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~by Laz Cal~

Preserving the Past and Inspiring the Future

While many of you have learned today about the successes of the Underground Railroad in helping many slaves to freedom, you may not appreciate the risks and repercussions Railroad helpers faced due to the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850. Not only were the slaves themselves punished but the people who harbored them could be severely fined or even hanged. Today, we will explore some documents that contextualize the Fugitive Slave Act and the effects of that Act on the conductors of the Underground Railroad.

            To provide a little background knowledge, slaves began to escape from the South to the free states in the North after suffering under their oppressive masters. They used the position of the Big Dipper during the nights to guide their travel northward. They often lacked a good source of food and proper travel wear, yet they continued to walk bare-footed and starved. Their hope and passion for freedom were stronger than all of these obstacles. Over time, as more and more slaves escaped, people sympathetic to their situations and angry at the inequality present in society aided them in their escape. This group of people would eventually be known as the Underground Railroad, a network of sympathizers of the abolitionist cause scattered throughout the northward trip from the South who would aid the slaves in their journey to freedom. In time, people even traveled back down to the South to help more slaves reach freedom. Harriet Tubman was an example of such a conductor, successfully bringing back many groups of slaves to the North. However, these actions were not going unnoticed by the slave owners. They began putting up signs such as the one below, giving a reward for finding and returning their slave:

Figure 1: “Runaway slave broadside for woman named Jane,” Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection, #4681, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

            The slave owners began to realize that despite the Fugitive Slave Act enacted in 1793 that required all slaves to be returned to their rightful owners and the various advertisements they put up, they were not actually making any progress in procuring their slaves. Seeing that there were not many results from the Fugitive Slave Act, they sought to increase the powers an owner had when retrieving their slaves. While the North opposed the revision of the Fugitive Slave Act, the South hinted at a “divide of the Union” if their new revision was not allowed to go through Congress. Ultimately, the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed and granted Southern slave owners extensive privileges in recapturing slaves:

The act included severe civil and criminal penalties for anyone who harbored fugitive slaves or interfered with their capture, as well as for marshals and deputies who failed to carry out a commissioner’s order or from whom a fugitive escaped. No action by a state or local judge and no local law could interfere with the process…[1]

            This new act allowed slave owners to skip the jury trials that were included in the previous Fugitive Slave Act and essentially allowed them to circumvent the law. While not described, some of the penalties included paying a fee, being imprisoned, getting branded, or even possibly being hanged. 

Figure 2: “Fine is Levied for Harbouring Runaway Slave,” Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection, #4681, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

            An example of a lenient punishment is the one given in the document above. Since they were discovered harboring a slave, they would have to pay a fine and return the slave in question. Despite these setbacks, members of the Underground Railroad just became much more efficient and careful to counter the owners hunting for their slaves. They continued their work until the Thirteenth Amendment passed in 1865, abolishing slavery.

            While the documents we just looked at had massive implications in the past, one could say that they are now oxidized remnants of a past that is no more. Why would it be important to protect and preserve these articles? I believe that these documents are physical proof of the racism and oppression that African Americans had to experience. However, these documents also show that people were willing to sacrifice their very own lives in order to stand up against the inequalities in their society. We here, the Ithaca community, can view these documents and let them inspire us to become conductors for equality and fairness, taking up the mantle from the past to protect these virtues in the future. Although the Underground Railroad no longer exists in present times, issues relating to racism and unfair treatment of minorities continue to persist in modern times. Today, in Tompkins County, we inherit the responsibilities given to us and use our voices to fight against the racism and oppression of any individuals.

            In lieu of the Underground Railroad today, we have the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM movement (Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc.) is a decentralized political and social movement with chapters throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. It is one of the major organizations fighting against racism today. BLM began as a hashtag on Twitter in response to the acquittal of the murderer of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watcher for his gated community. He reported a suspicious individual to the police and told them that he was running. This individual was 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin. The police told Zimmerman not to chase Martin, but he decided to do it anyway and got into a physical fight with Martin. In the end, Zimmerman pulled out his gun and shot Martin, resulting in his death. While the jury ruled Zimmerman not guilty due to state laws enabling self-defense by lethal force, it can be questioned whether this would have occurred if Zimmerman would have stayed in place like the dispatcher asked him to do.[2]

            Unsatisfied with the results of this and other trials, BLM grew to be a haven for African Americans. Their slogan says: “By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.” Our BLM chapter in Ithaca was kicked off by a performance by Cornell PhD student Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo (also known by his rapper name, Sammus) called “Perfect Dark.” Afterward, the event organizer Dubian Ade spoke of the goals of their chapter:

BLMI will address the many dynamics of Ithaca which launch a continual assault on Black lives. These include but are not limited to: poor housing, gentrification, food insecurity, policing, job discrimination, white supremacy, class oppression, violence against women, LGBTQ oppression and everything else that degrades Black lives.[3]

            In addition to establishing organizations to fight racism, we have also used our collective voices to protest and demand answers for situations that are racially motivated. In 2017, over 1000 Ithaca College students gathered to protest the lack of response from Ithaca College President Tom Rochon regarding various racially motivated occurrences happening in the college. 

