Epicenter-NYC partnered with the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State (URCNYS) and the Bowne House on Sunday, Feb. 26, to offer our members a tour led by museum educators. The Bowne House is one of the few accessible abolition landmarks in New York City and also serves as a research library documenting that part of American history.
The turnout for the event was amazing, with about 35 attendees. Many who attended were native New Yorkers; even those who specifically hailed from Queens never even knew the house existed.
During his welcome speech, Sage Hamilton-Hazarika, the Underground Railroad Consortium’s program manager, addressed the group.
“What I’m trying to do is take all of the voices and the efforts that these organizations have been engaging in for so many years and bring it to a new audience,” he said. “The consortium has started working with Epicenter as a partner organization to showcase how other abolition history sites can get new eyes to something that has been around for all of us and hopefully these messages can continue to extend to the next generation.”
“I really think the outpouring of support for this event underscores why we’re doing this because Black history is Queens history,” shared S. Mitra Kalita, Epicenter’s co-founder and publisher. She also added that this isn’t just a Black History event, because “we believe in continuing this type of education throughout the year and those of you familiar with the coverage know that is truly one of the pillars of Epicenter’s work.”
The tour was broken up into two parts with volunteers from the Bowne House sharing an overview of the house, which was built in 1661, and how the family came to be involved in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad in the late 1700s. The other half of the tour was conducted by Peter Bunten, vice president of the Underground Railroad Consortium.
The Bowne House was recently inducted into the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom” program.
“I wanted to learn more about the Underground Railroad and how the network of people seeking freedom moved through Queens which I wasn’t really that aware of and I know more of this activity happened in upstate. But I wasn’t really aware of anything here and I grew up in Queens,” said Liz Bass of Nassau County. “I learned a lot on the tour, which made me want to know more. The tour also emphasized for me how difficult it can be to trace the history of anti-slavery efforts because, of course, they were secret and dangerous. I’d like to know more about the free Black community in Queens, about its role in anti-slavery actions and about what happened to it over time. One thing that surprised me is that the Quakers were not always anti-slavery as I had thought. I learned it took them 100 years in America before they were fully opposed to slavery.”
“We have quite a few items from our archives that deal specifically with abolition and the Underground Railroad,” said Charlotte Jackson, an archivist with the Bowne House. “We were recently admitted to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom and the reason we were able to do that is because we were able to document the house’s involvement in the Underground Railroad with papers that belonged to the family that were preserved in the house.”
She added: “There had always been rumors and stories about the Bowne House being a stop on the Underground Railroad or members of the Bowne and Parsons families being conductors but we had never been really able to prove it with documentation from that time period. So the jewel in the crown as it were is our Underground Railroad letter, which was carried here by a freedom seeker on the Underground Railroad who was requesting that William Parsons, who was a resident of the Bowne House at that time, assist him.”
Many of the participants of the tour were history buffs who saw an opportunity to learn about a place that they didn’t know existed in their own backyard. Bunten, of URCNYS, underscored this point.
“This is one of the problems we have with this state, they don’t teach their own history,” said Bunten. “Our current citizens are woefully underserved by not knowing this history, because New York’s enslavement history is integral, essential to understanding the history of slavery, racism, our economy, freedom, and of equality across the whole country. New York for a long, long time was the center of shipping, building and industry.”
A lot of anti-slavery activity happened in the mid-Hudson Valley but Bunten noted that, “We don’t have a lot of specific information like the Bowne House here, we have letters, but we can’t find any buildings detailing Harriet Tubman’s route. So there’s a lot of Underground Railroad activity” that was not documented.
“First of all, I’m married to a Black woman and on top of that this is Black History Month and I love history and literature and the reason I came here is because I never knew about this and to know what’s really happening here and to learn about the past and how current is influenced by the past.” Post tour, Shanmugam said: “It was really refreshing and in depth and I really need to do more research to read and educate myself about the Underground Railroad.”
—Madhav Shanmugam, 32, East Harlem
“I only learned about the history of this particular house a few days ago from a friend of mine who invited us here and once I found out about it I wanted to learn more about the Underground Railroad which is an important part of Black History. I’m not from New York, but my mother is from Queens, I’m from Chicago, so I expect to have some takeaways. Post tour, Madhav said: “The family’s connection to owning slaves was interesting and how it took them so long to come around.”
