In the middle of Jamestown, just across the road from the Prendergast Library, sits Dow Park. Inside the park stands what is known as the Underground Railroad Tableau, complete with three statues of people who lived in Jamestown and the surrounding area during the time of the Underground Railroad and who played a big part in it. Also included in the Tableau are three plaques, one depicting the Fugitive Slave Act, another depicting what a wanted notice for a slave might look like, and the third describing the statues. Standing out against the white winter snow stands the heavy, dark, metallic statues of a fugitive slave, Silas Shearman, and Catherine Harris.
Now, February is known for its many holidays, especially for Valentine’s Day and the lesser celebrated Groundhog’s Day. But, the one special event that spans the entire month and that anyone can participate in celebrating in many different ways is that of Black History Month. It is celebrated not only in America but also across the globe.
Black History Month first began as a week created by an African American historian Carter Woodson in 1926. Woodson looked around at what he saw across America with the rise of toxic rhetoric from the South that still remained even after the Civil War. Woodson became worried that the idea that slaves actually liked being slaves and that slavery was not all that bad was going to continue to emerge and eventually override the actual stories told by history. Thus he created what was originally Black History Week. It would not become Black History Month until people at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970 made it so, and would not be celebrated across America until six years after that. It would not be celebrated in the United Kingdom until 1987, Canada in 1995 and Ireland until 2010. These days it has become a more well known event to celebrate across the entire month of February, and people do that in different ways. One such way is to learn more about the history of African Americans in the United States, especially locally. Indeed, even in Jamestown, New York, there is quite a history to be found concerning the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was actually not a railroad at all. Instead it was a pathway that was run mostly by abolitionists in the early 1800s before the American Civil War that helped escaped slaves to travel to Canada where they would be free. The Underground Railroad spanned across many areas of the United States, including New York, and especially in Chautauqua County.
According to the director of the Fenton History Center, Noah Goodling, Chautauqua County played a very important, historic role in helping slaves to escape to Canada.
“Back in that time the area was very isolated, and a big forest area,” Goodling said. “It was basically a wilderness. There were also a lot of strong feelings against the practice of slavery by the people who lived in Chautauqua County at the time, and many who wanted to help.”
The Fenton History Center, located in Jamestown, is one of the many places you can go to learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County, due to their recent exhibit.
The Underground Railroad section of the museum holds items such as maps portraying the routes that escaped slaves would have had to take through the county. It also holds records of those who helped as a part of the Underground Railroad. But, due to the need for secrecy at the time, Goodling describes some of these records as potentially not credible.
“It’s hard to know if all of the families recorded actually helped or just claimed that they did, due to the lack of records, because at the time it was needed to be kept such a secret,” Goodling said.
The History Center does have records of some people though, including those who may have provided shelter, and some who potentially provided clothes to slaves. There are also just those who said they were willing to lend a helping hand if the time came.
Goodling also described a story of an incident that occured in 1851 when an escaped slave was caught in Chautauqua County.
“People were outraged when this slave was caught,” Goodling said. “There was a huge demand for his release, and even a violent uprising, though the slave would eventually be taken back to where he escaped from. It really was a big deal back then though, and it does show just how opposed to slavery people were around here and how that attitude evolved over time.”
Included among the list of those who were opposed to slavery are two very famous people that came from the Jamestown area. One was an abolitionist named Silas Shearman. Another, and the one that this writer finds the most interesting, was Catherine Harris.
“I find the story of Catherine Harris to be amazing and inspiring,” Goodling said. “Being an African American woman she was a part of a marginalized group, so when she helped slaves to escape she risked more extreme penalties, such as one-thousand dollar fines and jail time. I believe it’s been shown that as a African American who was born free she felt extreme pity and sorrow for slaves in the predicaments that they were in, and that caused her to have a strong drive to help them.”
Catherine Harris was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1809 and would not move to Jamestown until 1831 as a single mother. She was the first African American resident in Jamestown. She was born as a free African American, which is what allowed her to become an Underground Railroad operator and help slaves escape during this time. She was one of the only African Americans to operate a station.
Like so many others who were determined to help, Harris risked her life to continue to help slaves to get to freedom. It is believed that Harris could hide up to 17 escaped slaves in her attic at one time, an amazing feat as her house was only about 16ft in length. Catherine Harris also worked with Silas Shearman to get as many slaves to freedom as they could.
The Harris house would eventually become the site of the AME Zion Church, which still stands today, and would serve as the church’s parsonage. While the church itself remains, the Harris house did eventually burn down, according to Goodling, but there is now a monument there, marking where the house used to stand. In 1976 the church erected a monument marking Harris’s grave in Lakeview Cemetery, which also still exists in Jamestown. There is also a marker showing where the Shearman house used to stand as well.
Harris died on February 12, 1907 of pneumonia. She would live to eventually witness the ending of slavery in the United States.
This year, one might be able to say, it is more important than ever to recognize Black History Month and the contributions of those who came before, especially after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over the summer. During a time that some have called the Civil Rights Movement of our time, recognizing the struggles and history of African Americans is important to understanding the events of the summer and what continues to happen even today. Organizations across America exist just for this purpose, and to help people to understand how important African American history really is.
Goodling and the Fenton History Center are also a part of the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State. The consortium works to chronicle the struggle to end slavery in New York State, which would not occur until July 4, 1827. The movement, which began in 2016, works to spread awareness of the Underground Railroad and Black History Month. The Fenton History Center is a part of this movement and works alongside other institutions statewide to promote the history of African Americans in the United States and to celebrate that history.
Celebrate African American History
And so, after all of this, if you are wondering how you can participate in celebrating Black History Month, there are a few ways. One option would be to check out some books and movies from African American authors, actors and directors, or any other creators out there. Another would be to visit a local, Black-owned small business, especially because of the pandemic. And another might just be to take some time to do some research on the history of African Americans. Take some time to visit places such as the Fenton History Center or Dow Park. The history of African Americans and the Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County is a rich history, and the story of many struggles, and many heroes that have emerged throughout time. Some of these heroes are well known, and others are not. In fact you might find that some, such as Catherine Harris, lived in the same town and area as you.
Goodling encourages people to not let the celebration of African American history end at the end of February.
“Black History Month is an important time where people can be confronted with African American history,” Goodling said. “But we shouldn’t let it end at the end of the month. I would encourage people to look deeply into this subject. But, you don’t need to stop looking at it when we get to the end of February. You can continue to learn during the rest of the year.”
In the end, celebrate Black History Month this February, and continue to do so as the year goes on. You’ll never know what you’ll discover when you do.