            This event started with the Ithaca College RAs. They wanted to discuss how security would be handled with the Public Safety officers at the campus. However, officers would make confrontational remarks and one of the officers named Elmore had said that he would shoot someone even if they had a BB gun. This made several of the Ithaca College RAs angry as a 12-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed in 2014 for carrying a BB gun. The Ithaca College RAs eventually developed mistrust toward these officers and said that they did not feel ‘safe’ under their supervision. 

            The matter grew even more egregious when RAs confronted the Public Safety officers on how they handled racial insults that an African American resident had received from a student. Audio clips of the confrontation showed the white students casually using the N-word near a black resident of the place they rented. The officers ended the case when they claimed that since the female resident used the phrase “stupid white boys” in the clip, she could be equally charged for verbal harassment. This event clearly showed the racist attitudes of the officers and such attitudes were obviously unacceptable.

            The nail in the coffin was an event organized by the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi called “Preps and Crooks”. They asked attendees to dress in a certain fashion resembling the difference between white clothing and black clothing in the past. This eventually led to the protests discussed earlier. These protests continued for multiple days and a vote of 77% No Confidence from the entire Ithaca College faculty eventually led to Tom Rochon’s resignation. This elicited cheers from students and faculty for the changes that were to come from their actions.[4]

            One of the most recent events that once again mobilized the Ithaca community was the George Floyd case. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was purchasing cigarettes at a grocery store. The employees suspected that he was not using legitimate bills, and they asked for the cigarettes to be returned. However George Floyd refused, and the employees called the police. When they arrived, George Floyd was handcuffed and led to the police car. Claiming that he was claustrophobic, Floyd asked to be taken outside of the vehicle. The police officers complied and led him out of the police car. They told him to lie on the ground. Subsequently, the officers restrained him using their bodies, with one of them, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd started saying that he could not breathe, but Chauvin did not remove his knee from George Floyd’s neck. After a few minutes, Floyd was found to be not breathing and later was proclaimed to be dead. Chauvin was later charged with homicide.[5]

            After George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of people from the Ithaca community come forward to protest against police brutality and racism. This rally of people was quite impressive since it was spontaneous, because BLM Ithaca could not schedule an event due to the Covid-19 restrictions at the time. People called for accountability within the police and other institutions and a more active engagement in ensuring impartiality for all. They also called for support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would require all police officers to have body cameras and undergo anti-discrimination trainings. Niara Boykin, a Cornell student, demanded radical change with these words:

All we’re asking for is equitable treatment…to not be murdered […] They love to hate us so much that that’s a hard thing to ask…that it takes centuries and decades of asking and telling and pleading and begging. We’re done asking, it’s time to demand now because asking has not worked.[6]

            From past to present, people have perpetrated and suffered many deplorable acts of racism and inequality. However, some fight this ugly beast even as others ride on it. From participation in the Underground Railroad to antiracist actions now, individuals from our community have opposed the inequalities in society and sought to promote fairness for all. While the conductors and abolitionists of the Underground Railroad have passed into history, we can still turn to them to illuminate a path for our future. We do not have to hide behind walls and secretly hope for change; we can actively pursue it. We have our own power: the power of our voices. With this power, we in the Ithaca community can still strive to uphold justice. By following the example of the Underground Railroad and actively participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, we can act to preserve the rights of everyone and use our voices to work towards an antiracist future. 

Works Cited

Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection. #4681. “Fine is Levied for Harbouring Runaway Slave.”

Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection. #4681. “Runaway slave broadside for woman named Jane.”

Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Google Books.

Herstory – Black Lives Matter.

Hill, Evan, et al. “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody.” The New York Times. June 1st, 2020.

Lamb, Anna. “George Floyd Protest Draws Hundreds to Ithaca Commons.” The Ithaca Voice, Dec. 6, 2021.

Smith, Michael. “Black Lives Matter Ithaca: A ‘Grass-Roots, Bottom-up,” Anti-Racist Movement.” The Ithaca Voice, Feb. 4, 2016.

Svrluga, Susan. “Ithaca College President Resigns after Protests over Race Issues.” The Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2021.

[1] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), Google Books.

[2] Herstory – Black Lives Matter,

[3] Michael Smith, “Black Lives Matter Ithaca: A ‘Grass-Roots, Bottom-up,” Anti-Racist Movement,” The Ithaca Voice, Feb. 4, 2016,

[4] Susan Svrluga, “Ithaca College President Resigns after Protests over Race Issues,” The Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2021,

[5] Evan Hill, et al., “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” The New York Times, June 1st, 2020,

[6] Anna Lamb, “George Floyd Protest Draws Hundreds to Ithaca Commons,” The Ithaca Voice, Dec. 6, 2021,