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State funding announced for Albany’s Underground Railroad Education Center’s interpretive center

New York state lawmakers have announced a $2 million for to The Underground Railroad Education Center for its planned Interpretive Center in Albany.
Dave Lucas
New York state lawmakers have announced $2 million for The Underground Railroad Education Center for its planned Interpretive Center in Albany.

New York state lawmakers have announced $2 million for The Underground Railroad Education Center for its planned Interpretive Center in Albany.

Standing on an empty lot near the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence on Livingston Avenue,

109th district Assemblymember Pat Fahy and 108th district Assemblymember John McDonald said decades of work by co-founders of the Underground Railroad History Project, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, laid the groundwork for the Center.

“It still gives me chills. I think we gave Paul a heart attack when we called. I asked him if he was sitting. But this press event today, one of the reasons we wanted this big announcement, is it's twofold. One, we wanted to share in this extraordinary news. It is years and years in the making. But it's also that we want the word to get out, because they have such a vision. It wasn't just restoring the house. Now they have an interpretive center,” said Fahy.

“The money Pat announced today is not a discretionary grant. It's something that was intentionally included in this year's budget. The speaker approached us talked about we want to make an investment in a regionally important project. This is the project that was selected, thanks to Speaker Heastie,” said McDonald.

Plans for the center include outside patio space, off-street parking, a library, children’s room, exhibit and event space, along with a café and commercial kitchen, conference room, and two studio apartments, one for affordable housing to a security and grounds employee. The other apartment will be made available to visiting professors and artists.

The Stewarts say it will take about $8 million to establish a fully functional center. They’re hoping the $2 million will inspire future grants. Mary Liz Stewart says more than a decade has passed since the idea to build an interpretive center was born.

“The interpretive center was a dream that began with the sitting board of directors in 2008," Stewart said. "So it has been hovering for a long time. But if it appears that this is the appropriate moment to step forward, and to make this, take this big step, to continue to expand what Underground Railroad Education Center has been doing over the years. In many ways, we have reached our limit in the use of the Meyers residence for the kind of programming that we'd like to offer. We'd like to expand those opportunities to reach more people to offer jobs to our neighbors to develop workforce development opportunities here as well, all based in looking back to the justice work of our abolitionists and continuing with others across time, as we stand here today, and move forward to ensure the justice and equity that by right belongs to everybody in this country.”

Albany County Legislator Wanda Willingham represents the 3rd district. She praised the Stewarts and thanked lawmakers for moving the center project forward.

"You're paving away and showing those people in other parts of the country that our history is about all of the people of these United States, not just one group," said Willingham. "When I look at the next group of people here, and I read the history of how strong Stephen Myers was in the abolitionist movement. It made me realize that that Black people did not, were not in the back and forging and making their freedom known and realizing that we are the ones that have to push for our freedom.”

The Stewarts hope to see construction of the center begin sometime in 2024.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.