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Safe Havens

Safe Havens on the Freedom Line


While oysters were being shucked in the kitchen, and distinguished crowds of diners from New York's business and political establishment feasted at Thomas Downing's Oyster House at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, the proprietor's son, George, led fugitive slaves down into the basement. Amid bottles of wine and molasses, they found shelter from the bands of blackbirders, bounty hunters roaming the streets in search of runaways.

An underground passageway at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

Born as free blacks, the Downings were committed abolitionists. Their restaurant, across from Federal Hall, is known to have been a station on the Underground Railroad from the 1830's to the 1860's, a safe and secret haven on the route north toward Canada and freedom.

Now the Oyster House is long gone. Its years of operation were the peak of Underground Railroad activity, although there were runaway slaves and people willing to help them dating back to Colonial days. In the New York metropolitan area, most of the passageways, cellars and safe houses associated with hiding escaping slaves are sealed or destroyed or have been built over. But this is a city where layers of history are sometimes visible, and interesting sites believed to be linked with the Underground Railroad can still be found.

Tracking the railroad, a line of spontaneous movement and mystery, is complicated by its very nature. Fugitive slaves left few traces for fear of jeopardizing other escapees. Although slavery in New York State was abolished in 1827, aiding a runaway slave was a violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1793 and reinforced with harsher terms in 1850. Clergy and ordinary citizens   —   both black and white   —   who participated recorded very little of their efforts other than in code. Documentation of the Underground Railroad is still very much a work in progress. "No one left a road map," says Christopher Moore, a historian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

A student center at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn was once the Bridge Street Church, where worshipers hid runaway slaves in the basement. (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

To get to New York, more a stopping-off point than a destination, the runaway slaves traveled mostly by night and often in disguise, leaving loved ones behind. Some had no assistance at all and made their way through dangerous terrain, following the North Star. Others were aided by a network of kind strangers willing to break the law for a moral purpose. Along the way, some died and some were captured and returned to bondage. A number of these heroic figures went on to take leadership roles in the abolitionist movement, but most remain anonymous.

In the New York area, the Underground Railroad was tied to the waterways. People often arrived by boat, and many of the stations are near water, usually clustered in neighborhoods that had some combination of African-American churches and communities of free blacks, Quakers, white abolitionists and other sympathizers.

Guided by historical accounts, addresses gleaned from slave narratives and memoirs published after the Civil War, and a preliminary list of sites offered by the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, I visited a sampling of places associated with the Underground Railroad in the metropolitan area.

Starting in TriBeCa

A flier from an exhibition in Queens on the Underground Railroad. (Queens Historical Society)

My journey began on a quiet street in TriBeCa near what was once the home of an early hero of the clandestine network, David Ruggles. "New York is one of the hubs of the Underground Railroad, and David Ruggles is at the center," said Graham Russell Hodges, a professor of American and New York history at Colgate University and the author of a forthcoming Ruggles biography. Still, in Manhattan, there are scant signs of the life of this particular leader of the New York Committee of Vigilance, which aided in the escape of more than 600 fugitive slaves.

In 1838 Ruggles published perhaps the earliest black magazine in the United States, Mirror of Liberty. That same year, he greeted and sheltered Frederick Washington Bailey, a fugitive slave who arrived in New York disguised as a sailor and later changed his name to Frederick Douglass.

The building where Ruggles ran a boardinghouse, reading room and library, at 67 Lispenard Street, at the corner of Broadway, no longer exists. The National City Bank of New York, a once grand stone structure built in 1927 on the site, is now a discount shoe store. Ruggles later lived at 36 Lispenard, at the corner of Church Street, where he hid Douglass. Today it is a five-story building anchored by a pizzeria where no one has heard of Ruggles. His memory is honored in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Junior High School 258 was named the David Ruggles School.

Likely hiding place: Attic of the Bialystoker Synagogue in Manhattan. (Chester Higgens Jr./The New York Times)

Several blocks south of Lispenard, a plaque on the sidewalk in front of 158 Church Street, at the southwest corner of Leonard Street, commemorates the founding of the original Mother A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion Church, one of the first churches in New York built and led by African-Americans. Known as Mother Zion African Church, it was at this location from 1800 to 1864, and is thought to have been a major Underground Railroad depot. The church is now based in Harlem.

African-American churches were also the central bases for political activity. At Mother Zion, 1,500 people gathered in 1850 to protest the seizure of James Hamlet, an escaped slave who had been sent back to Maryland, and they raised $800 to secure his freedom. In other instances African-Americans successfully rescued people snared in the streets by blackbirders. Some free blacks devised their own Underground Railroad efforts, buying slaves from their masters, bringing them to New York and setting them free.

