Epicenter-NYC will partner 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 one of the museum educators. (Have you signed up?) The Bowne House is one of the few accessible abolition landmarks in NYC and also serves as a research library documenting that part of American history. It was recently inducted into the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom” program, which “honors, preserves and promotes the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide.”
Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado speaks with Sage Hamilton-Hazarika, URCNYS program manager, on what people can expect on the tour and about the importance of a landmark like the Bowne House.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: Can you tell us a little more about the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State (URCNYS)?
Hamilton-Hazarika: The organization is a nonprofit and its a group of around 30 members which focuses on promotion and preservation of the Underground Railroad and abolition history across New York State. The purpose of the organization is to act as a community and a partner with heritage sites and programs to promote New York State’s historic role in the struggle to end slavery in the state and the nation.
Epicenter-NYC: Can you tell us more about the Bowne House?
Hamilton-Hazarika: The Bowne House is one of the most recent members of the URCNYS. It’s a property in Flushing, Queens, that is one of the oldest developments on that land. It was owned by and surrounded by generations of the Bowne family. It had many ties to not only the history of the way that New York was settled but also had a lot of ties to abolition history and obviously the Underground Railroad because of the physical and religious beliefs of this family.
The Bowne family and the Parsons family who lived in this house followed the traditions of the Quakers. A few areas or groups within the Quakers in the U.S. were after the abolition movement — not all, but some. A few of the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Bowne house property were documented Underground Railroad supporters. But the first inhabitants were active in other anti-slavery movements in New York State.
Epicenter-NYC: Was the Underground Railroad just routes?
Hamilton-Hazarika: In the beginning, I thought of the Underground Railroad as a network of trails and routes and that’s not always the case. Instead of a collection of trails or specific routes from the cities in the South to the North, it’s easier to be considered as a collection of people and the places they inhabited that were able to help freedom seekers or have a safe passage on their journeys. The network of people and places is easier to research than thinking of one specific route because that activity wasn’t always documented.
Epicenter-NYC: How did the Bowne House become an abolition landmark?
Hamilton-Hazarika: Because the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, there may be a lot more history, locations, families and names that participated in the Underground Railroad than we have written record of today. Research around that subject is still ongoing. Historians have a specific set of criteria that they look for to verify if a house, property or location wsa actually a part of the Underground Railroad. There is a federal distinction and program established by the National Park Service called the Networks of Freedom, that is like an axis of verification for historians in this area to establish that a heritage site actually has proof of contact with the Underground Railroad. For years, the Bowne House was known as a resource location and because of the artifacts of the family and close friends that lived there, it was synonymous with anti-slavery movement. But the house itself wasn’t always definitively known for harboring freedom seekers until a specific moment when primary documentation of authenticity was found. Subsequently, the house was able to achieve the designation for that National Park Service Program and they could say on paper that freedom seekers were there.
Epicenter-NYC: Why is it important for New Yorkers to learn about these abolitionist landmarks?
Hamilton-Hazarika: In the city things move pretty fast and there have been a lot of historic landmarks that have not been necessarily well kept or they’ve been erased for construction. It’s unfortunate because New York City was a real center for societal professions and just because it’s not always accessible to get to a heritage site doesn’t mean it wasn’t here. In thinking about the Underground Railroad, its stories tie very closely to other issues that we are facing today. Think of the idea of a ‘freedom seeker.’ Learning about these landmarks is a powerful lesson that can provide us today with the inspiration in the face of other human rights issues that we find. Such as issues happening today with immigration and people seeking asylum from other countries.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some things about the Bowne House that visitors can look forward to?
Hamilton-Hazarika: The way we are structuring the tour, we will be able to talk about a lot of things. First we will have a tour of the property itself, thanks to the Bowne House, its staff and educators. You’ll get a full walk through of the property and its huge library of artifacts. Something that is unique about it is you know it’s relatively untouched. It really gives you a sense of what life was like in the area. Especially for a group that is based in New York and maybe based in Queens you can really get a sense of what things may have been like during the actual founding of the town of Flushing. Which is kind of a pretty rare phenomenon. I think another exciting thing will be that this will be a great way to illustrate movements of the Underground Railroad and abolition. To generate a fuller picture of what this history looked like and to think of the fact that there was a very public side of the movement to end slavery and a not well-documented clandestine side.
Epicenter-NYC: Anything else that you think our readers should know?
Hamilton-Hazarika: I’m thrilled that we can share some of this information with Epicenter readers and I am thrilled that people will be visiting us in person. As a New Yorker, I am really excited to learn with the attendees how close this history is to us in New York City. Out of the 30 members of the consortium, the Bowne house is the only one that exists in the five boroughs.