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Underground Railroad Museum To Reopen Soon

Photo Provided The Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing will reopen to the public soon after a lengthy closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in the meantime the museum has been focusing on online presentations, including one about Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River.

FLUSHING — The Underground Railroad Museum will soon be reopened to allow visitors to view documentation and memorabilia relating to Black people and their part in American history.

Museum Director Kristina Estle said while water damage from last year had shut down the building and the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped in-person presentations during Black History Month, the board of directors continues to carry out the mission of educational outreach began by John Mattox, the museum’s late founder and curator.

In the beginning of February, Estle launched “28 Days of Black History,” a series of online presentations with video and photographs showcasing significant events or accomplishments.

“Our program is going very well,” she said, adding a minor “hiccup” is that Facebook only allows events to go on for 14 days. This week, she created another 14-day event and hopes viewers will follow to the second. “That was a little frustrating, considering so many people committed to the first event.”

There have also been some changes in the program. John Mattox Jr., son of John Mattox and owner and board chairman of the museum, added another presentation recently.

“John Mattox Jr. decided that he wanted to participate in our event,” he said. “He did a special piece on the murder of Emmett Till.”

Till, a Chicago native, was brutally tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 when he apparently flirted with a white woman on a dare. He was 14 years old. Those accused of the crime were acquitted. Till’s Chicago home is now a national landmark.

Another popular presentation focused on Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.

“He was enslaved. His master took him with him when his master decided to join the Confederate Army. During that time, Bass and his master had an altercation, and Bass ran off and lived among Native Americans until the 13th Amendment was passed and he obtained his freedom,” Estle said.

“Throughout his long career as a US Marshal he arrested 3,000 and in self-defense killed 14,” she said.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much just by doing these videos, and it’s a fantastic way to really dive into the more unknown of our own history.”

Estle said the online presentations have proven popular.

“So far, we’ve had 77 people attending this event,” she said. “We’ve had 444 views of Vimeo. … It’s definitely a success and I’m very pleased. I think we have one week left of video content to upload.”

Estle will then organize the videos in Vimeo and create a showcase.

“I will reach out to the local schools and provide them with that link to offer that to their students,” she said.

“I would like to do this again next year. It’s been very fun,” she said.

She also looks forward to resuming in-person events. When the museum reopens soon, visitors can expect a different experience as they travel through the history of Black people in the United States.

“It’s definitely been difficult and we’ve been closed since the first week of November, but it’s imperative that we be open,” she said, adding all precautions will be taken, but pointing out the museum runs on donations.

In recognition of COVID-19 and health concerns, the museum will also feature technological additions to limit touch-transfer.

“We will be transitioning to a cashless point of sale system using a tablet,” she said.

“We will be reopening hopefully next week. The weather has set us back,” she said. “The plaster work is done on the first floor.”

Estle said she is completing an inventory of the museum and reviewing the guidelines and regulations on what the museum will take in and how those items will be categorized, as well as regulations for items on loan to other places.

She also plans to reorganize the museum displays and give visitors a more comprehensive guide.

“The first thing they say when the walk in is ‘where do we start?'” she said. “I would really love to create a more open flow of the items, maybe even by time period, one floor being slavery, another floor being the Underground Railroad. The museum needs a lot of refocusing of its collections.”

Exhibits have included elements of slavery, the Civil War, and the accomplishments of Black Americans.

Estle said new volunteers are also expected.

“I decided to utilize this time of our popularity on social media to put a link out to…a job position,” she said, adding she will be interviewing seven applicants. This will likely mean expanded hours.

The museum is located at 121 E High St. The phone number is 740-968-2080. The museum website is www.ugrrf.org

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