Peter – Perhaps you saw the article in yesterday’s WSJ NY section on the underground railroad (not precise title) tourism sites proposed for Manhattan. It is an effort to link those sites (most of which no longer exist) into a walking tour. There has been for a number of years a similar effort in Flushing, the Flushing Freedom Mile. It links sites such as the Quaker Meeting House, Bowne House and others. There are markers so one can do this tour. Here is a great example of what might be done to increase history tourism – link both sites and others around the city. Why is this not done? It’s so obvious. As for Mystic Seaport, I can tell you from involvement there that CT has long recognized the importance of history and tourism and has devoted substantial funds to those efforts. New York seems indifferent at best. NY Culture.
Being the investigating reporter that I am, I pursued this lead and read the article “Freedom Trail Idea on Move in New York City: Activist Pushes to Commemorate City’s Place in the Abolitionist Movement” by Jennifer Maloney. Her article tells the tale of the efforts since 2007 of Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, to create a Freedom Trail commemorating the city’s role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.
The effort became news when he found a donor, Jim Petrucci, a real-estate developer based in Asbury, NJ, to put up $180,000 in seed money. With that donation Morris is now doing what startups typically do with money to begin the process of bringing his vision to fruition. His models are the existing historical trails in other cities such as the most famous, Boston’s Freedom Trail. The article concludes on a positive note:
David Levering Lewis, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois and an adviser on the project, said it was surprising that it had come together based on the efforts of a single activist. “It just goes to show,” he said, “how much history depends on those who care enough about it to find it and explain it to the rest of us.”
Careful readers of The New York History Blog and/or longtime participants in the New York History community in general or specifically on the issue of slavery, will recognize the Freedom Trail legacy. When the Path through History project first emerged, I wrote about previous efforts to accomplish the same goals using similar incentives but with one difference: paths were called trails then…or sometimes routes. One such proposed route was the Freedom Trail.
“The New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 proposed the establishment of a Freedom Trail Commission to plan and implement a New York State Freedom Trail program to commemorate these acts of freedom and to foster public understanding of their significance in New York State history and heritage.”
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library led a one-year study of the issue. The result was a report issued in October, 1999 entitled New York State Freedom Trail Program Study. It contained among other things recommendations on tourism, education, preservation, and development. It included pages of sites throughout the state which could be included in the Freedom Trail, a narrative history, some lesson plans, bibliographic information, and names of people participating.
I received my copy of the study, which is the source of the information above, when I attended the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail Public Forum program on December 16, 2003, at the Martin E. Segal Theater, The Graduate Center (CUNY). Richard White-Smith, Executive Director of New York (the title sounds a little like one the Path project should have but doesn’t) made the opening comments.
Cordell Reaves, Coordinator of the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail, spoke on the grant program. He is with the NYSOPRHP and still involved in slave-related programs. The grant program referred to a $1,000,000 matching program announced by then Governor Pataki, the same amount current Governor Cuomo announced at the Path kickoff in 2012, but without the matching requirement. The purpose of the grant was to “facilitate a high quality visitor experience” according to the draft distributed at the public forum.
What ever happened to the Freedom Trail? What ever happened to the Path through History? Will anything ever be done at the state level or is everything up to dedicated locals including those who don’t even live in the state for New York to seriously embrace its own history and create the trails, routes, itineraries, and paths that can be offered to tour operators? These are some of the questions I have about what is really going on at the state level in behalf of cultural heritage tourism.