Underground brings people on top

Published 12:08 pm Monday, June 19, 2017

Since 1790, the Washington Harbor District has impacted economic life in Washington. Recognized as an advantageous base for shipping and mercantile operations, industrialists saw the potential of doing business from this harbor, and the Washington waterfront became renowned for the goods and services it shipped north.

Three years later, maritime Underground Railroad activity began operating here as many ships heading north began carrying enslaved people to freedom. Many saw the Harbor District and the Pamlico-Tar River as an “avenue of escape.”

Local newspapers recorded the “escapes” in the form of runaway slave notices as far back as 1809. Many other sources, including the journal of Dr. William Still, considered the father of the Underground Railroad, as well as North Carolina historian David S. Cecelski’s book, “The Waterman’s Song,” substantiate Washington’s role in the maritime Underground Railroad.

This rich history demonstrates the important role Washington has provided in the history of our nation; history well-documented, on display and a draw for many visitors in the form of the Underground Railroad Museum at the corner of Main and Gladden streets — a museum made possible by the Washington Harbor District Alliance (WHDA), which leveraged its wisdom, guidance, manpower and funds to shepherd the museum from inception to today.

The Underground Railroad Museum is anchored in the Harbor District and a destination in our region — drawing tourism dollars downtown and boosting local economy. Since opening, we’ve proudly hosted visitors from 39 states and eight countries — hundreds for the first time.

Our favorite example is an 11-year old girl from Idaho who was learning about the Underground Railroad in school. She and her family never travelled east of the Mississippi. Via an online search, they learned about the Underground Railroad Museum, located in an old train caboose in the unfamiliar town of Washington, Norh Carolina. After spending a half-day at the museum, they had lunch at a local restaurant, shopped in boutique stores and treated themselves to ice cream. They visited the North Carolina Estuarium, the Turnage Theatre, a number of historic homes and ended up staying for the night — taking photos all day.

With the help of Washington Harbor District Alliance, the museum has become a catalyst for other cities with abandoned trains and dreams of converting them to new life. By embracing history, WHDA encourages us all to celebrate our past and the economic success it can bring.

Leesa Payton Jones is the co-founder and director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum and a WHDA board member.