People Who Supported The Work Of The Underground Railroad

 

People Who Supported The Work Of The Underground Railroad

 

While many people have long considered the underground railroad to be a secret network our reading of material suggests that it was only secret when there was someone present from whom it needed to be hidden such as pro-slavery people, slave catchers, or officials of the government trying to enforce fugitive slave laws. This seems to be the case based on what we can find about the UGR. Vigilance Committees and similar groups were quite open about their existence as illustrated in the publications of the Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate, and Albany Patriot and made up the public side of the UGR effort in cities. In rural areas local people who were sympathetic or neutral knew who was involved. Those local people hostile to the effort sometimes knew who was involved but were kept in the dark about if, when, and how many fugitives stayed somewhere.

In this section we would like to call attention to the many people who were involved in the underground railroad effort in various ways. We do not know much about many of these people beyond their names and the way in which they were involved. We will indicate when we know more about them and what we know of their story. It is also important to note that the people mentioned likely had different levels of involvement at different times. The underground railroad seems best thought of as a movement with many separate organizations and associations involved, and different ones at different times. There were undoubtedly people involved who were affiliated with no organization at all. The common denominator for it all was the fugitive and his, or her, quest for freedom from slavery.

Stephen Myers, a free black who grew up in Rensselaer county as a slave and is told about elsewhere on this web site, was a publisher in the 1840s of the Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate which maintained an office at 46 Green Street in Albany. He engaged in the work of assisting fugitives as head of the Northern Star Association, the organization that provided a network for the support of the newspaper. The Association was active in assisting fugitives. Myers recounts stories in his paper of how he helped fugitives and how many he helped at certain times. Other people involved with the paper as distributors and agents of the Association who lived in our region were James C. Jackson of Clarksville, a doctor, and William Henry Johnson, a black barber and activist in Albany, Joseph Peli, William Green, and C. Van Husen of Hudson, William Thompson of Athens, A. White of Ballston Spa, R. Johnson of Sand Lake, C. S. Remond of Salem, William Rich, and Mr. Willigman of Troy, Martin Cross of Catskill, Francis Dana of Schenectady, John Van Pelt of Saratoga, James G. Stewart who we believe was of Troy, William Rich of Troy, and Charles Morton. There were also many others.

In the 1850s Stephen Myers was the central figure in an Albany based vigilance committee. Others who worked with him were Dr. Thomas Elkins, an black apothecary, who was in 1856 the secretary of the vigilance committee. In that year C. Brooks was the chairman of the committee. Rev. John Sands, pastor of a Weslyan Church in the Arbor Hill area, was a participant. Others involved were Captain Abraham Johnson, a black ferry boat operator of Albany, William Gardner, James Wood and Richard Wright. A Mr. Minos McGowan was also a member. He was a lumber merchant on North Pearl Street. These individuals are all identified on a handbill shown elsewhere on this web site. Added details about them have been gathered from the Albany City Directories for the mid 1850s. Additionally there is a Rev. J. J. Kelley listed on the flyer. There is some controversy surrounding his identity. William Topp is known to have been a well to do black tailor in Albany. It is not clear at what time he began to participate in the underground railroad efforts but he is identified as taking a responsible role in the 1856 flyer. The group maintained an office in 1856 at 198 Lumber Street, which is today’s Livingston Avenue in Albany.

Abel Brown was a Baptist minister in the area. In the 1841 he was active in Rensselaer County in the village of Sand Lake. He pastored the Sand Lake Baptist Church. In the early 1840s he lived in Albany and was actively involved with assisting fugitives. He died of pneumonia in the mid 1840s.

Rev. Charles T. Torry was also active in the area at one time. He later died in a southern prison for trying to take a group of fugitives out of the south. While here he was involved with Abel Brown and a publication called the Albany Patriot, another abolitionist newspaper with offices on Broadway Street in Albany.

Certain churches in the area played active roles according to their mention in historical documents from the period. Israel Methodist Church on Hamilton Street in Albany, Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy (at one time pastored by Henry Highland Garnet), a Weslyan Church in Albany (pastored by Rev. John Sands), and Sand Lake Baptist Church in Rensselaer County (at one time pastored by Abel Brown) are among those. Other churches may have participated too such as the Frankean Synod Lutheran Church in Sand Lake but no clear record of their involvement exists.

One of the most noted lists of people who were known to have been involved in the underground railroad is from the appendix of Wilbur Siebert’s book The Underground Railroad From Slavery To Freedom (Russell & Russell, New York 1898, reissues in 1967). His book attempts to tell the story of the underground railroad through research and interviews with participants then living in the 1880’s and 90’s. In our region his list identifies for Albany County General William L. Chaplin, E. C. Delevan, Goodwin, Dr. J. C. Jackson, Abigail Mott, Lydia Mott, Stephen Myers, and Williams. He identifies for Rensselaer County Rev. Fayette Shipherd, and John H. Hooper, a black Troy resident. Some of these people have already been mentioned. E. C. Delevan was later a significant hotel owner in Albany. His hotel after the Civil War stood on the site of the old Union Station. It is worth noting that some historians (Larry Gara) have shown Siebert’s list not to be completely accurate, but it is a starting point and some of the individuals mentioned on it are corroborated through other references.

It is without a doubt that this does not tell the whole story about the underground railroad in our area. Our quest has been simply to collect some of the story and information about it, and share it in a public setting. When we initially started trying to seek out information regarding it many people told us that little happened here and there were no records. All of the information we have presented is based on specific newspapers, journals, letters, or existing histories, and biographies from the period.

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