We stand with the peaceful protesters of this country, and the struggle for equality and justice that they represent.
Over thousands of years here in the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, the thunderous power of Niagara Falls has carved a gorge out of solid stone. More importantly, our shores have borne witness to the even greater power of the human spirit to rise and persevere. The Niagara Falls National Heritage Area preserves and shares the inspiring stories of this place. Stories transmit cultural and historical heritage. They are crucially important in crafting a society’s culture because they teach behaviors, social codes, assumptions, expectations, and emotions. Oppression is perpetuated when the stories we tell omit the voices and perspectives of people of color.
Therefore, our role has been to disrupt the dominant, exclusively white historical narrative that so often accompanies our cultural teachings. We fight to ensure that a diverse array of authentic voices is represented and heard. To that end, earlier this year, we advocated for Black-owned businesses in the Highland neighborhood to be included in access to over $10 million in state grant funding as part of New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), after the Highland community was excluded from the DRI zone in a map reminiscent of 1950s redlining.
In 2019, we spearheaded a project to celebrate the history of the Highland neighborhood with eight murals created in a collaborative community process rooted in Black history. We also convened decolonization workshops with the Haudenosaunee community, led by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. We actively work as vocal allies to the Tuscarora and Seneca Nations on whose ancestral homelands we reside.
In 2017 - 2018, we executed a plan that resulted in the opening of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, a nationally award winning museum with a mission to transform the legacy of slavery into social change. As an organization, the National Heritage Area has donated more than 3,000 hours of staff time in direct operational support at the Heritage Center. In addition, for the past three years we have been the Heritage Center’s single largest cash donor. We continue to advocate—so far unsuccessfully—for operational funding to hire a permanent, diverse leadership team for the Heritage Center. In this effort, we are hampered by the documented reality that museums focusing on African American history and civil rights are disadvantaged in funding. Unconscious bias and systemic racism run deep.
In 2016, we addressed a lack of public acknowledgement of Underground Railroad history in Niagara Falls by re-installing an Underground Railroad exhibit at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.
These projects honor a proud history that spans centuries. In the 18th century, Red Jacket and Cornplanter fought for Haudenosaunee rights. The 19th century saw Harriet Tubman lead freedom seekers to Canada over the Suspension Bridge, and John Morrison, head waiter at the famed Cataract House hotel, risk retribution as he rowed freedom seekers across the Niagara River. The 20th century brought activists such as Doris Jones and Reverend Edgar Huff, both of whom worked tirelessly for decent housing and Black businesses in the Highland neighborhood of Niagara Falls. Dr. Kay Martin helped develop SEEK, the precursor to the Equal Opportunity Program at Buffalo State College, after earning her doctoral degree while raising five children as a single parent. Lois Gibbs and Karen Schroeder took a stand at Love Canal, igniting the environmental movement.
The history of Niagara is the proud history of its courageous people. In just the past few weeks, peaceful demonstrations have occurred on the streets of Niagara Falls, continuing the long legacy of resistance and resilience that characterizes our community.
Recent events have shaken us as a society. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Tanisha Anderson. Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin. Yvette Smith. Eric Garner. And so many others. Systemic racism and violence against people of color has a long history. It must end.
We understand that statements of solidarity are insufficient in the face of blatant violence against our Black and Brown neighbors, colleagues, and friends. To effect change, we must not only raise our voices in a thunderous roar, we must take action, like those who came before us.
With this statement, we are publicly voicing what has previously been our quiet commitment to roll up our sleeves, link arms, and get to work. We ask you to hold us accountable. Call us out on our mistakes. Call us in to be part of the solution.
Together, in voice and in deed, we hold the power of Niagara to carve a path forward.
The Board of Directors and Staff of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area
A now famous book was written about Lewiston's role in the Underground Railroad, called Freedom Crossing, by Margaret Goff Clark, and is read by thousands of grade school students across the United States every year. The Freedom Crossing Monument commemorates the Underground Railroad movement in Lewiston and was dedicated on October 14, 2009.