In 1853 Ana Marie Weems stole away from her slave masters in Maryland, dressed up as a boy and set out for New York. When she arrived, said Richard Hourahan, a specialist on the subject, she was sheltered at 153 Baxter Street, at the corner of Grand Street, before being taken to the next safe place. That was the home of the Rev. Charles B. Ray, a blacksmith turned journalist and clergyman who was an activist with the New York Committee of Vigilance as well as editor of The Colored American; he often had fugitive guests arriving day after day. Now the site is a condominium with a Chinese beauty shop at street level and a salon above specializing in back rubs "for relief of tension."

A Hidden Door
Several blocks away I found the first hidden door on my foray to the Lower East Side, at the Bialystoker Synagogue, formerly the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The stone building, a New York City landmark, became a synagogue in 1905 and was restored in 1987. In the corner in what is now the synagogue's women's gallery, Rabbi Yitzchok Singer, who died earlier this month, and his son Boruch pointed out a barely visible break in the wall. Behind is a narrow shaft with a tall wooden ladder leading to an attic. In the peaked chamber, palely lit by two small windows, additional ladders lean against loft spaces. It has been frequently said that fugitive slaves were hidden here, although the only evidence is oral history.

Because stories of daring escapes and grass-roots collaboration are so compelling, there is a human desire to embrace them as true whatever their provenance. Standing in the airy Bialystoker attic, I could almost hear whispers, though I realized that what felt like sacred space may simply have been storage. I left both exhilarated and exasperated, reminded that those who made this history intended their disappearing acts to be just that.

Across the river in Brooklyn, the Wunsch Student Center stands out in a landmark 1846 Greek Revival building on the campus of Polytechnic University. From 1854 to 1938 it was the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black congregation in Brooklyn, known as the Bridge Street Church. In the basement the church housed and fed fugitive slaves, who slept on the floor. When in fear of detection, they descended into a subcellar. Dr. Amos Jordan, the congregation's historian, said he had been told by old-timers that the runaways left markings on the walls.

The interior of the building at 311 Bridge Street is totally renovated: campus organizations occupy the area where the sanctuary was, and a fitness club is in the basement. Yousef Ibrahim, 21, a computer engineering student, had not previously heard of the building's history but found it inspirational. "There were tough people down here trying to survive," he said. "Here I am just working out. It puts things into perspective   —   how people had to go through hardships so I could be at Polytech."

At Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, the Rev. Sharon Blackburn, a successor to the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who preached there from 1847 to 1887, led the way into the basement, where fugitive slaves are thought to have been sheltered. Lowering our heads, we entered a maze of tunnel-like passageways that run the length of the building. Some of the archways are filled in with newer bricks, and one tunnel is said to lead out onto Hicks Street. In his "Reminiscences," Beecher wrote of hiding fugitives at Plymouth and in his own home. The church's minister, Mr. Blackburn, said that the church was considering creating a museum in the basement.

I joined Elaine Purvis's fifth-grade class and a handful of third graders from P.S. 273 in the East New York section of Brooklyn for their field trip "Slavery, the Underground Railroad and the Freedom Trail," organized by Fred Laverpool and R. K. Smith of the tour group Bragging About Brooklyn. The group specializes in African-American history   —   "sites left out of classrooms and textbooks," in Mr. Laverpool's words.

At the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, built between 1860 and 1862, Mr. Laverpool led the class through the basement tunnels in a human chain, with each student grasping the shoulder of the person ahead, some clinging in the dark. "Oh freedom," Mr. Laverpool sang in his trained baritone, and the children joined in, softly, shuffling along the dirt floor.

"I wasn't feeling it," 10-year-old Daynesha Vicks said later, reflecting back on when Ms. Purvis had read them a book about Harriet Tubman, the well-known conductor on the Underground Railroad. But walking through the cavernlike space was different. "I felt like crying," she said. "Like we were slaves trying to run away."

Back upstairs, the Rev. David Dyson has letters written by the congregation's first preacher, Dr. Theodore Cuyler, an outspoken opponent of slavery, that mention fugitive slaves' hiding in the basement heating tunnels when other regular hiding places were "compromised" or under surveillance.

