Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Search Through Time Turns Up Surprises

By Cynthia Van Ness, MLS

The proud new owners had been told that Grover Cleveland was a frequent guest at their property.  I helped them find the building permit for their address—dated 1915.  Grover Cleveland died in 1908.

In my own family, we learned of a half-sibling whose existence was secret for 50 years.  It was a shock to discover that I was the 4th of four daughters instead of the 3rd of three.  We found our new sister and it has been a joy.

Not everyone is so fortunate.   I know of genealogists being shunned by relatives after discovering inconvenient facts that toppled beloved family legends.  For decades, the descendents of Thomas Jefferson indignantly rejected the story that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, until DNA evidence proved the Heming descendents right.

Today, our city faces a similar conflict over history.  The professional historians who compiled the new Historic Structures Report on the Michigan Street Baptist Church were unable to find any period evidence that the church served as a hiding place during Underground Railroad days, though it furthered the cause in many other ways.  The report rightly documents and emphasizes the church’s local and national significance, which dwarf this one claim.

I assisted with research for this report and my peer-reviewed article on the Underground Railroad in Buffalo is cited in it.  Over 10 years ago, I started looking for eyewitness accounts confirming the church’s story, which first appeared in print in 1936, 70-plus years after the fact.  Wouldn’t that be one of the greatest discoveries in Buffalo history?  I also came up empty-handed.

Instead, I found a revealing counter-narrative.  Frederick Douglass Paper of January 4, 1855 carried an extraordinary letter mentioning the Underground Railroad by name, signed by George Weir, Jr., of Buffalo.  Weir described eight “passengers” from Kentucky appearing at his doorstep at “an early hour.”  He “conducted them to a public house kept by one of our people.”  He and Phoenix Lansing then had a sleigh take them to the Black Rock Ferry, whereupon they were delivered to Canada.

We learn four important things from this letter:

1) George Weir, who was African-American, could read and write.  Recent suggestions that oral legend is the only possible evidence of the church’s history underestimate the level of literacy in this community.  Buffalo’s African-Americans first established literary societies in the 1830s.

2) George Weir felt safe advertising his and Lansing’s names and efforts.  Indeed, the Provincial Freeman, a Canadian abolitionist newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd Carey, the first African-American woman to publish a newspaper in North America, reported on Dec. 8, 1855, that the Fugitive Slave Law was “a dead letter” (not being enforced) in Buffalo.

3) George Weir took his guests to highly public places, making no effort to conceal them.

4)  Most importantly, George Weir’s father was Pastor George Weir, Sr., of the Vine Street AME Church.  Why didn’t Weir use his father’s church?  I believe that it was simply because the church lacked what his guests needed: food, drink, and in the middle of a Buffalo winter: heat.  In 1855, safe mechanical heating systems were not invented yet.  Heat came from dangerous wood or coal stoves.  Left unattended in an empty building, a burning stove not only wasted expensive fuel but might destroy your building.

Nothing in Weir’s letter disproves the Michigan Street Baptist Church’s hiding place story, but it does challenge almost everything we think we know about the Underground Railroad in Buffalo.  History sometimes behaves in unpredictable ways.     

Copyright 2013, all rights reserved.  Originally published in shortened form in the Buffalo News, June 13, 2013.
Updated July 4,2013