On January 31, I had the honor of taking part in the ribbon cutting ceremony for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District’s seawall project at Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park. The USACE team did an outstanding job delivering a quality structure, which will not only protect critical infrastructure at the Col. Ward Pumping Station, but also serve to protect the development of the park around it. In a sense, the project is protecting both the history and the future of Buffalo’s waterfront.
As I walked the project site and viewed the sunset that day, I was struck by a sculpture I had seen on several previous visits – local artist Nancy Gabriel’s “One More River to Cross.” It depicts the Underground Railroad, showing one human figure helping another ascend an arch rising from the ground.
For many souls, Buffalo was a final stop before reaching Canada. The arch frames the Canadian shoreline in the distance and represents both an obstacle and a bridge to freedom. The sculpture was commissioned by the Women’s Pavilion Project as part of the “Art across Borders” centennial celebration of the Pan-American Exposition, to commemorate the women who took part in the Underground Railroad.
To me, the piece inspires stories of courage and hope in humanity. It is important to reflect on and remember both the people who needed the Underground Railroad, and the people who served that need. Despite the threat of prosecution, the threat of physical violence, and the efforts of bounty hunters, the Underground Railroad saved thousands of people and brought them to freedom. Some sources indicate between 30,000 and 40,000 former slaves escaped across the Underground Railroad between 1850 and 1860 alone. Heroes like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass stand out in our minds because of their harrowing deeds and bravery. But with them stood many ordinary folk. Farmers, business owners, ministers, rich and poor, young and old, all formed a network of “conductors, stationmasters, stations, safe houses, and depots,” opening their homes, stores, and barns to provide refuge and safe passage.
I shared this information with our Buffalo District team so they would recognize that we have a small, but significant piece of that story right here in our own backyard, and to reflect on who we are as a team and why our story here in Buffalo is a unique one. Obscured somewhat by the cover of snow, the Buffalo District’s project site may appear to many to be simply part of the background. But I like to think it evokes a sense of permanence and pride for the landmarks which frame such powerful stories of freedom. Either way, I’m very proud of the District’s role in protecting this story.
As Black History Month comes to a close this year, I encourage everyone to continue reflecting on the many contributions of African Americans and the Black community to the story of our nation. We should remember all who were brave enough to make the journey, and all who helped. We should also recognize how many were left behind, and never got to cross that last river in Buffalo.
As our President stated in his commemoration of the month, “Black history is American history, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America — our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations.” Though challenges remain, it is my sincere wish that you find inspiration and hope in the shared values for human rights which strengthen our communities.
Lt. Col. Eli S. Adams, PE, PMP
Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District