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Western New York Family Magazine

February 2006

Celebrate Black History Month with a Trip to Auburn
By Christine A. Smyczynski


Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge about the Underground Railroad will be familiar with the name Harriet Tubman, probably the most well-known “conductor” on this route to freedom for escaping slaves. Tubman personally escorted over 300 slaves to freedom in 19 trips over a ten year span—all without losing a single passenger!

While most people know about her role in the Underground Railroad, many don’t realize that after slavery was abolished, Tubman lived the rest of her life, until her death in 1913, in Auburn, New York, about a 2 ½ hour drive from Buffalo.

New York State was actually a major destination for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. Since slavery was illegal in New York, a free state, many well-known black, as well as white, abolitionists lived here, including Tubman, Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The state played a very important role in this chapter of American history.

 

Both the house that Tubman lived in and the home she operated for aged blacks have been preserved and still stand on the property she owned in Auburn, now part of a National Landmark Site that is open to the public for tours. The Harriet Tubman Home (315-252-2081) is located at 180 South Street in Auburn.

Since at this time of year you may be looking for ways to combat “cabin fever,” why not celebrate February’s designation as Black History Month and consider a day trip to Auburn in New York’s Finger Lake’s Region. You don’t have to be of African descent to appreciate the Underground Railroad, as it involved people of all races.

The 26-acre site has four structures, Tubman’s house (now the home of the resident caretaker), The Harriet

Tubman Home for the Aged and Infirmed, which is open for tours, a library and an assembly hall. The entire site is a tribute to Tubman’s life and work. It is open Feb.1-Oct. 31, Tuesday-Friday 11-4 and Saturday 10-3; by appointment rest of year. Harriet Tubman is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery (315-253-8132) 19 Fort St., set on a hill overlooking Auburn. The cemetery is open daily, dusk to dawn.

One of the most outspoken anti-slavery politicians of his time was William Henry Seward, who also called Auburn his home. Seward served as Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln, as well as a US Senator and Governor of New York. He also negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, causing some people who disagreed at the time with this purchase to refer to it as “Seward’s Folly.”

 

Seward and his wife, Frances, were very dedicated to the abolitionist movement and close personal friends of Harriet Tubman. The Seward’s encouraged Harriet to settle in Auburn. Both William and Frances came from wealthy families and they used their personal wealth to support the movement. Their home served as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad.

Today the William Seward Home (315-252-1283, www.sewardhouse.org), 33 South Street, is a National Historic Landmark open to the public, Tuesday-Saturday 1-4 pm. A visit to the home, a mixture of Federal and Tuscan-style architecture, is a step back in time. The home was built by Judge Elijah Miller, Frances’s father, in 1816, and was occupied by four generations of the Seward family from 1816-1951. Unlike some other landmark homes and sites that rely on period reproductions to furnish them, the Seward home has the original furnishings owned by the Seward family. In addition, it has one of the most extensive Civil War libraries in the nation.

Another site to see while visiting Auburn is the Cayuga Museum of History & Art and the Case Research Lab (315-253-8051), 203 Genesee St. This museum, housed in an 1836 Greek Revival mansion, has exhibits on the history and art of Auburn and Cayuga County. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 12-5.

 

Beginning February 4th, the featured exhibit will be The Underground Railroad in Cayuga County. This family-friendly, interactive exhibit documents Underground Railroad activity and African-American life in 19th Century Cayuga County. It also explores the reasons why people risked their lives and businesses for the Underground Railroad. “The exhibit covers a project completed by Auburn’s Historic & Cultural Resources Review Board,” said Eileen McHugh, director of the museum. “While much about the Underground Railroad is myth or hearsay, this project used actual documented records, letters and diaries to prove facts about something that was clandestine at the time.”

There were very many active abolitionists in Cayuga County and this exhibit shows the activities of the white abolitionists, often wealthy business people, as well as information about the freedom seekers (escaped slaves) who settled here. Many of the business owners gave the freedom seekers jobs in factories, farms or in their homes as domestic help. These jobs made it possible for the blacks to earn money to purchase homes in the area. The exhibit runs through the end of February.

On the grounds of the museum is the Case Research Lab. Theodore Case, who lived in the mansion from 1916-1930, created this lab in a former greenhouse. Here he developed the first commercially successful system of recording sound on film in 1923. This new sound system was called Movietone and it made its debut in 1927.

 

While in Auburn you may also want to check out the Willard Memorial Chapel (315-2552-0339) 17 Nelson St. The interior of the chapel was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the only complete, totally religious Tiffany-designed chapel interior known to exist. The chapel is open Tuesday-Friday, 10-4.

Of course, no trip to Auburn would be complete without a stop at Bass Pro (315-258-2700) which is located in the Finger Lakes Mall, 1579 Clark St., Rd., Auburn. It’s a unique shopping experience, even if you are not into the great outdoors. In addition to a large selection of hunting and fishing supplies, they have camping gear, boating supplies, casual footwear, reasonably priced sportswear and hundreds of gifts and nature items. They’re open Monday-Saturday 9 am-10 pm, Sunday 10 am-6 pm.

If you want to spend the night in Auburn, there are several chain hotels to choose from, including the Holiday Inn (315-253-4531), Days Inn (315-252-7567) and Budget Inn (315-253-3296).

Directions to Auburn from Buffalo: Take the NYS Thruway to exit 40 (Weedsport) and take Route 34 South to Auburn. Alternately, you can take Route 5 (Main Street) or Route 20 (Broadway) from Buffalo. The two routes merge in Livingston County to be Routes 5 & 20, which goes all the way to Auburn.