Campus News

A trip on the Underground Railroad

Photos: Douglas Levere


Published September 3, 2020


The images lining the corridor on the 10th floor of Clemens Hall quietly — but strongly — tell a story.

The face of a young man merges with the shoreline of Lake Erie, which flows into the front porch of a safe house in Elyria, Ohio. A stone fence along the lake in Fort Erie, Ontario, overlooks the downtown Buffalo skyline. Atop the fence is an illustration of a slave carrying a knapsack, variations of which were used for runaway notices and later adopted as a symbol for the Underground Railroad.

Further down the hallway connecting faculty offices in the Department of Transnational Studies are photos of the Thomas Root Home in Pekin, New York, one of many safe houses on the Underground Railroad, and Murphy Orchards in Burt, New York, where the McClew family sheltered escaped slaves in secret rooms before moving them to the next station.

More images decorate the walls in the reception area of 1010 Clemens, the department’s administrative office.

The images, on loan from the UB Art Galleries, are part of “Passage on the Underground Railroad,” an exhibition of work by noted African American photographer and digital montage artist Stephen Marc. A larger selection of Marc’s work organized by the UB Art Galleries was on view during the summer of 2019 at the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center in Niagara Falls.

“Passage on the Underground Railroad” reflects the years Marc spent on the road documenting the people and places affiliated with the Underground Railroad. During his travels, he photographed 100 historical structures and the surrounding landscape in 30 states and Canada, and collected numerous artifacts, documents and historical photos.

“Passage on the Underground Railroad” — the exhibition, as well as a book of the same name — features photographs of Underground Railroad sites, as well as digital montages that present multilayered narratives depicting the horrors of slavery.

Professor Lillian Williams with some of the Stephen Marc artwork in the main corridor of the Department of Transnational Studies in Clemens Hall. Photo: Douglas Levere

UB’s connection to Marc goes back 15 years, explained Lillian Williams, associate professor of transnational studies. At that time, she was program co-chair of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the national group was holding its convention in Buffalo to celebrate the centennial of the Niagara Movement — which, incidentally, was founded in Buffalo at the home of William and Mary Burnett Talbert. Williams worked with Sandra Olson, then director of the UB Art Galleries, to mount an exhibition of Marc’s work in the gallery space at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The exhibition was well-received, she recalled, pointing out that while exhibits in the airport gallery space usually are up for about a month, the Marc exhibit was on display for four months.

Marc later donated the Underground Railroad photos to the UB Art Galleries’ permanent collection, Williams said, and she helped arrange for the exhibitions at the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center and at UB as part of the celebration of 50 years of African American studies at the university.

“Passage on the Underground Railroad” dovetails nicely with African American Studies’ historical mission of civic engagement, Williams explained, noting that African American Studies (AAS) faculty and students have engaged with the local community throughout the program’s 51-year history at UB.

“This not only meant bringing the community to campus, but taking the campus community into the historic African American community,” Williams said. For example, UB students for many years have been placed as interns in government and private agencies. And a collaboration between former Buffalo Councilmember Demone Smith, the Hodgson Russ Law firm and AAS students produced the historical documentary brick sidewalk project in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

In addition, AAS faculty have worked on community exhibitions; provided pro bono consulting for the Buffalo Board of Education and the Buffalo Urban League, among others; and served on state and federal advisory boards, Williams added.

The Marc exhibition was installed at UB before the university went to remote learning in the spring, and at that time “we had lots of foot traffic through the department,” Williams said, a testament to the great interest in the images among folks on campus, as well as in the community.

Now that students, faculty and staff are back on campus, they can see the exhibition themselves.

Members of the UB and broader Buffalo community can view the exhibition from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Marc, professor of art in the Herberger College of Arts at Arizona State University, was scheduled to be in residence at UB in late March, and was to lead an informal tour of the exhibition in the Department of Transnational Studies, as well as give a public lecture.

Williams expects he will make that visit to UB, although it probably won’t be until the spring 2021 semester at the earliest, she said.