Central New York was part of the story of many progressive social movements, including the experiences of African Americans escaping slavery and working to end it. A strong abolition movement took root here in the 1800s, led by prominent black and white activists. Here are just some places and ways to learn about CNY’s part in black history.
Auburn, Cayuga County
Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
An in-depth look at the life and abolition work of Harriet Tubman. Tubman, born Araminta Ross, escaped from slavery in Maryland and went on to help liberate hundreds of others through her actions. She served as a spy, scout, nurse and cook for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. In the late 1850s, moved from Canada to Auburn, where she lived for the rest of her life. The park includes the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center; the Tubman Home for the Aged, which she established for elderly and indigent people of color; the Harriet Tubman Residence (exterior only) and the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (exterior only), which Tubman raised funds to build.
Seward House Museum
William H. Seward held many prominent political positions in the 1800s: He notably served as Secretary of State for Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, but was also a New York State Senator, Governor of New York and a United States Senator. Best known for spearheading the purchase of the Alaskan Territory, he became morally opposed to slavery at a young age. The house he lived in was a stop on the Underground Railroad, with Seward’s wife Frances often hiding escaped slaves in their basement. The museum features an exhibit “Forged in Freedom: The Bond of the Seward Tubman Families.” The exhibit explores the deep relationship between Harriet Tubman and the Seward family, who proposed that Tubman come to Auburn.
Peterboro, Madison County
The National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro
The building housing the museum hosted the inaugural meeting of the New York State Antislavery Society in 1835. Open for events or by appointment, the museum is participating in a year of programming celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting Black (Male) suffrage by prohibiting the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their race, color or previous status as an enslaved person. The Hall of Fame inducts new honorees biennially, recognizing “exemplary persons of the 19th century who dedicated their fortunes, their efforts, and in, in some cases, their lives to the accomplishments of equal rights for all humans.”
Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark
Smith’s father, Peter, founded the hamlet of Peterboro (then Peterborough) in 1795. Peter made his fortune in the fur trade as a partner of John Jacob Astor, then Gerrit took over his father’s land dealings in 1820. A progressive philanthropist, Gerrit Smith put his considerable wealth and stature behind many causes, but abolition was most important to him. Peterboro became a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and Smith purchased freedom for hundreds of enslaved people, arranged their safe passage to Canada or helped them establish lives in Central New York. Interior and exterior exhibits cover freedom seekers, Smith and his wealth, philanthropy and family, and the Underground Railroad. The Gerrit Smith Estate, where he lived his whole life, is designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is also a National Park Service Network to Freedom Underground Railroad site, a Heritage NY Underground Railroad site and a Madison County NY Freedom Trail site.
Syracuse, Onondaga County
Jerry Rescue Monument
Similar to today where Syracuse is openly welcoming to immigrants and refugees, Syracuse was one of the most openly abolitionist cities in the 1850s. Most of the sites that were important to the area no longer exist. Until the Jerry Rescue monument was constructed in 1990, there were no physical markers to the activity that took place there. The Jerry Rescue took place in 1851, when 2,000-3,000 black and white Syracusans acted to rescue a free runaway slave, William “Jerry” Henry, who had been captured by marshals. The act of civil disobedience sent a clear message that people in Syracuse weren’t going to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. The monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse, situated across the street from the jail Henry was liberated from, depicts Henry, Jermain W. Loguen and Rev. Samuel J. May. Loguen and May were known abolitionists.
Onondaga Historical Association
An interactive, permanent exhibit at the historical association’s main museum recreates the story of enslaved people who bravely escaped for a chance at freedom. In “Freedom Bound: Syracuse & The Underground Railroad,” local abolitionists are highlighted as well as music, images and more all providing context for the time period. The OHA partnered on the Black History Preservation project, dedicated to honoring and celebrating the history and heritage of African Americans in Syracuse and Central New York. One of the results of the project, in partnership with Syracuse University (in particular, the African American Studies department) is a virtual museum of black history that can accessed from anywhere.
Utica, Oneida County
Oneida County Freedom Trail
Throughout Oneida County, particularly in Utica, African American residents and their allies aided fugitive enslaved people via Underground Railroad stations, rescues and other anti-slavery activities. The Oneida Institute of Science and Technology became the first college in America to enroll black and white male students on an equal basis. In 1835, a convention to establish a statewide anti-slavery society encountered fiery opposition and a riot ensued. The website for the Oneida County Freedom Trail details relevant locations throughout Utica and highlights some of the prominent activists.
A former professor at Utica College, who is part of the Oneida County Freedom Trail Commission, developed a Utica Freedom Trail guided walking tour with further information.
Additional links with information on CNY’s part in black history:
The Freethought Trail map lets visitors explore a variety of important sites, related to a variety of progressive causes, virtually.
A 2017 article from America Magazine examines the role the Erie Canal might have played in ending slavery.