New Leb lecture: ‘Railroad’ to freedom passed nearby

THE COLUMBIA COUNTY LIBRARIES ASSOCIATION hosted a Zoom presentation about pre-Civil War abolitionist activities in the Hudson River Valley and Capital Region on February 20. The guest speaker was Paul Stewart, co-founder of the Underground Railroad Education Center in Albany.

Stewart’s talk focused on the 1820s–1850s. Stewart said that initially the escape routes to the North were called the Underground Road and those activities were kept secret. Coded language was used with “hard goods” referring to men and “soft goods” to women. According to Stewart, there were concerns “about how much to tell.”

Not until the 1840s did “road” expand to “railroad” to connote speed. Also, efforts to help “freedom seekers” were more public, organized and aggressive. Stewart explained that the term “freedom seekers” as opposed to “fugitive slaves” or “escapees” communicates better the goals of its travelers.

Stewart said that Blacks had leadership roles and that the Underground Railroad was more than a series of safe houses or stations. He emphasized that it was a “movement,” with a web of several pathways. Stewart added that new research has shown that Blacks not only traveled north; some went south to the Caribbean nations and southwest to Mexico.

Initially freedom seekers going north traveled overland through the New England states, where slavery was illegal. But with the advent of the steamboat, the Hudson River became the preferred travel route to points north. Travel not only was considerably shorter, but it was also cheaper and posed less risk.

To further assist freedom seekers communities formed Vigilance Committees. David Ruggles of New York City established the first Vigilance Committee in 1835. Agents of these committees would intercede in court cases on behalf of freedom seekers and free Blacks, who were kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. (This fate befell Ruggles.) In unfavorable court rulings, Vigilance Committee agents would organize local citizenry to attack slave catchers and liberate their hostages.

Charles Marriott of Hudson was a prominent Vigilance Committee agent. Marriott was a Quaker, who was expelled from his Philadelphia community, due to his courthouse interventionist activities on behalf of freedom seekers. Marriott moved to New York and settled in Hudson, where he resumed those activities.

Stephen Myers of Albany was a prime Marriott ally. Myers was born into slavery in Hoosick, Rensselaer County. He was freed in 1818. Myers and his wife, Harriet, edited and published several Abolitionist newspapers and newsletters including The Telegraph and Temperance Journal, The Elevator, North Star and Freedman Advocate, which he renamed North Star and Farmer. The new name reflected Myers’ encouragement of Blacks to turn to farming as a way to independence.

Myers frequently traveled from Albany to Hudson to speak at Abolitionist rallies, which were often aligned with other causes like the Cold Water Army, a Temperance group, and the Free Democracy Movement, advocates of voting rights for Black men. Though unable to attain the right to vote in national elections, Black men did vote in state and local elections.

The URR education center purchased the Myers home at 194 Livingston Avenue, Albany for $1,500. Over twelve years the house has been restored to how it looked in 1850. Tours of the Myers home can be arranged through its website,

According to Stewart, a house is likely to have been a station on the underground railroad if it has a system of tunnels and was built between 1830 and the 1850s. The date the house was built is crucial because tunnels were a common mode of access between homes and barns in New York State.

Stewart, also, named other Capital Region sites prominent in freedom seekers’ history including the 1st Presbyterian Church and Bush Auditorium at Russell Sage College in Troy.

What New Lebanon said

THE COLUMBIA PAPER emailed all the town supervisors in the county to ask how their communities planned to acknowledge Black History Month. Only Tistrya Houghtling of New Lebanon responded. The proclamation is attached.

Town Board Proclamation

Throughout the month of February each year, we recognize and celebrate the contributions of African Americans to this country, and we acknowledge and appreciate their achievements. From February 1 through March 1, 2023, in honor of Black History Month.

African Americans have played a central role in U.S. history. Carter G. Woodson, who in 1915 founded ASNLH (Association for the Study of Negro Life and History), now ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History), sought to preserve such history and to promote Black American achievement. Not until 1976 was Black History Month officially recognized by then President Gerald Ford.

Our collective town history must encompass all citizens, past and present. Remember Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., certainly, but also recognize those who were / are less fortunate, had / have less notoriety, but nonetheless belonged / belong to this, our collective community. Resist anything that lessens African Americans. We are better than that – we must do better. Let our legacy be one that aligns ourselves with our neighbors – all of our neighbors, and be good stewards of the history of all who inhabit our county.

Given under my hand at the New Lebanon Town Hall, New Lebanon, New York this 14th day of February in the year 2023.

Tistrya Houghtling, Supervisor New Lebanon Town Board

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