—Kylie Madhav (Shanmugam’s wife), 35, East Harlem
“I was born and raised in the same house that I still live in, my dad designed it in 1969. I came out today because I love historical house tours and I didn’t even know this was here. It’s also something I think of doing but I don’t do it. I also want to get to know Queens better,” said Marj Kleinman, an artist who was recently featured in Epicenter, hails from Brooklyn.
“I really enjoyed being in community with the Epicenter team and all of the attendees of which there were many. I even ran into a friend there. We learned a lot about the history of the house and engaged in a bit of conversation,” Kleinman said post tour.
—Marj Kleinman, Brooklyn
“I love history. History is just my thing, especially Black history and there’s not enough of it taught. I was born and raised in Queens and did not know about this, Alexis Dexter said. “I’m the family tree person put together on either side. As far back as I can go without having to physically go to North Carolina.” After the tour, Dexter commented, “It’s interesting to get a sense of what it was like at that time, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s what people’s daily lives were like and just their contribution to the abolition of slavery. … “I’d like to see more historical sites in the state of New York and start advocating more for this to be taught in public schools especially here in New York when you’ve got no reason when this is not Florida.
—Alexis Dexter, 39, East Elmhurst
Her daughter Arynn, 8 months, was the youngest attendee. Also in attendance was Arlington Dexter (Alexis’s husband), 40. His love of history brought him to the event.
Carla Lewis-Burnett, Alexis’s mother, said to Alexis: “Actually you have a great, great, grandmother who was a slave and there are slaveholders on the other side. We watch the American experience and those things are fascinating, you never learn any of these things in school.”
After the tour, Lewis-Burnett, said, “I attended high school across the street and did not have any idea that the house even existed or about the role the Bowne family played that was integral to slaves seeking freedom.”
—Carla Lewis-Burnett, 66
“My friend invited me and I wanted to get an educational peek at the history of New York, because I moved to New York a little more than a year ago and I wanted to know more about the city and the history and culture. I love it. It is a really cute, nice house and it was good to see how people lived many years ago. I was raised in Shanghai then moved to Boston and came here recently,” said Lyu Haochen. He added, “I went to an international school so I tried to educate myself. And I think it should be a mandatory class, part of the world history class.” Post tour, Lyu said, there were “definitely things I did not know before and Asians come here only knowing one part of American History and Black history needs to be taught.”
—Lyu Haochen, 19, Brooklyn
“My wife runs the Jackson Heights art talks and has partnered with Epicenter to do another event. I actually have met the caretaker who lives upstairs so I have known about the house since over the summer and I was interested in it from that point and I went to the website so it was kind of on my radar. I am interested in this house and other historical houses in Queens so I was very curious about it and definitely the Underground Railroad element was a big draw with this house and wanting to know more about it. I did not have a lot of expectations and did not realize the Quaker connection. Now I have so many more questions.”
Lambert continued, post tour, saying, “The presentation was concise and captivating, loved the storytelling style and I feel I learned a lot about Quaker history and the slow movement to abolitionism.”
—Jesse Lambert, 50, Jackson Heights
“Touring the house, learning the history, being in a small group of people. It was a great opportunity to learn,” said Linda Ganjian, who was a featured artist in Epicenter.” Post tour, she said, “It was more than I imagined, I loved the breakout sessions and how they connected the artifacts to the Underground Railroad. I was able to imagine life as it was.”
—Linda Ganjian, Jackson Heights
Elise Helmers, executive director of the Bowne House, closed out the event saying: “I want to thank everyone for coming and this is exactly the type of event we want to have here. Everyone was so engaged and we loved your questions.” She plugged future events, such as the 50th anniversary for the landmark conservancy and a Black doll conservation project and doll making workshop on March 26 at the Flushing Quaker Meeting House.
Jackson, the Bowne House archivist, added: “Our archives are accessible if you have any questions. We’re just starting a digitization, conservation and preservation project so you don’t have to come all the way to the Bowne House to see our documents.”