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~by Brenna Carlin~

Past, Present, and Future: The Impact of the Underground Railroad in Ithaca

Ithaca and the Underground Railroad

In the early nineteenth century Americans disagreed strongly over the issue of slavery.  In northern states such as New York, vocal abolitionists and their supporters were actually able to secure a ban on enslavement in 1827.[1]  In southern states, which profited from the labor of slaves, such a ban would have been considered unthinkable.  In the years following its ban, New York, including the Finger Lakes region, became heavily involved in the activities of the Underground Railroad, a grassroots movement that worked to find ways to help those who sought to flee their servitude in the South and find pathways to freedom, often in Canada.  The fact that a series of slaves escaped from the plantations, not surprisingly, angered southern states to such an extent that they were able to get Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which stated that slaves that had escaped to another state could be legally seized and returned.[2] The Act also made it illegal to aid fugitive slaves, although this did not deter northern abolitionists in places like New York state to keep up their antislavery activities.[3]  

            Many of us learned the basics of the Underground Railroad in an elementary school history class. It was not a railroad in the literal sense but really a vast complex of people and hideouts where fugitives could gain assistance as they fled the south.  This impressive system consisted of an “expansive network of escape routes that originated in the Upper South, intertwined throughout the North, and eventually ended in Canada.”[4] Slaves that chose to utilize this network were called “freedom seekers” and typically “began their journey unaided, either alone or in small groups.”[5] They “were frequently assisted by African Americans and European American ‘agents’ who risked their lives and property to allow their homes or barns to be ‘safe houses’ (i.e., ‘stations’) en route or to physically escort or transport them (as ‘conductors’) on to their next stop.”[6] While the system today has the reputation of being an operation conducted in secrecy, this was not always the case.  Newspaper articles with headlines about large numbers of slaves seeking their freedom in the northeast and Canada were common.  Yet, much of the evidence and records from the past that document the activities of the railroad do not exist today because they have either been ruined over time or were purposefully destroyed in order to keep both freedom seekers and agents out of trouble.  For much of the Finger Lakes region and Ithaca, specifically, little has been done to try to collect the limited evidence that remains until now.  

            We do know that a large Quaker population in this region played a significant role in aiding freedom seekers and worked to connect different communities helping runaways.[7] While people of different races, genders, and social classes helped sustain the general network, women made major contributions by feeding and housing these “freedom seekers” and even “organizing antislavery fairs, for example, to raise funds that escapees needed for train or boat fares” in the region.[8] Another notable aspect of Underground Railroad activity in this area was that many of the African Americans who made it to the Finger Lakes region as slaves “were later granted their freedom and continued to live here, as did their children.”[9] Furthermore, many Blacks who had fled to freedom also chose to stay in the area due to the abundant jobs provided by the construction of the Erie Canal and the progressive and antislavery culture that permeated the area.  

            Ithaca’s connections to black culture today are very much tied to its involvement with the Underground Railroad, since a “small but significant percentage of the 209 African Americans living in Ithaca by 1860 came via” this system.[10] Ithaca was generally considered a layover “station” on the Underground Railroad on the way to Canada but estimates state that at least a few hundred freedom seekers passed through Ithaca on their way to liberation.[11] At the beginning of Ithaca’s involvement with the Underground Railroad, there was a divide in the community since not everyone was an abolitionist.  In time, however, community support from the campaign against slavery increased as more of the community became engrossed in aiding freedom seekers.  Even Frederick Douglass, a noted African American abolitionist who lived in Rochester and came to Ithaca in 1852 to speak about the injustice of slavery and the slave’s quest for freedom, noticed how much support for antislavery sentiment had grown in recent years.[12]  

            The Underground Railroad is important because it is a remarkable, historic example of Americans standing up for the ideal that all people are deserving of equal treatment and respect.  Messages and movements such as these are needed more than ever in today’s hostile political climate where racism seems to have reacquired some of its former power.  The rest of this tour will provide you with information about influential people and places of the Underground Railroad in Ithaca and how they went about their task of fighting racial oppression in America.  When reading these accounts, remember that these antislavery advocates were just normal people like you and me until they decided to strive for what was at the time a drastic form of human improvement.  They continue to inspire us today.  This type of action is necessary because it keeps our world from becoming a place of hatred and evil.  Events such as protests, social media campaigns, and individual efforts are what got us to where we are today and continue to promote the advancement of equality.  

