Underground Railroad Sites In The City Of Albany

There have been many new developments in our attempt to understand the story of the Underground Railroad in the City of Albany. Previously we displayed a general map of the City of Albany with the intent of showing what the city looked like in 1856, a closer map of the Arbor Hill area with numbers identifying locations where people indicated on an 1856 Vigilance Committee flier lived or worked, and a house that we suspected of being the one identified in the 1856 flier. Since we posted that information there have been many changes in our understanding of Albany’s story. We have also engaged in very detailed property and tax record research that has helped us identify the actual location of 198 Lumber Street, the location of the office of the Albany Vigilance Committee.

The story of the Underground Railroad in the City of Albany must be told through telling the stories of some key people, places and things.

 

People

Although the story has roots into the 1820s and earlier, the story begins, to a degree, with the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827. One of the key events marking the abolition of slavery in New York State was a celebration in the City of Albany where Rev. Nathaniel Paul, pastor of the African Baptist Church, gave the principal address. The event appears to have been marked by music and a solemn ceremony. Many public officials appear to have been in attendance. Rev. Paul showed himself to be a passionate advocate of the rights of African people in America. It is known that later in the 1830s Rev. Paul was known for his support of refugee communities in Canada (slaves escaping from slavery and traveling to Canada were refugees in Canada). By the 1830s there were already established refugee communities of former American slaves in Canada.

Drawing of Nathaniel Paul from Tocsin of Liberty Newspaper 1842

The African Baptist Church in Albany was a center for activism for the rights of African people in this area. It was located between South Pearl and Grand Streets along Hamilton Street. It is sometimes referred to as the African Church on lower Hamilton Street. This distinguishes it from the later African Church on upper Hamilton that was Israel AME Church. The African Baptist Church continued to be a center for activism past the Civil War in Albany. At least one of the state conventions of “Colored Citizens” was held there.

Picture of Colored Men’s New York State Convention 1866

In the late 1820s two women begin to show up in Albany who play an important role in Albany’s story. They are Lydia and Abigail Mott. The Mott sisters are noted elsewhere on this site. These Quaker women did not fit the stereotypic model of 19th century women. They operated a linen goods store, and later a boarding house, and finally, a men’s furnishings store at various times. They were well known by the late 1840s as abolition activists and Underground Railroad operators. They were involved in the formation of a group called the Albany Female Antislavery Society. At one time they lived at 37 Maiden Lane, and for a while they operated their men’s furnishings store at 524 Broadway. (The building at 524 had a fire in 1851 – it was reconstructed but is said to maintain a typical appearance from the period.)

Albany Patriot December 30, 1846

Another figure that played an important role was Stephen Myers. He is written about elsewhere on this site. Myers and his wife Harriet were married in 1827 in Troy. Myers was born in 1800 as a slave at Hoosick Four Corners in what is today Rensselaer County. At the age of 18 he was manumitted (set free) in Albany. Over the next years he worked as a grocer and a steamboat steward. By the early 1830s he was involved in anti-slavery activism and was assisting fugitives from slavery to settle in the area or to get to Canada. In the early 1840s Myers was a leading figure in a group called the Northern Star Association and it published a newspaper called the Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate. This newspaper was published at one time from 46 Green Street in Albany, the northeast corner of Green and Hudson.

Harriet Myers played an important role in assisting freedom seekers who arrived in Albany. She provided hospitality to those in need, she worked with other woman to raise funds that supported abolitionist activities, and she proof-read the informative Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate.

Stephen and Harriet Myers lived at many locations around the city of Albany. Nearly all of them are parking lots or have long since been built over. One that has not been build over, or destroyed, stands at 194 Livingston Avenue.

