A NY state historical marker discussing the Cataract House.

Historic marker describing an Underground Railroad stop in Niagara Falls.

By Cathy Runnels, George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center, Austin, TX

It was by chance that I happened to see the American Association for State and Local History email in my mailbox. In my efforts to continue developing professionally, I stumbled upon the organization online in 2020. After reading the rules to apply for a Douglas Evelyn scholarship to the conference, I thought to myself, simple enough. My love for history and preservation started many years before I found myself in the museum field. I knew that if someone took the time to read my story about how I got here, I could win a scholarship.

I didn’t know what to expect going to Buffalo, New York, but I knew that it was something that would be life-changing for me. So, I bravely headed out alone to a city I had never been to in my life and a place I had never thought about visiting. AASLH allowed me to fully engage in the culture and history of Buffalo. The conference had a diverse range of offerings that allowed me to engage in educational workshops and training with some of the field’s most respected and creative new talents. I also had the opportunity to observe other public history professionals at work, giving outstanding tours and sharing priceless information about how our field can move forward. I was left elated and inspired each evening.

Interior view of Underground Railroad Museum exhibit.

Inside the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

Being around so many people from around the country who love and understand the importance of our work was exciting yet peaceful. This conference allowed me to network and, most importantly, confirm I was precisely where I was supposed to be in my career and life. I ended my week with the Niagara Falls Daredevil Tour. The cemetery tour guide did an upstanding job of bringing to life the people and amazing stories about Niagara Falls. I learned about the falls in school but never knew their role in the Underground Railroad. After touring the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center and learning about the Cataract House, I was overwhelmed with emotions. We then went directly to the beautiful yet raging waters at Niagara Falls, where I sat and cried. I was standing in the same spaces and places my ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

I thought to myself, I am my ancestors’ wildest dream and that I had completed a journey started many years ago by my ancestors.

Looking out across to Canada was a beautiful sight. I knew this opportunity was for me, and I would continue to grow and be part of AASLH for the rest of my life. This conference helped me confirm that my work in the field of public history is relevant. I am forever thankful for this life-changing experience and for being selected as a winner of the Doug Evelyn Diversity Scholarship. I look forward to what the organization has planned for us next year and many years to come and, more importantly, what I can contribute to AASLH.