By Glenn Griffith, The Saratogian
POSTED: 02/03/17, 11:59 AM EST
Glenn griffith — firstname.lastname@example.org
CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. >> When personal research on the Underground Railroad in Albany began to contradict accepted beliefs, the Capital Region couple undertaking the research knew they had a story that needed a wider audience.
Paul and Mary Liz Stewart brought that story and the history project that came out of it to the wider audience of southern Saratoga County last week.
The two made a presentation on the project they co-founded, the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, to an audience of 125 at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library at its Jan. 27 Friday Free-For-All.
“What started out as a personal history project led us to find a story much larger than the one we ever imagined,” said Mary Liz Stewart. “We thought we’d find a lot of buildings so we could mark them but the buildings are gone so we transferred our focus to the people.”
In focusing their search on people, the Stewarts were able to discover documents long forgotten but still in existence. Those documents revealed a very public history of Antebellum abolitionist activity in Albany and the greater Capital Region. The activity was greater and more open than most people ever imagined.
In a tag-team-like presentation, with each standing to one side of a projection screen, the couple rapidly discussed their research, their differences with commonly accepted conclusions, and the project’s centerpiece, the 19th century Stephen and Harriet Myers House at 194 Livingston Ave. in Albany.
“The Underground Railroad story can be found as a document-based story,” Paul Stewart said. “But we’d always believed, had been told, all the documents were long gone. And besides, it was a secret organization anyway. But we found there were plenty of documents.”
Using slides of old newspapers, flyers, advertisements, printed announcements, letters, and line drawings of prominent players in the story, the Stewarts laid out their research. They showed where the factual story contradicted commonly held beliefs, myth versus history, myth versus reality, secret versus public, and acts of civil disobedience.
“The myths we’ve been told have been embellished,” Paul Stewart said. “Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman have extensive paper trails. Their documents contribute to them being remembered where others are not.”
As the two discussed myth versus reality, they looked at what the public has been told Northern abolitionists wanted and what the documents show.
“We found that for abolitionists it was not only about the abolition of slavery, but seeing what was right for all citizens in the U.S. based on that original document, the Declaration of Independence,” Mary Liz Stewart said. “This became the heart and soul of the work they engaged in, seeing that everyone had the right to what had been promised in the documents that founded this country.”
As they dove into discussing the myth of a secret organization versus the reality of a public one, they showed slides of abolitionist hand bills and flyers containing the names of members of Albany’s Vigilance Committee. The couple went to Capital Region cities and looked up the names.
“We found the names listed and they told us where they’d lived,” Paul Stewart said. “So we went there.”
“A public document with members’ names suggests something is not so secret,” added Mary Liz Stewart.
The Stewarts’ research also found evidence of acts of civil disobedience. After all, an escaped slave was stealing from his or her master by running away because they were robbing the owner of their value by leaving the plantation.
The 1851 William Jerry Henry rescue in Syracuse was discussed as was the 1859 rescue of Charles Nalle in Troy.
“Once captured, there was an incentive for the judges to find the man before him was indeed the escaped slave,” said Mary Liz Stewart. “If the captured man was found not to be the escaped slave, the judge received no money. If it was determined the man was the slave in question, the judge got $10.”
As they concluded their presentation Paul Stewart discussed the intricacies of the South’s post-Civil War Jim Crow laws.
“Slavery didn’t really end with the war,” he said. “It was transformed. The law said private men could not enslave others, but it said nothing as to whether a governmental body could. What you see is long prison terms for minor offenses where the convicted criminals are then leased out to large planters.”
Audience member and regular Free-For-All attendee Barbara Carlin said she found the presentation educational.
“The fact that the Underground Railroad was so public surprised me,” she said. “Kids need to hear this presentation.