Notes from the Underground
At one time, New York had more slaves than Georgia — and most of them were here in the Valley. One local group is dedicated to uncovering the truth about the region’s role in this dark period of history
By A.J. Loftin
Members of the Oblong Quaker Meeting House in Pawling (above) are credited with being the first group in the colonies to condemn slavery in 1769
Virginia native Rebecca Edwards, a professor of 19th-century American history at Vassar College, knows perfectly well that, five generations back, her family kept slaves. “People in Virginia are peculiar about slavery,” she says, “but nobody thinks it didn’t exist.”
When she moved to the Valley, she was surprised to discover something even more peculiar: people up north didn’t seem to know much about slave-holding above the Mason-Dixon line. When one of her students expressed surprise that residents of New York State kept slaves, Edwards concluded she had some work to do; she soon found other local scholars and writers who’d come to the same conclusion. In 2006, they formed the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to studying the history of slavery in the region.
That history, members of the group agree, has yet to be fully told. But one key fact is quite evident: There was an entrenched system of slavery in the North every bit as punitive as the one in the South. “New York was once home to the largest number of slaves of any state in the North — and even more than in Georgia — until the late 18th century, and the largest concentration of them was on plantations in the Hudson Valley,” writes project member Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan (2005), a history of the Underground Railroad. Bordewich also writes about the subject in his on-line blog: “Slavery was as cruel here as it was anywhere in the South. Slaves were branded with irons, and notched in the ears like cattle. Sometimes they were punished with castration.”
The movement against owning slaves began in earnest in the 1830s, when a newly formed group called the Anti-Slavery Society swarmed through New York, setting up hundreds of local branches and recruiting thousands of members. But their efforts were less successful in the Hudson Valley than in any other part of the state. An agent assigned to the mid-Hudson was mobbed and driven out of Newburgh in 1839. In 1846, Bordewich notes, Valley residents voted overwhelmingly against a black-suffrage referendum: “92 percent in Columbia County; 96 percent in Westchester and Ulster; and almost 98 percent in Putnam.” It was not New York’s finest hour.
But the local antislavery movement eventually gained momentum, mainly thanks to two groups: free blacks and Quakers (whose religious beliefs are founded on the principle of equality). Dutchess County, particularly the eastern portion called the Oblong, had the largest concentration of Quakers outside Philadelphia; they had come hoping to escape the Revolutionary War, in which they refused to take sides. Bordewich believes that fugitives traveling on the Underground Railroad from New York City found protection in Quaker communities in Westchester, around Brewster, and at the stronghold known as Quaker Hill in Pawling. As early as 1769, the Oblong Meeting in Quaker Hill declared slavery unacceptable — a resolution believed to be the first official action to free slaves in the colonies.
Another local Quaker gathering place played a pivotal role in helping to abolish slavery. “About 20 miles north of Quaker Hill,” writes Bordewich, “stood the single most important abolitionist institution in the Valley — and one of the most important in the country: the Nine Partners School, just east of present-day Millbrook.” Bordewich believes that the school may have served as a command center of sorts for the Underground Railroad. As early as the 1810s, students at the school were required to memorize a lengthy antislavery catechism that described the practice as a “dreadful evil.” Famous reformers and abolitionists — including Lucretia Mott, often dubbed the first American feminist; and Daniel Anthony, father of Susan B. Anthony — were schooled there.
Did blacks attend Nine Partners? Town of Washington historian David Greenwood says that, although there’s no specific record of blacks attending the school, “the potential is there.” (It’s likely that the Quakers simply didn’t keep records that denote race. Cathy Moyer, archivist at the Oakwood School, a Quaker school in Poughkeepsie that’s a successor of Nine Partners, is tracking down attendance records at Nine Partners. Greenwood hopes to compare them with census records that identify people by race.)
“Because the Quakers believed you couldn’t own a fellow human being, blacks were accepted in their community,” says Greenwood. “So from 1790 on — and as a historian this fascinates me — there were free blacks living in Quaker communities, working alongside them on the farm or as cobblers, involved in all aspects of the community. What intrigues me is that so much of this history has flown under the radar. It’s a clichÃ© that most history was written by wealthy white males, but it turns out to be true.”
Other than in Pawling, Bordewich says the Underground Railroad had stops in several other mid- and upper-Hudson communities, including Pleasant Valley, Poughkeepsie, and Crum Elbow (near Hyde Park) in Dutchess; Claverack, Hudson, Ghent, and Chatham in Columbia County; and in Troy. “There is also evidence that fugitives were sometimes rowed across the Hudson from Newburgh to the vicinity of Beacon,” he writes, noting that some may have found refuge in the African-American hamlet of Baxtertown, near Beacon.
SUNY New Paltz Professor A.J. Williams-Myers, another project member, is researching the role free blacks played in overturning slavery. He has studied several individuals, including Samuel Ringgold Ward, a minister and abolitionist leader. Ward’s parents escaped slavery in Maryland and brought him north when he was a child. A resident of Poughkeepsie from 1837-1839, he preached at the First Congregational Church (now home to the Second Baptist Church) and taught at the Colored Lancaster School; his experiences as part of the Anti-Slavery Society are documented in his book, Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro. Williams-Myers has also written about James F. Brown, who kept diaries (several of which are now in the possession of the Town of Washington). Like Ward’s parents, Brown escaped from Maryland and traveled to New York City, where he was hired by the Verplanck family, who purchased his freedom. Brown subsequently bought the freedom of his wife, Julia; they lived in Fishkill, where Brown was most likely active in the Underground Railroad.
Lorraine Roberts, chair of the Black History Committee of the Dutchess County Historical Society, is also interested in the role that free blacks played in the area. She has spent years looking in cemeteries and church archives for evidence of early African-American communities in Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park. “The blacks who supported the antislavery movement in the Hudson Valley were not field hands,” she says. “More often than not, they were highly skilled in a trade, such as stone masonry or blacksmithing. So this history reveals a lot about the way people lived.”
Several upcoming events should help bring this aspect of Valley history into sharper focus. On February 2, the Mount Gulian Historic Site celebrates Black History Month with a talk about James Brown’s life (see page 89 for complete details). And in March, the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project plans to host a historic reenactment of an antislavery sermon originally preached at the First Congregational Church on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration. In Roberts’s view, the importance of the antislavery movement cannot be overstated. It was “one of the crowning achievements in this country,” she says. “It probably paved the way for the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” And much of this national struggle took place in our own backyard.