who helped the fugitive slaves kept detailed documents. That is how historians have learned what role the North Country played.

"Slavery was not something they could support," Madison said.

The paths used in the mid-19th century to free slaves have also had other uses.

"This has sort of been a route to get things in and out, not just like alcohol, but things that were considered illegal," Madison explained.

Centuries later, those very trails are being used today by migrants looking for asylum.

"Taking like Roxham Road, the nontraditional route that former fugitive slaves took to get into Canada," Madison said.

She says it's important to talk about this part of the past because it is very relevant to the present, and that slavery is still alive today.

"Slavery has not ended. There were less slaves back in the 17th, 18th, early 19th century than there is today. There are more slaves in the world today," Madison said. "Everyone should have the right to live their lives the way they see fit as long as they are abiding by the rules and regulations of that country."

And Vermont shares a piece of that history, too.

The Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh showcases a family farm that helped protect escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. It has family artifacts and artistic photographic renderings of the farms place in black history.