Amid ongoing national conversations about how racial injustices and systemic inequities are sewn into American society, a group of Daemen students and staff traveled to a nearby historical site emphasizing the perspective and stories of Black individuals along the Underground Railroad.
Located just miles from Daemen’s campus, and adjacent to the location of the former International Suspension Bridge—a point of crossing for many freedom seekers, including Harriet Tubman—the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center shifts Black experiences to the forefront.
“So much history took place right here,” said Ryan James, a junior studying psychology. “We learned about real people, who risked their lives for others to have basic rights—not far from where we live.”
After a decade-plus of planning, the Heritage Center opened in 2018 as a partnership between the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area and the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission.
As an experiential museum, visitors can spend time in a replica of the former Cataract House—an 1800s Niagara Falls hotel with an all-Black wait staff who helped numerous formerly enslaved individuals to freedom just across the border in Canada.
“Growing up, it was always Black people waiting to be freed,” said Charvaye Hutchins-Carter ’21. “Through the stories told [at the Heritage Center], we can see a lot of Black people helped themselves and others throughout history.”
Visitors are encouraged to recognize residual effects of slavery embedded in American life—and look for opportunities to promote a more equitable society in their own lives.
“The struggle for freedom is ongoing—people are still struggling for it today,” said Ally Spongr, director of the Heritage Center. “We hope visitors leave with more empathy and awareness of this ongoing fight for equal rights and representation.”
Daemen’s visit—organized by the college’s Center for Diversity & Inclusion and Division of Institutional Advancement—to the Heritage Center marked the start of an experiential project between the two organizations: reflections and reactions from students and staff are being used to encourage others to visit and reflect.
“It was a true privilege to be with students taking the tour for the first time,” said Tiffany Hamilton, chief diversity officer at Daemen. “There were no moments of sadness or pity, only a deep respect for the bravery, integrity, and tenacity of enslaved people.”
“We look forward to making this trip with students for many years to come.”