Louise Calloway Burlington County Underground Railroad Historian
As you walk up a narrow sidewalk, you notice Louise Calloway standing in the doorway of the temporary Underground Railroad Museum located on the spacious grounds of Smithville Park, a park run by the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders. She is the keeper of the story of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Burlington County.
“For seven years, I operated the Underground Railroad Education Center on Union Street in Burlington City which was located right behind Wheatley’s Pharmacy. The center served as a combination coffeehouse, library, art gallery, and museum. It also was dedicated to bringing history, creative expression in art, music, and spoken word to audiences. In 2012, the education center closed because of funding,” Calloway said.
Calloway showed me workers who were constructing the new museum located adjacent to the current site. She projects the new museum, which has a rustic look on the exterior, should be open to the public by next fall or earlier. Calloway, dressed in a scarf and long dress reminds you of how people dressed during the antebellum period in the United States.
Entering the temporary museum, the first photo focuses on Portugal in the 1400’s, an era where the Pope described Africans as “pagans and enemies of the Roman Catholic Church” and were targeted for indentured servitude in Spain and South America. Those years preceded Columbus landing in America in 1492. She then guides visitors on a fascinating and very informative tour as told through historical photos and historical artifacts. The UGRR was a passageway through which many slaves found temporary shelter while heading north to freedom.
The UGRR, which really wasn’t a railroad but a series of hiding places in which freed blacks and white abolitionists and sympathizers against slavery provided the means for slaves to escape to freedom. While this is not a pretty story, it is one that needs to be told. Often visitors to the museum describe her as a walking, living “encyclopedia on history.” She can tell the story behind each picture and painting, documents, furniture, quilts, and artifacts -- weaving the story of how resilient we were as a people. The entire collection, which is currently housed on two floors, will be transported to the new museum for public viewing upon opening.
Louise had a long career as a social worker and she even taught college in Africa. She was honored by the NAACP in 2011 with the Distinguished Educator’s Award. In November, Calloway received an award for her work from the Impacting Villages organization at the Kennedy Center. At 87 years young, Louise Calloway is an inspiration and a reminder to never forget or be ashamed of our history. She is always willing to tell and embrace that story to the generations that follow us.