In recent years Paul and Mary Liz Stewart initiated a project of researching the Underground Railroad in the Capital Region. It was a means for protecting slaves escaping from slavery before President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. The Stewart project, a nonprofit organization, is a learning lesson about our region for me, and hopefully for many other citizens.
The project has been promoting and encouraging knowledge and understanding of the Underground Railroad in our own backyard — its genesis and legacy in the Capital Region and in New York state, and its importance in American history. Our region and state, for example, were visited by thousands of fugitives seeking freedom prior to the Civil War.
One of the project’s highlights has been the maintenance of the Stephen and Harriet Myers residence. Stephen Myers has been called the most important leader of the local Underground Railroad movement from the 1830s to the 1850s. He remained in Albany throughout this period, helping thousands of escaped slaves move through Albany to points west, north and east on the Underground Railroad. He worked as a grocer and steamboat steward, and starting in 1842, with his journalistic skills, he was a leading spokesperson for anti-slavery activity and rights for African Americans.
The Underground Railroad history is repeating itself as American citizens are mobilizing to protect immigrants threatened with deportations by President Donald Trump’s administration. For example, a network of 450 houses of worship across the country are stepping up to act as a kind of Underground Railroad for undocumented immigrants. Churches, synagogues and mosques are all part of the Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith movement that began in the 1960s, but which has undergone a revival in recent years as the U.S. government has stepped up deportation of undocumented immigrants.
Blocking immigration to the United States and deporting immigrants who have made a home in America has been a centerpiece of the Trump administration notwithstanding the fact that immigration has been a cornerstone of our nation. Before Trump’s election, immigrants were being welcomed to our nation. My wife, for example, tutored immigrants in English and we helped an immigrant couple navigate the laws and American practices so that the couple got married and are settled now with citizenship and two children.
Recently, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill that curtails the ability of law enforcement officials across his state to detain immigrants on behalf of federal authorities solely on the basis of their immigration status. The law, the Illinois Trust Act, effectively ends the practice of honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention requests — commonly known as “detainers” — unless backed by a criminal warrant.
Rauner, a Republican, signed the bill at a crowded ceremony in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, the heart of the city’s Mexican-American community. The new law was celebrated by the Mexican-American community, calling it the “gold standard” for state protections against deportation.
Many so-called sanctuary cities, including Albany, are standing up to threats by the federal government to withhold funding to communities that provide safe havens to undocumented immigrants. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan reiterated Albany’s policing policy not to question individuals on the basis of immigration or citizenship status, except when necessary to investigate criminal activity by that person. This protects immigrants from deportation if they are picked up for minor infractions or make a police report.
The Stewarts are making a valuable contribution to our community by reminding us of our legacy through the Underground Railroad and of an ongoing struggle for equity, freedom and justice that continues to challenge us as a nation.