New York State didn’t abolish slavery until July 1827, so most enslaved persons seeking freedom before that made their way through the New England states where slavery was illegal, although a number made their way to New York City and lost themselves in the crowd.
But after 1827 it was game on in Albany
In 1828 and 1829 the Albany African Association, lead by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul and Ben Lattimore, Jr., Black men, began to intervene in court cases involving people alleged to be enslaved.
It was difficult finding white allies because at that time most white abolitionists believed that American Africans, once freed, should be re-settled outside the U.S. (called “colonization”). This wasn’t out of meanness. They thought it was impossible for African Americans to achieve equal rights and racial justice in the U.S.
By the early 1830s most white abolitionists understood the position of most Blacks- they were born here, they had built the country, and weren’t going anywhere. Some had fathers or grandfathers who had fought on the Patriot side in the Revolution (like Paul and Lattimore, Jr.) End of discussion.
So, by 1833 William Lloyd Garrison and Black and white men (and a few women) formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, bringing together abolitionists across the north. Although the first Vigilance Committee wasn;t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.
Although the first official Vigilance ￼Committee” wasn’t formed in New York City until 1835, we suspect that efforts were well underway to help freedom seekers in the City and villages and towns along the Hudson and in the Southern Tier and around the Great Lakes. The Vigilance Committee was the face of the UGRR. It included many white abolitionists who could raise money, go to court, and fend off police.
The police were a real problem. Some who attempted to thwart freedom seekers may have thought they were doing the right thing. Enslaved people were property, and they were merely returning property to rightful owners. People helping those attempting to reach freedom were breaking the law; committing an illegal act.
But many others were simply corrupt. They were paid off by the “Slave Catchers” from the South who came North to retrieve “property”.
But we do know that by the first part of 1834 Albany Blacks, under the African Association and the Albany African Clarkson Society (established in 1829) were already rocking and rolling. In April of 1834 at least 100 Black men broke a “runaway” out of the City Jail. (This is one of the earliest documented instances of this sort of collective and very well-organized action by Blacks in the U.S. )
It’s not quite clear when the official Albany Vigilance Committee was formed. Some members like the white Quaker sisters Lydia and Abigail (who would become besties with Frederick Douglass) actually hid escapees and arranged to get them to freedom as well as raising money. Ben Lattimore Jr was probably the wealthiest Black man in Albany; he moved easily among the Black and white communities, and was probably a fund raiser. But he also owned a grocery store, owned a number of properties in Albany, so he was well-placed to secret freedom seekers.
Popular local barbers like Michael Douge and John Stewart could reasonably be expected to get lots of foot traffic of both races to their shops. Richard Wright was a shoemaker. (Wright would become president of the Vigilance Committee in 1844.) Stephen Myers would become supervising agent of the UGRR in later year, was first a grocer and then a waiter. Think of the Vigilance Committee as the Board of Directors and bankers of the UGRR operations.
Within a decade Albany (and Troy) were doing a land office business in help freedom seekers on their way. They came here by all means and from all places.
Basil Dorsey and his brothers escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1837 and made it to Pennsylvania. In 1838 he was re-captured, but escaped to New York where he joined his free wife and two children. He was sent to Albany and then to on to a farm in Charlemont Mass. (Dorsey’s son Charles would marry Emma, the daughter of Ben Lattimore Jr. 30 years later.)
Others went west to Canada through Buffalo and Niagara; some went north directly Canada over the Champlain Canal and still others went northeast through Vermont into Canada. The same man, David Ruggles, who helped Basil Dorsey get to Albany in 1838 helped Frederick Douglass make his way from NYC to New Bedford, Mass. the same year.
There was no single route to freedom. It was a spider web. Options available in the early 1830s changed over time. Some found a place in surrounding communities or even in Albany itself.
By 1842 there were at least 350 men, women and children pouring into the city every year, according to the Rev. Abel Brown, a young white radical abolitionist. Brown was in your face kind of guy, and actually taunted southern slave owners by name once their property was safe in the Albany newspaper the “Tocsin of Liberty”.
His biography, written after his death by his wife, graphically depicts the role of the Albany police. They would obtain a search warrant for one house, and then ignoring the limits of the warrant, conduct illegal searches going from house to house, terrorizing the women and children who were home while the men in family were at work.
According to Brown the Police weren’t just looking for freedom seekers. They would seek free persons of color hoping to sell them into slavery.
No one knows how many thousands of lives were changed as they passed through our City and elsewhere in the North. We know the history of Frederick Douglass, but what became of others is mostly shrouded in the mists of time, although William Still in his 1872 book about the Underground Railroad does include some histories of men and women who went through Albany.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor