A rising tide lifts all boats

Published 3:46 pm Monday, May 15, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Seven years ago this week, the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum was preparing for its June 1st grand opening. The City of Washington, The Washington Harbor District Alliance and the Washington Noon Rotary joined with Milton Jones, Rebecca Clark and me and warmly embraced the idea that such a museum would be a wonderful asset to our city.

Milt, Rebecca and I, along with so many others, believed we could present the awesome history of the underground railroad and Washington’s involvement in it, as a source of pride for many local residents whose families played an integral part in it, and make Washington a destination for many tourists, as well as helping to boost the town’s economy.

Little could we have known what a tremendous impact this little museum would make locally, statewide, nationally and globally.

As of today, thousands of visitors from all fifty states and 148 countries have visited the museum.  Many said they came just to see the museum but have stayed in Washington for much longer to eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, VRBOS, bed and breakfast venues and RV parks.

As part of their stay, we included historic walking tours throughout the city and to the awe of many, we have introduced them to the historic Black neighborhoods with their amazing history and contributions to Washington, Beaufort County and the state.

We have so many stories to share about the past seven years and I can only include a few here.  My favorite story is about an 11-year-old girl who was home schooled in Idaho.  She was leaning about the underground railroad in this country and while doing a Google search to learn more, the Washington NC Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum popped up.  She read the information about it and asked her parents to bring her to Washington NC to see it.  They happily obliged, and they flew here and spent several days in town because their daughter wanted to see a museum in an old train car and learn about Washington’s underground railroad.

The City manager of Knightdale NC visited us to learn how his city could renovate an old caboose into a museum.

A Japanese Ambassador visiting the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington DC somehow heard about Washington NC’s Black history and underground railroad museum and drove from DC to spend a day at the museum.

My favorite historian and nationally known author David Cecelski and his daughter Vera came to visit us. My hero, Sheri Jackson, the Southeastern Regional Manager for the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network To Freedom Program came to visit us last summer. One surprising group of visitors, a book club from Australia really made our day.

We have had educators, authors, scholars, professors from all over the world to come to our beautiful town to learn about its amazing history because of our Underground Railroad Museum.   Washington had free and very prosperous Blacks decades before the Civil War and our museum covers all of this history as well as freedom seeking. We are honored to share Washington’s history with the world.

I mistakenly stated in my recent WDN column that the museum was a NPS Underground Railroad Network To Freedom facility, as you can come here and receive an official NPS Underground Railroad Network To Freedom stamp for your NPS Passport Book.  We are currently working on our application to receive that certification that will enable us to be an official facility.  The Pamlico-Tar River from Hackney Avenue to Runyon Creek however is officially designated by the NPS as an Underground Railroad Network To Freedom Site. Washington received that distinction in 2014.

I wanted to publicly thank the City of Washington, our wonderful parent company, the Washington Harbor District Alliance, The Washington Noon Rotary, First Bank, and countless organizations, friends, history lovers and others who believed in the museum, it’s mission and ministry.  We are so grateful to you.  As a rising tide lifts all boats, you all have helped lift Washington NC to an even more prominent place in our nation’s history.  To God be the glory. Thank you!

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum