North Country museum seeks new ways
to share region’s role in the Underground Railroad
By Mike De Socio
In an unassuming red sandstone home near Ausable Chasm, Jacqueline Madison presides over a key piece of history for African Americans.
Madison is the president of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, whose North Star Underground Railroad Museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary in a time of great uncertainty, but also of heightened relevance.
The museum, which has been closed to in-person visitors since the onset of the pandemic, chronicles the history of slavery and abolition in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region. It’s a story that harkens back centuries, to be sure, but also one that did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. At the turn of the 20th century, the Underground Railroad became a route by which Chinese immigrants fled under the Chinese Exclusion Act. And as recently as 2017, migrants used a quiet dirt road in Champlain to jump the border and make a bid for asylum in Canada.
“It’s sort of like it’s a never-ending flow of people going,” Madison said.
The Adirondacks became a natural route for enslaved people seeking freedom, Madison said, because of the region’s proximity to the border, but also because it was home to Quaker societies that believed in abolition. Prominent abolitionists also had a presence locally, including Gerrit Smith, a politician and philanthropist, and Herbert Estes, who built the house that the museum now occupies.
The North Star Underground Railroad Museum offers an opportunity for visitors to learn more about that history in a series of exhibits on the first floor of its Ausable Chasm building. But it also relied on a two-hour bus tour that, in pre-pandemic times, would bring visitors to key historic sites scattered nearby.
Madison and her team are now working to create a virtual museum experience that can take its place. The museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Museum Association of New York that will fund the technology and training to bring that vision to life over the next two years, Madison said.
The first part of that project will recreate one of the key pieces of the bus tour, which was a stop at the Stephen Keese Smith historic site. Smith’s barn is Clinton County’s best documented Underground Railroad site, according to the museum. It was part of a larger route to Canada that enslaved people followed through the villages of Keeseville, Peru and Champlain. Visitors to the Smith site are able to see a stone-walled room built into the barn’s lower level where Smith hid freedom seekers.
As Smith recalled in 1887: “I had large buildings and concealed the Negroes in them. I kept them, fed them, often gave them shoes and clothing. I presume I have spent a thousand dollars for them in one-way and another. There were stations at Albany, Troy, Glens Falls and then here in Peru.”
Madison says a virtual tour of the Smith site will be crucial to the museum’s overall virtual experience. But it won’t end there. The museum has already been offering books on its website and games and puzzles that engage children in this history.
The museum is also working to revise the book, “The John Townsend Addoms Homestead: Including a study of slavery and the Underground-Railroad As It Pertains to Clinton County, NY,” written by Addie L. Shields, a local historian.
And there’s also a possibility that the museum will welcome visitors back to its outdoor space this summer, and set up an outdoor screen where visitors can watch a docent give a tour of the indoor exhibits, Madison said.
“Everything is sort of up in the air right now. We’re really hoping to open this May, and with the vaccine there may be a possibility of that happening,” Madison said.
The museum could see more interest amid the Black Lives Matter movement. Books about race and Black history rose to the top of the best-seller lists, showing a national interest in this topic. But locally, there may not be much awareness at all of the North Country’s role in this history.
John Youngblood, professor of English and communications at SUNY Potsdam, said the local presence of the Underground Railroad is “almost unknown” among his students and colleagues.
“The situation in the north was a lot more unwelcoming to African Americans than we typically think of. The fugitive slave laws were very much practiced here, so it wasn’t a safe space,” he said.
It’s important that the North Country go beyond “patting itself on the back” for its abolitionist role, Youngblood said, and acknowledged that the region overall was not a hospitable place for African Americans in that time.
The Underground Railroad Museum is one small way of keeping that history alive.
“It’s a reminder of the lifestyle that existed that allowed for slavery and for the desperation of being a slave, the desperation of stealing away to remove yourself from everything you’ve ever known,” Youngblood said. “We should definitely acknowledge that history, be reminded of that history.”
Much of the museum’s history resonates today. The final exhibit in the museum, called the “Northward to Freedom Room,” touches on the topic of women’s suffrage and Susan B. Anthony’s visit to the area. Madison points out that during that time, there was debate about whether women’s suffrage should be promoted alongside abolition, or whether it should be put on the back burner. Similar debates continue now in the political arena, as President Joe Biden juggles competing activist interests in racial equity, voting rights and much more.
“I think it’s like today, we have not settled it,” Madison said.