Uncover History at these Underground Railroad Sites in Syracuse
March 5, 2021
Last updated on March 24, 2021.
If you live in or have visited Syracuse, you’ve probably seen the Jerry Rescue monument while ice skating in Clinton Square. Or eaten at The Mission. Or seen the mansions along James Street. But did you know that all of these locations are tied to the Underground Railroad in Syracuse?
It’s true! There is SO MUCH history of the abolitionist movement in Syracuse, and some very key players. Yes, the most famous names of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony all made their way through Central New York during the movement. But there are other names that you need to know as well. Reverend Jermain Loguen, Reverend Samuel May, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Keep reading to learn their stories.
If Harriet Tubman was the queen of the Underground Railroad, Jermain Loguen was the king. Their stories start very much the same, both born on plantations to enslaved mothers. Both Harriet and Jermain, like John W. Jones, fought for their freedom by escaping along the Underground Railroad. All of these heroes then risked their lives and dedicated their actions to freeing others.
“I WAS A SLAVE – I knew the dangers I was exposed to. I had made up my mind as to the course I was to take. On that score I needed no counsel, nor did the colored citizens generally. They had taken their stand—they would not be taken back to slavery.”
Born on a plantation in Tennessee on February 5, 1813, Jarm Logue was the son of his enslaved mother Cherry and her white master, David. Jermain stole one of his master’s horses and ran away in 1834. After he made his way through different parts of New York and Canada, he went to an abolitionist school in Rochester, and then finally settled in Syracuse in 1841. With his freedom came a new name for himself: Jermain Wesley Loguen.
Reverend Loguen in Syracuse
Once in Syracuse, Jermain became associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the same church that had congregations in many major cities across New York. Throughout his activities as an abolitionist, it is said that Reverend Loguen helped over 1500 runaway slaves get to freedom. Impressed? That’s because you should be.
His family’s home stood at the corner of Pine and Genesee Streets in the city. Unfortunately the house not longer stands. Today, all you’ll find is a pharmacy and a Freedom Trail sign. A little farther down the street there is a small triangular park named in his honor. Lastly, you can visit his grave in Oakwood Cemetery. But don’t you wonder why there isn’t more?
May and Loguen came from very different backgrounds. While Loguen escaped from a life of slavery, May enjoyed the luxuries of a wealthy white family. He grew up in New England, and graduated from both Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School. After preaching in Connecticut and Massachusetts, May made his way to Syracuse in 1845. Syracuse University professor and historian Milton Sernett praised him, “He was dedicated to racial equality, not just abolition.”
Reverend May, like other abolitionists, was ahead of his time. He fought to end slavery, pushed for equality, championed for women’s rights, and aided the local Native Americans. When he died in 1871, Reverend Loguen gave his eulogy.
Who Was Matilda Joslyn Gage?
Most people recognize the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the leaders of the women’s rights movement in the late 1800s. But they were not alone. Matilda Joslyn Gage rounded out the trio. Unfortunately, after Gage and Anthony had differing thoughts about the separation of church and state, her history has been forgotten. But there is still time to change that narrative.
Matilda grew up in Cicero, New York to a very progressive family. As a young girl in the mid-1800s, her father taught her not only that her opinion mattered, but that guests to their home must listen to her speak. This was unheard of for the time period. Matilda also learned her abolitionist beliefs from her father, and carried them with her to her home in Fayetteville. There she also held anti-slavery society meetings and harbored fugitives on the Underground Railroad.
“I think I was born with a hatred of oppression, and, too, in my father’s house, I was trained in the anti-slavery ranks, for it was one of the stations on the underground railway, and a home of anti-slavery speakers.”
While many of the original sites have been lost over time, we can make an effort to keep the history alive. Luckily, there was a recent effort to identify the locations across the city and county. Now, you can find Freedom Trail markers located at the sites mentioned below – and many others.
“Now, you are assembled here, the strength of this city is here to express their sense of this fugitive act, and to proclaim to the despots at Washington whether it shall be enforced here—whether you will permit the government to return me and other fugitives who have sought asylum among you, to the Hell of slavery. “
If you’ve ever attended a festival in Syracuse, you’ve probably been to Clinton Square. Located inn the heart of downtown, that’s where you’ll find the Jerry Rescue Monument. Ever since I was young I remember seeing it there, but I don’t remember understanding what it represented. It wasn’t until somewhat recently that I learned the historic moment that is frozen in time in that statue.
The Fugitive Slave Act
To understand the importance of the Jerry Rescue, you have to know about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Prior to this, formerly enslaved folks just had to make it north in order to gain their freedom and a sense of safety. But with pressure from the South threatening to secede from the Union, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.
With the act, it became the law that people, particularly Northerners, were required to assist in the return of any former slaves to their owners. Therefore, it made participation in the Underground Railroad highly illegal, with punishment including fines and jail time.
Of course, most Northerners were highly opposed to the act, particularly in Syracuse. And they were vocal about it!
