Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum

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.  

Official certificate on display in the museum

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.

Leesa explains the hidden meaning in quilt patterns

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.

Visitor Information:
Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum
1776 Gladden St. Washington NC
Hours: 11-5 Thurs-Sat
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PS. Don’t miss my post on things to do in Washington NC.

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