By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS —
Kate Clifford Larson doesn’t consider it a controversial subject.
The author of “For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” said there’s no doubt in her mind that Harriet Tubman helped slaves find freedom in Canada by helping them cross a suspension bridge located in Niagara Falls.
“There’s no controversy among legitimate historians,” said Larson, an Underground Railroad researcher and adjunct professor at both Wheelock College and Simmons College in Boston.
Larson said she has been persistently “annoyed” by reports in a weekly newspaper in Niagara Falls that have questioned Tubman’s ties to the area.
She’s convinced, based on her research, that Tubman used an old suspension bridge that once stood where the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge stands today at least once and, likely, several times.
“The true story is that Harriet Tubman crossed the suspension bridge,” she said. “You just can’t get away from the facts.”
Larson’s assessment follows months of controversy surrounding a city- and state-sponsored plan to develop an Underground Railroad Interpretative Center inside the historic U.S. Customhouse off Whirlpool Street near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. The interpretative center is part of a larger effort to create an Underground Railroad heritage corridor that would feature various historical points of interest in the Falls and surrounding communities in Niagara County. The project is being supported with a total of $1.3 million in state funding.
Critics have charged that local ties to the history of the Undergound Railroad are not strong enough to justify such a large investment. Much of the criticism has been focused on questions about the community’s connection to Tubman, the Underground Railroad’s most recognizable figure.
Larson said written accounts and letters from the time period suggest the city and state are right to include Tubman in their plans for the interpretative center and heritage corridor area. She pointed to “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” an 1869 account of Tubman’s journey, as one source of evidence that Tubman did indeed cross Suspension Bridge. The book, written by biographer Sarah Hopkins Bradford, describes in Tubman’s own words her view of Niagara Falls as she and her companions made their way over what was described as the suspension bridge. While some have questioned the authenticity of the account, noting Bradford’s other work as a fiction writer, Larson says she considers the book a key piece of evidence that shows Tubman did indeed cross the bridge in the Falls.
Larson said letters from the time period also show Suspension Bridge was recommended by many as one of the preferred routes to Canada for slaves. She noted one piece of correspondence in which Tubman told Wilbur Siebert, the Ohio State University professor who published “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” in the late 1890s, that she used Suspension Bridge.
Larson said does not consider the matter one for debate and that there is no research contradicting Tubman’s use of the bridge.
“You have Tubman,” Larson said. “She is part of it. She will draw visitors from around the world.”
Judith Wellman, one of Larson’s associates who serves as professor of history emerita of the State University of New York and Director of the Historical Society of New York Research Associates, agreed. She said the area is rich with Underground Railroad history and believes the Falls is an appropriate place to celebrate it.
“Tubman seems to have used that bridge fairly frequently so it’s a wonderful idea,” Wellman said. “It really was a major spot as far as we know.”
Aside from Tubman, Larson said there are many other individuals from the Falls area who were involved in the Underground Railroad and she believes their stories are worth celebrating as well.
“You all could have one amazing place there because there are so many stories to be told because so many people went across there,” Larson said.
The commission formed to oversee the project is working with the consulting firm Riggs Ward on the development of the interpretative center. The firm is currently in the process of gathering information and documenting the community’s ties to the time period. Bill Bradberry, chairman of the city’s Underground Railroad Commission, said he’s confident, once the center is completed, it will offer visitors plenty of valuable historical information about the area’s ties to an important era in American history.
“The Underground Railroad was just a small part of the abolitionist movement, a great deal of which happened in our backyard,” Bradberry said. “What we’re trying to do is not just about the Underground Railroad or Harriet Tubman, it’s about people’s struggle to be free.”