The Vigilance Committee in Albany.
As the 1830’s drew to a close and the decade of the 1840’s began, committees of citizens were formed all across the north with the intention of protecting fugitive slaves from re-enslavement. As slave catchers sought fugitives vigilance committees provided legal assistance, food, clothing, money, sometimes employment, temporary shelter and assisted fugitives in making their way toward freedom. Albany had a vigilance committee in the early 1840’s and into the 1850’s.
Albany’s underground railroad efforts were not provided for solely by the vigilance committee. In the early 1840’s Stephen Myers’ Northern Star Association provided help for fugitives separately from the existing vigilance committee. There was even some hostility between Myers and members of the vigilance committee. An editorial in the December 8, 1842 edition of Myer’s Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate newspaper reports that Rev. Charles Torrey criticized Myer’s group for not doing enough. Myers responds noting many that he helped with out the aid of the vigilance committee.
In the 1850’s Myer’s leadership was recognized by the Vigilance Committee and he became the principal agent for the committee’s work. He even served at the committee’s chairman for at least three years.
A flyer was circulated by the vigilance committee to solicit for clothing and support for fugitives coming to Albany. A careful examination of it yields many facts about the Underground Railroad effort in Albany.
Among the things that can be learned from this flyer are that the Vigilance Committee at one time maintained an office at 198 Lumber Street. This is the current day Livingston Avenue. Further, the names of the members of the Vigilance Committee are printed on the flyer.
This tells us that contrary to the reputation of the underground railroad for secrecy there was a public as well as a secret side to the movement.
Most of these individuals can be found in the City Directories of that period. There are others who are known to have been involved in assisting fugitives who are not listed as members of the committee. These are people such as Abigale and Lydia Mott. William Topp is mentioned on the flyer as having a responsible role in the work but not as a member of the committee.
Also identified on the flyer is a ten month period and the number of people helped in that period. In the ten months prior to July 15, 1856, 287 fugitives were helped through Albany by the efforts of the committee. Stephen Myers served as the committee’s chairman for the three years prior to April 1856, and C. Brooks served as chairman after Myers.
Some pictures exist of members of the vigilance committee. Pictured here are Stephen Myers, principal agent of the committee, and Dr. Thomas Elkins.
More information about Myers is told elsewhere in this web site.
Dr. Elkins was a pharmacist and respected member of the community. The picture included here was taken after the Civil War.
Both of these pictures are taken from William Johnson’s autobiography which is available in the New York State Library and the Albany Public Library. The pictures were obtained with the assistance of the Albany Public Library.