Freeholder wants Burlington County College to house

Underground Railroad museum

Burlington County Times

By Danielle Camilli Staff writer | Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2013 12:00 am

MOUNT HOLLY — The shuttered Underground Railroad Educational Center in Burlington City and its collection of historic artifacts could find a new home with the county.

Joseph Donnelly, director of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders, announced at Wednesday’s board meeting that he has reached out to officials at Burlington County College to find space for the nonprofit center, formerly located on East Union Street but closed in December because of financial strain.

The center was adjacent to an Underground Railroad site for seven years.

Donnelly said the college would partner with the county and try to find a dedicated space for the center and its collection at BCC’s Willingboro campus at the Willingboro Town Center off Route 130.

The 29,000-square-foot facility opened last summer, replacing a smaller building at the same complex. Donnelly said he hopes the center could be up and running within a few weeks at the college site.

“This is a significant piece of Burlington County and, quite frankly, national history that needs to be safeguarded for future generations to explore and learn,” he said. “When I read about their difficulties in the paper, I knew right away that the county was going to do everything we could to help them out.”

The Burlington County Times ran a story Sunday about the center’s closing and its search for a new location.

The nonprofit’s collection includes books, art, news clippings and relics relating to black history, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown v. the Board of Education, and tributes to luminaries such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is now being housed in the home of founder Louise Calloway, 83, of Willingboro.

Calloway said Wednesday that she was floored by the county’s offer.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” she said. “I feel like crying. I didn’t know if anyone would come forward and help, and I never expected the response I have received to the story. It’s been amazing, and I’m so grateful.”

She said in addition to the county and college’s offer to house the center, others have come forward offering assistance with grant writing.

Before the center closed, it had served as a museum, library, coffeehouse, and exhibition space for artists and performers who gathered for twice-monthly open mike nights. Also, student groups convened regularly in the 1730s-era building, one of nine African-American historical sites in Burlington City.

In September 2011, the New Jersey Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave Calloway the Distinguished Educators Award for her work at the center. She said busloads of people would come to visit the collection in the city.

Calloway said with new space she will continue her efforts to broaden the appeal and include Civil War and Reconstruction-era historical pieces.

“I know being at the college will bring it to even more people and expand our scope,” she said. “It’s important and a good thing. It’s history.”

Donnelly envisions the addition of the Underground Railroad Educational Center as a bonus to the college’s offerings in Willingboro.

“This partnership also provides an exceptional learning opportunity for our college students to experience more about the Underground Railroad and the role Burlington County played in this important part of American history,” he said. “The collection is a real treasure and resource, and it needs to be displayed.”