Central New York is rich in contributions of African Americans – contributions that goes back many years.

Upstate New York was an active community in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Recognizable names like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith are woven through our heritage. There were also other figures who fought to end slavery, but whose names didn’t gain fame. Here’s a look at some of Upstate New York’s forgotten abolitionists.


The photographs reflect everyday life. From stores, the barber shop, where everybody went, sporting events, bowling. Parties and dinners.  See them here in the collections at the Onondaga Historical Association and Coulter Library, Onondaga Community College

Museums and monuments honor the contributions of African Americans. Here are a few local sites.

  • Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and “conductor, on the Underground Railroad There are several sites in Upstate New York honoring the woman known as “the Moses of her people,” but at the center of it is the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. When Harriet Ross Tubman escaped slavery, she moved to Auburn, NY and was an integral part of the Underground Railroad, helping to bring more than 300 enslaved people to freedom.

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park includes a visitor center, Harriet Tubman’s home, the Tubman Home for the Aged, and the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church that Tubman raised funds to build.

Tubman, who died in 1913 at the age of 91, is now buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The current Biden administration is resuming efforts to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

  • Alex Haley, author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family”

Prolific writer Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, NY, during a time when his father was a graduate student at Cornell University and his mother was enrolled at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, which later became Ithaca College. Haley’s family moved to Tennessee shortly after, but he returned as a “writer in residence” at Hamilton College and lived in Rome, NY in the late 60s and early 70s. Haley spent a lot of time writing at The Savoy restaurant down the street from his Central New York home. It was here that he began to write what became the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” a novel which was turned into an award winning TV miniseries “Roots,” starring LeVar Burton.

While they are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the museum is hosting a series of daily videos during Black History Month for free.