The location of 194 Livingston Avenue is the location identified on the Vigilance Committee flier, shown elsewhere on this site, as 198 Lumber Street. The street called Lumber Street had its name changed to Livingston Avenue after the Civil War. The numbers on the street have shifted on two occasions so identifying the actual building had to be done through tracing a block of properties back to the 1840s, then examining them to determine which one might have been the building, and then tracing forward to the present day. We have worked with the prior owner of the building and a community resident to nominate it to the state historic register. We are working to nominate it to the national register, and plan to secure City historic protections as well.

194 Livingston Avenue, Albany

Myers is easily one of the most important figures in the local story because of the detail that is available about his life, and his level of activism. He was regarded as the Superintendent of the Underground Railroad in Albany in the 1850s. He no doubt assisted hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of fugitive slaves seeking freedom in the north and Canada. Stephen Myers relates in a newspaper article that he had been helping freedom seekers since 1831 by furnishing passage to Canada. He outlines in a letter to a financial supporter brief stories of six fugitives he helped from another location in Arbor Hill on Third Street. This letter is reproduced in The Black Abolitionist Papers, edited by C. Peter Ripley.

Myers’ wife, Harriet, died in 1865. Stephen Myers disappears from the City Directories in 1870. He died some time in February of 1870 and was buried on February 16, 1870 at Albany Rural Cemetary.

Another key figure in the Albany story is Abel Brown. His story is told elsewhere on this site. He came to the region in 1841 as the pastor of the Sand Lake Baptist Church. As a white Baptist minister he was a tireless advocate and a radical Underground Railroad activist. He died in 1844 on a preaching tour in Western New York. He came to Albany in 1842 to help start the Eastern New York Anti-slavery Society. Brown and his wife Mary Ann lived at 209 Green Street in Albany. Green Street has also been renumbered at least once. The 209 where the Brown’s lived was likely where Giffen Elementary School stands along Green Street.

Brown was involved in starting the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society. The group eventually opened an office at 9 Exchange Street in downtown Albany. This location is presently under a parking garage. This group’s goal appeared to be to unite anti-slavery groups in the Hudson Valley to help in anti-slavery work and to assist freedom seekers passing though the region.

Brown was also involved in starting a newspaper called The Tocsin of Liberty. Another newspaper called the Albany Patriot was also connected with his work. These newspapers had offices at various locations in downtown Albany, among them 56 State Street, 10 Commercial Buildings (now SUNY Plaza on Broadway), and 8 South Pearl Street.

The Tocsin of Liberty was published in Albany in the early 1840s

Mary Ann Brown, Abel Brown’s first wife, was also busily engaged in Underground Railroad activity. We learn from the obituary written of her death in 1842 that “…The colored people came to weep around her coffin. She had ever been their friend, and they deeply felt that in losing her, they had lost one who felt their dreadful sufferings. There are in the city, many who have been slaves – when ever I see them they express their grief, often in tears. They know and feel that they have lost one whose house was a refuge for the poor and the oppressed, and who knew how to defend them from the attack of their enemies.”

While Abel Brown died in 1844 his second wife, Catherine, wrote his memoir. A great deal of information about him is available from that memoir. For instance, we know that Abel Brown was a tireless advocate. He used to regularly spend time around the docks of the City of Albany and preach to anyone he could find. He was involved in organizing the Vigilance Committee in Albany in the early 1840s. He was the Secretary of the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society and personally referred freedom seekers to contacts in Vermont and Canada.

There are many other people who merit mention in this retelling of Albany’s story. The Reverend John Sands is one of whom little is known. He was the pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel that was located on Third Street below Lark in Arbor Hill. It is believed that he was an African American pastor of an African congregation. The church likely functioned as a spiritual focal point for many activists and freedom seekers who lived in the Arbor Hill area. Thomas Elkins was an African American doctor who lived in Arbor Hill and was active on the Vigilance Committee. William Topp lived at 98 Green Street, operated a tailor shop at 547 Broadway, and was a member of the Vigilance Committee. There are many others who could be mentioned.

