Whether the Michigan Street Baptist Church was or was not a stop on the Underground Railroad, its key role in the anti-slavery movement remains undisputed.
A recent consultant’s report generated controversy when some people interpreted it as rejecting the long-held belief that the church harbored escaped slaves on their way to Canada.
However, the historians and researchers who worked on the study, “If These Walls could Talk: Uncovering the Historic Past of a Buffalo Landmark,” simply said they were unable to find any records, either oral or written, to confirm that the church was an Underground Railroad stop. But they left the door open to further research that could confirm the Underground Railroad belief.
The report was commissioned by the Buffalo Niagara Freedom Station Coalition to help plan the church’s continued restoration and determine what time period to focus on when teaching the site’s history. It was funded by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and unveiled last month at the church and, as reported, focused on its construction and history.
And what a marvelous history of strength and power.
The red brick church at 511 Michigan Ave. played host to some of the great figures in this country’s history. Frederick Douglass spoke there during an 1843 anti-slavery gathering, according to a University at Buffalo website, and printed programs found in the nearby Nash House Museum demonstrate that Booker T. Washington delivered a speech at the church in 1910.
Combing through what documents exist from the anti-slavery era proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the important role Michigan Street Baptist Church played in promoting the freedom of black people.
Bishop William Henderson, who has been guiding tours at the church since 1974, was not surprised that no documentation was found related to the Underground Railroad.
During slavery, information about the Underground Railroad was passed along orally. Beyond that, slaves were not allowed to read or write. And then there was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which would have punished anti-slavery activists for hiding runaways in the church, which was built in 1854.
The church is one of four anchors of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, along with the Colored Musicians Club, the Nash House Museum and the Langston Hughes Institute. Historians on the commission have stated their intention to continue looking for evidence that the church was a hiding place for slaves.
Even if that evidence is never found, the Michigan Street Baptist Church is and always will be an icon in the history of the struggle to end slavery in America.