Brooklyn and Queens were much more rural than Manhattan in pre-Civil War days, so clandestine travel for the runaways may have been easier. Flushing has its own Freedom Mile, with several Underground Railroad-related sites identified by the Queens Historical Society. The current exhibition at the society's landmark Kingsland Homestead, "Angels of Deliverance: The Struggle Against Slavery in Queens and Long Island," highlights the role of local African-Americans and Quakers in the abolition movement. It includes documents certifying manumission (release from slavery), newspaper ads offering rewards for runaway slaves and three-dimensional replicas of neighborhood Underground Railroad stations. The show also traces links between local leaders and abolitionists in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Around the corner at the Macedonia A.M.E. Church, the Rev. Nicholas Tweed spoke proudly of his church's connection to the Underground Railroad, and offered a tour of the basement area   —   now the boiler room   —   that was used to house fugitive slaves, usually overnight, until they left through a side door to head to the next place. Founded in 1811, the church has been expanded and renovated, although this room has remained underneath the chapel.

Built in 1694, the Friends Meeting House on Northern Boulevard is the oldest house of worship in continuous use in New York City. Before it was built, Quakers met for worship at the 1661 Bowne House, now a museum. The Bowne property extended for 400 acres, and there may have been other buildings where runaways were sheltered, as Evangeline T. Egglezos, executive director of Bowne House, explained. Many Bowne descendants were involved in abolitionist work. A 1906 obituary of Samuel Bowne Parsons displayed in the exhibition states: "It was his boast that he assisted more slaves to freedom than any other man in Queens County."

The Friends Meeting Houses in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Flushing have antislavery connections, although not all Quakers denounced slavery. East of Flushing, meeting houses dot the north shore of Long Island. By 1776 some Quakers were freeing their slaves and educating them, inspired by Quaker principles.

Through the efforts of the Westbury Friends and the minister Elias Hicks, more than 150 manumissions of slavery were recorded by 1790 on Long Island. I visited the Westbury Meeting House on a recent Sunday morning, and as members broke the silence of their worship to share messages of social responsibility, they seemed linked to those earlier Quakers.

The Hicks Family
Nearby, in Jericho, Long Island, is the Maine Maid Inn, a restaurant believed to have an Underground Railroad connection. The building was the 1789 home of Valentine Hicks, a member of the Westbury Meeting and a cousin and son-in-law of Elias Hicks. On the second floor, the current owner, Bryan Kishner, pointed out a cupboard door that hides a set of stairs leading to an attic where there is a hidden crawl space. The cellar also has an unseen passageway behind a wall leading outdoors.

Accounts of the Hicks family relate that Valentine Hicks helped a runaway pursued by a slavecatcher to hide in the attic. The family is also said to have transported fugitive slaves across Long Island Sound, possibly after they stayed in the adjacent black community of Guinea Town.

On Staten Island, fugitive slaves were said to find sanctuary in the free black community of Sandy Ground, founded in the 1840's; the A.M.E. Zion Church there (now called Rossville) dates back to the 1850's. In the northeastern corner of the island, several white abolitionists built homes. Last month a house that once belonged to the Wilcoxes, a prominent antislavery family, was demolished despite community protests. Still standing on Delafield Place in Livingston, close to the Kill van Kull shore, is the gabled stone home of Dr. Samuel McKenzie Elliot, a well-known abolitionist. Built around 1850, it is believed to have been an Underground Railroad station and is a New York City landmark.

When Rosemarie and Douglas Walsh bought the Elliot house 10 years ago and began restoring it to its former glory, they knew little of its history. Now a photograph of Dr. Elliot hangs in their foyer. They have been told that a tunnel leads from their cellar down to the waterfront but have not yet found it. When they first moved in, they say, doors would open on their own, and faucets would turn on. He says ghosts; she says spirits. Whatever, they're gone now.

Honoring the Railroad
The Underground Railroad has been called America's first civil rights movement. While there are probably more trap doors than verifiable facts, there is much to honor. For the last decade, as part of a Congressional initiative, the National Parks Service has been trying to identify and preserve sites related to the railroad. A new museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, is scheduled to open in early 2004 in Cincinnati with some federal financing. In 1997 the New York State Freedom Trail Commission was established to promote understanding of the flight from slavery, and the Schomburg Center in Harlem has been a leading consultant in identifying more than 300 related sites, personalities and events of significance.

Among the Freedom Trail Commission's plans are the development of curricular materials and a tourism program based on this heritage. By the end of this year, it expects to place historical markers at selected sites, said Sandy Stuart, coordinator of the commission. "This is an important piece of American history," she said, "not just African-American history."

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