 

Places

Many places were identified in the foregoing narrative. There are many other places that have important stories attached to them.Albany has had three buildings for its City Hall. In the earliest period city government functions were carried out from a building on Broadway. Later, in the mid 1830s, a building was built on Eagle Street. This building played a role in the City’s history and also in the City’s Underground Railroad story.

Picture of Albany City Hall prior to 1890s

Many people are familiar with the story of the “Jerry Rescue” in Syracuse. In October 1851 William “Jerry” Henry, a freedom seeker living in Syracuse, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. After a hearing he was jailed and a large crowd gathered and vowed to free him. Late in the day the crowd stormed the jail and freed Jerry. He was secreted off to Canada. A Grand Jury indicted nearly 30 people in connection with the incident. When the trials finally were held only a few were brought to trial and the trial was held in Albany at our then City Hall building. Judge Hall, the brother-in-law of President Harrison, was the presiding judge. Well-known abolitionists, such as Garrett Smith, came to town to help in defending the accused conspirators. Eventually only one person was convicted. This was a African American man named Enoch Reed. He was in ill health and died before sentence could be passed. While no one ever served any jail time for the “Jerry” rescue, this important judicial victory for justice was obtained at Albany’s City Hall.

The Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1842. The organizing meeting, a conference of perhaps a hundred people, was held in the old City Hall building in Albany.

Israel AME church is presently the oldest continuous African American congregation in upstate New York. Its building and congregation played a role in the Underground Railroad story. In the period of the 1830s through 1850s it was one of perhaps three African American congregations in Albany [Israel AME, African Baptist Church, Second Wesleyan Chapel (African)]. Many of its members were involved in activist organizations of the period. While it is not clear if Stephen Myers was a member of this congregation, he clearly had connections with it. He was in 1843 the Superintendent of a general public school for African-American children associated with the Church. As well, Stephen Myers, William H. Johnson and others were part of an organizing committee that sponsored a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at Israel Church in 1863 where Frederick Douglass was featured in attendance.

 

Things

Chief among things that are connected with Albany and the Underground Railroad story are organizations and newspapers. There are descriptions of the Vigilance Committee, Eastern New York Anti-Slavery, and some of the newspapers earlier in this article and in other places on this site. The Tocsin of Liberty is of particular interest. This paper was unusually ‘out front’ about what it was doing. The editors of the paper seemed to feel that writing stories about freedom seekers who had gotten away to safety was one way to undermine the institution of slavery.

In the Tocsin of Liberty there were often stories published about freedom seekers and their struggle to obtain freedom. One story told in its pages is of a young girl who had been a slave and who was brought in to the state, and into Albany, by a slave owner. Because of a law of the State of New York that made it a crime to kidnap a person into slavery, it was interpreted that the girl became free simply by being brought into the state. The slave owner sought the return of the girl to slavery. The girl sought her freedom. Abolitionists, through the Vigilance Committee, assisted the girl to freedom. Because of the incident, the Vigilance Committee met at Albany City Hall, and on the 19th of May, 1842, passed resolutions that were reported in the Tocsin of Liberty. “Resolved, that we regard the recent attempt to recapture the said girl as a high handed and daring offense against our laws, and that we will use all proper and legal measures to punish the offenders. Resolved, that it is the sense of this meeting that a vigilance committee be appointed whose business it shall be to protect the interests and the rights of the weak against the strong, of the blacks and of the whites, who are all liable to be seized and kidnapped into southern slavery. Resolved, that the daring aggression of the slave power of this nation upon our free institutions as well as upon human liberty – are causes of alarm, and ought to arouse every patriot in the land to vigorous effort to resist such aggressions in all constitutional ways. Resolved, that the Committee of Vigilance be authorized to raise the sum of one hundred dollars for the purpose of assisting and defending those who may be arrested as fugitive slaves, and for the purpose of aiding those who are fleeing from American oppression.” The resolutions close with a notice of who was appointed to this committee. This is a small sample of the many stories reported in the Tocsin of Liberty.

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