The struggle to abolish slavery is an integral part of the historic legacy
of New York State. Since the colonial days under the Dutch rule up to the
passage of the 13th Amendment, people across the state, both black and white,
worked hard (and often without recognition) for freedom.
Many people do not know that New York was a slave state until the 1820s.
New York City had one of the largest slave markets in the colonies. Southerners
who settled in Upstate areas brought slaves with them. As a reminder of
that institution, African-Americans in the Hudson Valley still celebrate
Pinkster, a Dutch version of Pentecost in May.
(A good place to see Pinkster in practice is Philipsburg Manor
in Westchester County).
The most famous New York slave, who later became a leader in the abolitionist
and women’s rights movement was Sojourner Truth, from New Paltz
In the early 19th century, religious revivals spread
through the state, especially along the newly-built Erie Canal. This is
the origin of the anti-slavery movement in New York. Slavery was considered
a sin, and immediate abolition was demanded. Many citizens, both black and
white, helped fugitives (often called “Freedom Seekers”) escape to
Canada. They were part of a secret network known as the Underground Railroad.
Many homes and churches from Long Island to Buffalo still stand as landmarks
to this secretive and illegal operation. Some are well-documented, and others
are questionable. Many are lost - long ago torn down to make room
for new development.
The Freedom Trail
has often been discussed from a historical perspective. We, of course, should
also be interested in its geography. Why was the Empire State so important
to the fight against slavery?
First is its position, with a long border
with Canada, close to the large population centers of both Ontario and
Quebec provinces. New York was the last stop on the railroad before it
reached the “Promised Land.”
Secondly, New York also was positioned between
New England and the Midwestern States. Thanks to the Erie Canal, much of
the nation’s commerce passed through the Empire State. New York City became
the dominant port and the nation’s financial center. Upstate cities and
villages of all sizes flourished as well. But there was more than goods
that passed back and forth across the state. Ideas moved up and down the
canals and the Hudson River too. It was no geographic accident that Frederick
Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Henry Highland Garnett, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Gerrit Smith were New Yorkers by choice. This was Ground
Zero of the Freedom Movement.
There has been a renewed interest in researching the
Underground Railroad in the last few years. Some excellent work is being
done in New York, revealing new information. Here are ten historic
sites in New York State that stand today as honored landmarks of the Freedom Trail:
1. Montauk (Long Island): It was
here the slave ship Amistad first touched American soil. This ship
had been taken over by the slaves themselves. After a long legal battle,
the Supreme Court pronounced their freedom.
2. Troy: On the corner of First
and State Streets there is a plaque commemorating the Charles Nalle Rescue,
led by Harriet Tubman herself in 1860. (see the photo on the right).
3. Auburn: Speaking
of Ms. Tubman, her home in Auburn (Cayuga County) is a must visit on the
FTN. (See the Central
New York Section.)
4. Rochester: The
Flower City is home to both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. You
can visit her Madison Street home, and
a very impressive exhibit about Douglass at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
5. Oswego County: This
Central New York county has one of the best documented sites on the Underground
Railroad anywhere. Visit their website at http://www.co.oswego.ny.us/tourism/history-art/ugrr.html
This city on Lake Ontario was the ideal place to send Freedom Seekers
on their way to Canada.
6. Peterboro (Madison
County): This small town was the home of Gerrit Smith, one of forgotten
leaders of the abolitionist movement. His home is gone, but the land office
remains as a museum. (Mohawk Region)
Coming in the fall of 2005, the National Abolition
Hall of Fame will induct their first five nominees: Gerrit Smith,
William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.
7. Manhattan: The
old City Prison (or “The Tombs”) in Lower Manhattan (Broadway) was the site
of the execution of Captain Nathaniel Gordon for slave trading in 1862,
the only such execution in American history.
8. Syracuse: In
1851, citizens, black and white, in Syracuse defied the Fugitive Slave Law,
and forcibly freed William McHenry (a.k.a. “Jerry”). A monument in Clinton
Square commemorates this event. (Central
New York Section) Also, nearby at the Onondaga Historical Society
Museum there is a wonderful exhibit on the Underground Railroad in Central
New York. They display the "Faces", figurines found in the cellar of a known
UGRR station. Who carved them?
9. Kingston: At the Ulster
County Courthouse, Sojourner Truth won the freedom of her
son, the first such victory for an enslaved person in a court of law. Later
on in life, she became one of the most powerful speakers of both the abolition
and women's rights movements.
In 1991, the African Burial Grounds were discovered at 290 Broadway.
These forgotten citizens of colonial New York have finally received proper
recognition long overdue them. Their bodies were reinterred in 2003,
and a visitor interpretive center will open in October 2005.
(see photo at the left compliments of Africanburialground.com).
Of course, this is a very small sample of the monuments to freedom
found in New York. Others are mentioned in different sections of this website.
Visit a new webpage on the Underground Railroad Stations of New York State,
complete with a map of nearly 300 stations!