Some Notes on the Extent of New York City's Involvement in the Underground Railroad

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INTRODUCTION: WHAT WAS THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD?

The Underground Railroad was part of a larger effort to undo an unconscionable, immoral act perpetrated against humanity, in the form of chattel slavery. It was a crucial driving force in the abolitionist movement, drawing the country more and more into the abyss of civil war and the eventual collapse of of the institution of slavery. As part of that larger effort the Underground Railroad can be seen as having been:

      1. Flight from bondage
      2. The theft of self in face of unjust laws
      3. Black and white in defiance of the law to rescue the enslaved
      4. Humanity joined together against inhumanity
      5. Challenge to American doctrines: a) freedom b) equality c)
      justice
      6. Abolitionism, abolitionist, and the law
      7. Slavery, enslaved, and the slave owner
      8. Ongoing struggle for total freedom in USA
      9. The fight against depersonalization & dehumanization
      10. A moral challenge to an immoral mindset
      11. An added thread to an unfinished journey of human freedom:
      Quilting of the American Dream--Freedom!
      12 An ongoing lesson in the evolution of American freedom, and the
      role of African Americans and their friends of freedom in that
      evolutionary process

In that larger picture, the Underground Railroad was in response to an American paradox at the beginning of the country's history, when the founding fathers moved to enslave the African while extending the fruits of freedom to white indentured servants. One response from those totally denied freedom was the elaborate network of clandestine cells across the northern tier of the country that assisted scores of fugitive slaves to freedom. This monumental effort was in direct defiance of the Constitution into which slavery had been written, and federal edits such as the initial Fugitive Slave law of 1793. Defiance intensified with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The story to be told of the Underground Railroad is that it was a moral challenge posed to a nation that had lost its moral compass; and around which rallied morally committed individuals whose own freedom was not worth much so long as others were enslaved. In the words of one writer, "the Underground Railroad was not a route, but a network; not an organization, but a conspiracy of thousands of people banded together for the deliberate purpose of depriving their southern neighbors of their property (in defiance of the law). It was like a ferment beneath the surface of southern society, and was at the core of the country's moral dilemma." (1) The underground movement was such a formidable force "it called forth [that] ignominious fugitive slave law" and eventually "brought on the Civil War" and the destruction of slavery. (2)

NEW YORK CITY'S HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

New York City's involvement in the Underground Railroad was quite extensive, and took its precedent from flight and rebellion of the enslaved prior to the antebellum period. In their own way, pre-ante-bellum enslaved Africans fashioned a clandestine system of flight and refuge from their bondage, first under the Dutch and the British, then under the Americans after the Revolutionary War. This was part of a tradition of resistance to enslavement by Africans, beginning as captives in Africa and on the high seas, and as human chattel in the City of New York. Both the Slave Rebellion of 1712 and the "Negro Plot" of 1741 exemplify the strength of that tradition, and the extent and risks the enslaved were willing to take to regain a lost freedom.

Early evidence for the kind of support afforded fugitives on the Underground Railroad during the antebellum period, can be seen with the establishment of the New York Manumission Society in 1785. From its inception, the Society worked in tandem with the black community in the city. Between 1785 and 1849 it was "the primary local institution responsible for prosecuting kidnappers, disseminating information on the legal rights of blacks, and protecting the city's black children, who were a frequent target of kidnapping. …