I stepped inside the bright orange caboose housing the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum in Washington, NC expecting to feel a sense of heaviness and grief.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While there’s no denying the very nature of slavery carries the weight of sadness, the museum exemplifies goodness. The stories of freedom seekers and the abolitionists who helped them are full of hope, faith and the promise of a better life.
In co-founder Leesa Jones’ words, “It’s the story of how the whole town worked together at a time when humanity wasn’t at its best, but the Underground Railroad was humanity at its best.”
Leesa admits she didn’t set out to found a museum. The truth is the museum found her.
When researching her family ancestry for her grandkids, she discovered records for 143 plantations in the Washington area and 300 years of black history that had never been talked about.
Leesa was able to back up oral history and stories with a staggering amount of found documentation which ultimately led to the Washington waterfront’s designation as an official Underground Railroad to Freedom site and to the creation of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum itself.
The museum does an excellent job of illustrating the secret codes and communication techniques used on the underground railroad. Everyday items of food, clothing, songs, certain colors or quilts would convey information in a way that the average person wouldn’t pick up on, and these codes were changed frequently.
For instance, if vegetable sellers were along the waterfront, freedom seekers would wait for specific things they’d say such as “Rutabagas, I got your fresh rutabagas. ” The word “fresh” indicated there was new information and instructions and they should go the route of the beggar to find it out. Turnips meant an abolitionist had turned up to help.
Sunflowers or okra flowers on display but not for sale indicated there were too many eyes watching and freedom seekers should leave the waterfront area.
Washington was a huge slave market so there were always people either looking to buy slaves or looking for escaped slaves in order to cash in on reward offers. Freedom seekers had other worries as well. They had to look out for those who pretended to be abolitionists and slaves who would sell them out in order to garner their master’s favor.
The Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum tells an incredibly rich and detailed history of freedom seekers who passed along its shores, and it’s well worth a visit.
The balanced approach to history reminds us that there were good people in the world trying to do the best they could even in a time when many others weren’t.
I promise you it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum
1776 Gladden St. Washington NC
Hours: 11-5 Thurs-Sat
Pin this Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum post!
Comments & Reviews
I would love to visit that museum. I’ve always found the Underground Railroad so fascinating. The courage of the people who helped get slaves to freedom and the things they risked and endured put any of our small problems to shame.
Cyn Gagen says
This is absolutely fascinating. Sad yes, but the hope and the sense of a community risking their lives for each other is heartwarming too. I’ve never heard of this museum (though I live quite near the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum in Canada) but am adding it to our travel bucket list. Being a quilter too, the stories behind the quilts are quite amazing to me.
Brianne Tursi Manz says
I would love to take our kids to this museum. I think it’s important for kids to understand the lengths people went to to free slaves from the south.
Amy Desrosiers says
I love that you all were able to discover more of your roots. My daughter would have a field day here. She is a history buff and loves to research and discover.
Kerrie Mendoza says
What a captivating place! Sad to think about the sacrifices people made to free the slave, but very educational.
I can’t even imagine the stories that museum holds. I am sure just walking through you can feel the hope and courage and pain experienced by those who escaped to freedom.
What a beautiful idea to make sn underground railroad museum in a railroad car. It’s so cool! I love it! I would like to visit it one day!
Ruth I says
It’s so awesome how they found ways to communicate. I’d love to visit and learn more about that history!
I really want to go see this museum. I am definitely putting it on my to do list next time I go to Washington, NC.
Railroad museums and old cars are fun to see and explore. Great for pictures too, but this museum is extra special because of the history inside!
alissa apel says
That looks like a really neat place to go! We went to Hermann, Missouri and they had some great places to visit. One was a museum where slaves made a newspaper.