Black history is American history, and it’s Central New York history. During the early- and mid-1800s, many Central and Upstate New Yorkers contributed to the fight for justice and against slavery. While prominent abolitionists with ties to our area, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith, are better known, other courageous activists also deserve to have their stories told. Here are four such CNY abolitionists you should know:
Thomas James was born into slavery in Canajoharie, N.Y., in 1804. At 17, he was bartered to a new, brutal owner which pushed him to escape west along the Erie Canal to Lockport, near Buffalo. He later crossed into Canada and then back to the U.S. by way of Rochester. He worked as a laborer and attended a church school to learn how to read and write. His education allowed him to gain a managerial position at the warehouse where he worked.
He dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause and helped form an anti-slavery society and a bi-weekly abolition newspaper “The Rights of Man.” James toured the country drumming up subscriptions and supporters. In 1823, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Society and years later bought land and built a small church. When he was 29 or 30, James became an ordained minister. His name was an amalgamation of Tom, his name as a slave, and Jim, which they called him at the warehouse. He put them together and was ordained Rev. Thomas James. When the bishop of the A.M.E. Church recognized that Syracuse had a growing Black community and a great deal of abolition activity, he sent James to found a new church. James founded The People’s A.M.E. Zion Church and was active in Syracuse’s Underground Railroad. Later work brought him to New York City where he aided in the case against Amistad ship mutineers, and to Massachusetts where he successfully argued a case against the state’s Supreme Court. During the Civil War, he worked as a missionary, supervising a contraband camp, and running a day school and Sunday school for those who escaped from slavery. His memoir, “Wonderful eventful life of Rev. Thomas James,” is in the Library of Congress.
Myrtilla Miner was born in Madison County in 1815. Though she was often ill as a child and her family was poor, she developed an early love for books and learning. She became a teacher and spent time working in Rochester, N.Y., Providence, R.I. and Mississippi. While in Mississippi, she learned about the horrors of slavery and the inhumane way Black people were treated.
She wanted to teach young African American women and was forbidden to do so. She returned to New York and developed a plan to train African American girls to become teachers for their people. Frederick Douglass thought the plan would not be successful due to the risks involved, but Miner felt compelled to follow through. In December 1851, she began teaching six students in Washington, D.C. The school had to relocate several times due to racial prejudice and opposition, but finally found a permanent location for her school in 1853. Pre-Civil War, Miner’s school was the only one to offer education beyond the elementary level to African Americans in Washington, D.C. Her school continued after her death and eventually became part of D.C.’s public school system.
Beriah Green, born 1795 in New England, planned to be a foreign missionary but found his calling as an abolitionist educator and Biblical Scholar. In 1833, he became president of Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, N.Y., which was a manual labor school where agricultural and mechanical labor accompanied academic study. He took the position on two conditions: that he be able to advocate for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people and that he would be allowed to admit students without race or class restrictions – this included at least two known Indigenous students and one woman.
Oneida Institute was the first college to admit Black students without restrictions and it attracted many future Black leaders and abolitionists. Alumni of the Institute went on to become attorneys, legislators, publishers, professors and religious leaders. Green’s writings and lectures opposed the interpretation of the Old and New Testaments that some pro-slavery groups were using to justify the practice. Much of his abolitionist career was dedicated to intellectually and theologically dismantling the arguments for slavery.
Jermain Wesley Loguen
Jermain Wesley Loguen was born February 1813 into slavery in Tennessee. In 1834, he stole his master’s horse and escaped to Canada. Three years later he went to Rochester, N.Y., and started working as a hotel waiter. He attended Beriah Green’s abolitionist school in Whitesboro and while there started a Sunday school for African American children in Utica. Loguen was married in 1840 and he and his wife had six children.
The family moved to Syracuse in 1841. Loguen taught school and became a licensed preacher or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church serving congregations in Syracuse and other Upstate N.Y. cities. As an abolitionist activist, he assisted Unitarian clergyman Rev. Samuel J. May in his work with the Underground Railroad. Loguen eventually became one of the nation’s most active stationmasters — the family house was a depot on the network. It is estimated that he aided more than 1,500 freedom seekers. The most infamous case Loguen assisted with was the Jerry Rescue: A group disrupted the trial of William “Jerry” Henry, a man who was arrested under the Fugitive Slave law of 1850, and enabled Henry’s escape from Syracuse to Canada.
For more stories of conviction by abolitionists you should know, from Upstate NY and all over the East Coast, and to learn more about current anti-racism efforts, visit the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro, N.Y.