“I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it, and the men who attempt to enforce it on me.”
On October 1, 1851, William “Jerry” Henry was arrested in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law. At the same time, an anti-slavery convention was taking place downtown. Jerry had previously escaped from a life of slavery. After he got to New York, he found work Syracuse as a cooper (making wooden barrels). That’s where the federal marshals shackled him.
When the abolitionists heard what had happened to him, they stormed the jailhouse. Unable to fend off the crowd of over 2,000, the police couldn’t stop them from freeing Jerry. As a result, Jerry got free, but some abolitionists were arrested.
Jerry escaped from Syracuse hidden in the meat wagon of a butcher heading north to Mexico, New York. According to the historians at the Starr Clark Tin Shop, the reason he was so successful in escaping is due to the history of the Plank Road in North Syracuse. After construction of the road, toll booths were placed along it. That meant businesses and people could charge tolls for travelers to use the road. Up in Cicero, the story is that the meat wagon was allowed to easily pass through the toll booth. But while Jerry got through easily, the toll collectors intentionally delayed the police. Abolitionists were truly everywhere.
After the mob stormed the courthouse, Reverend Loguen was charged for his participation and fled to Canada. While he could not publicly admit his involvement for fear of getting arrested, people knew he was involved. After all, he documented it in several places.
Harriet May Mills House
Harriet May was another one of the most prominent activists in the women’s suffrage movement in Syracuse. Her father? A dedicated abolitionist. Therefore it’s no surprise that oral histories and old newspaper clippings state that their home was used as a way station along the Underground Railroad. The building currently operates as a halfway home supporting women overcoming addiction.
Matilda Joslyn Gage House
As previously mentioned, Matilda Joslyn Gage was a fierce abolitionist. She believed not only in equality for men and women, but justice for everyone. Both her childhood home and her adult home were said to be waystations on the Underground Railroad in Syracuse. Although there are written accounts that runaways were hid under the floorboards of her Fayetteville home, no substantial proof has been found.
The Gage Foundation raised funds to turn the Matilda Joslyn Gage House into a museum over a century after her death. The house offers insights into all of the social justice movements Matilda advocated for. The foundation has dedicated each room to a different cause, and there were so many! Women’s rights. Abolition. Local history. Her connections to the Haudenosaunee people. And the legacy of the Wizard of Oz. (Matilda’s daughter Maud married L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. His legacy also still lives on in nearby Chittenango.)
During typical times, visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibits. Sit at Matilda’s original desk and write her a note. Stand at the podium and read her speech from the Women’s Rights Convention of 1852. Try on clothing from the 1800s. Hide in a bookcase nook and imagine what it was like for the runaways.
The museum is FREE to visit, though donations are encouraged. It is currently open by appointment only. Also, Matilda’s grave is a popular site to visit. You can find her tombstone in Fayetteville Cemetery, not far from her home.
A group of families in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse were core to the abolitionist movement at the time. The Barnes, the Wilkinsons, and the Sedgwicks mixed together as family and friends in a united front for justice. The owners of the Barnes Hiscock Mansion (the first to be built on James Street) were George & Rebecca Barnes. Together with their friends, they participated in the Vigilance Committee that fought against the Fugitive Slave Law. In addition, the families all donated bail money to those who were arrested in the Jerry Rescue.
In the heart of downtown Syracuse, at the corner of Jefferson and Onondaga Streets, sits an old converted church. Most locals know it as The Mission, a recently closed restaurant known for its Mexican food. But the building’s history goes further back than you’d expect, serving as a safe haven for former slaves. And while most stops on the Underground Railroad were not actually underground, the old church did indeed have tunnels carved into the earth where slaves could hide.
Onondaga Historical Museum
The Onondaga Historical Association has a permanent Freedom Bound exhibit. It documents the history of the Underground Railroad in Syracuse. Surprisingly, I just visited for the first time last month – and learned that not many people know about the museum or the exhibit. I highly encourage you to go! Not only is the museum FREE to visit (but donations are encouraged), it is overflowing with history and artifacts from Syracuse.
The Freedom Bound exhibit offers an interactive display. The piece is about ten minutes long and tells the story of a family of freedom seekers makes their way to Syracuse. Lights and audio add to the standing displays, making it quite unique and informative. After listening to the story, check out the map of Syracuse locations tied to the Underground Railroad and read about the people who made it happen.
Then, go around the corner to find some incredible artifacts on display. The two most notable are the shackles worn by William “Jerry” Henry in the Jerry Rescue, and carvings found under the Wesleyan Church. The facial carvings are believed to have been created by runaways who hid under the church on their journeys to freedom. Perhaps they left this as evidence of what happened.
Keep the History Alive
How many of these sites did you know about before reading? How many have you visited? So next time you’re looking for something to do, check out some of these Underground Railroad sites. It’s not only important, it’s also budget-friendly! Learn the history. Share it with your kids, your friends, your students. Keep it alive.