The Samuel J May Anti-Slavery Collection

I also want to introduce one archival collection containing precious documents from the Civil War era that both my colleagues and I will present. Cornell’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery collection was started during the Civil War and includes both pamphlets and manuscripts that directly show the influence of the abolitionist movement in the 1860s.  The collection was formally started by Andrew Jackson White, Cornell’s first president, who was a passionate abolitionist and had been collecting hundreds of pieces of antislavery literature, Civil War artifacts, and religious documents even before the collection was formally created.[13]  Mr. White first began teaching at the University of Michigan and felt so strongly about educating students on the issue of slavery in the U.S. that he invited many famous anti-slavery activists such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Philips to discuss the topic.[14] When it came time to formally curate this expansive collection, Mr. White knew he needed assistance and recruited his friend, Reverend Samuel Joseph May, to gather these resources.  Reverend May was known as a forward thinking theologist from the Boston area who spent much of his life advocating for equal treatment for both minorities and women.[15] He was also heavily involved in the Underground Railroad and allowed his houses in Boston, Syracuse, and Canada to be used as stations within the vast network.  In Reverend May’s later years, he became a strong advocate for improved treatment of Native Americans and his legacy is generally one of compassion and determination in aiding oppressed groups. Because of this, it is no surprise that such an important collection was named after this influential and authoritative man.[16]

            Today, the collection includes over 10,000 titles which were digitized in 1999 through a grant program called the Save America’s Treasures initiative and was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities because of its vast historical importance regarding the anti-slavery movement during the 1800s.[17] These documents are extensive in that they include everything from poetry to Anti-slavery fair keepsakes. What also makes these documents so important is that they show the social and political climate of the time, including grassroots efforts to challenge slavery before the Civil War and a record of events after the end of military hostilities.[18]  

            I would like to present one document I chose from the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery collection called The Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  This document was published in 1860 and chosen because it reveals some of the many personal accounts and injustices that fugitive slaves faced when trying to escape the south. Looking at primary sources such as these allow readers to put themselves in the shoes of individuals from America’s past trying to negotiate an extremely difficult situation.  Documents such as these allow us readers today to gain some appreciation for what it felt like to endure such hardship.  While reading this summary, try to think about what you would do if you did not have your freedom or were enslaved.  Would you risk your life and join the hundreds of thousands of fugitive slaves on their dangerous journey to freedom or would you sit back and allow your life to be controlled by ignorance and intolerance?  

Emancipation and A Reminder of Our Racist Past  

Even prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that helped end slavery, some Americans were already working diligently to end the practice of human bondage.  Slaves themselves often took matters into their own hands by fleeing to the North along the lines of the Underground Railroad.  In free states, residents with abolitionist sympathies not only aided runaway slaves from bondage, but even resorted to force to try and protect runaways from bounty hunters seeking to return them to their owners.  This choice over whether to help black Americans escape their captivity or follow the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that called for the return of captives to their owners revealed the extent to which Americans were already deeply divided over slavery even before they went to war in 1861 and the willingness of many, both black and white, to end this hideous practice.  The details of how this widespread argument over slavery and freedom consumed Americans even before the Civil War is graphically explained in The Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society published in 1860.  

            In this section of the report dealing with controversies generated by the challenging efforts to escape captivity, pages 47-61, the report makes it clear that resistance to “blood thirsty bigotry” was prevalent.[19] The section starts on a happy note and says “while some attempts to find a better home in higher latitudes have sadly failed, success, so far as we have heard, has been a very general rule.”[20] The section also goes on to discuss some of the not so successful cases of fugitives trying to seek their freedom. Many of these attempts are described in graphic detail and include slaves intentionally drowning when found by their masters, hiding in the bow of the boat, and suffocating due to lack of oxygen, and attempting suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot when found by slave hunters.  These cases are included, however, to show how passionate freedom seekers were and that they truly embodied the sentiment of the time: “liberty or death.”  This pamphlet was also published as a distant response to allegations that slaves were basically happy in their present condition.  Both successes and defeats on the Underground Railroad were readily documented in many northern newspapers which meant that this vast network was not a total secret to the general public. Moreover, this section discussed many examples of fugitive slaves that believed they had made it to freedom but were subjected to complex and unfair legal battles due to the American judicial system’s racism enhanced by the Fugitive Slave Act.  

            The preservation of documents such as these is immensely important because they offer readers a lens into the bitter realities of slavery in American history and the extent to which they were opposed by defenders of freedom for all.  These documents also can be inspiring to individuals because they show that grassroots efforts can create something that changes society and brings about good regardless of what the law states.  Furthermore, with any type of past document about slavery and race, it is crucial to understand that these records keep the U.S. accountable for the inequity and racism that our country was built upon and help explain why systematic oppression persists in the U.S. today.

            This report leaves the reader wondering what happened after this time of tension in American history and begs the question: how did racism become ingrained so heavily into American culture and why were people resisting in the 1860s specifically?  To answer this, readers should look at sources from the founding of America, during the Civil War, and after the Emancipation Proclamation to understand how slavery, segregation, and racism came to be.  Lastly, personal stories are helpful when putting historical pieces together because they show an individual’s struggles and yearning for freedom.

The Moment You Have All Been Waiting For

It is now finally time for you to venture into our collection of research and stories of the Underground Railroad in Ithaca.  These accounts will introduce you to key individuals and landmarks, some of which are still standing today, that allowed Ithaca to have so much success bringing freedom seekers to safety.  When exploring, allow your mind to take a journey back in time and try to picture what Ithaca was like in the mid 1800s.  What do you see? Possibly a cart pulled by a horse hiding freedom seekers on their journey or maybe a woman saving funds in order to aid fugitives with their journeys north.  What is so fascinating about this national system was that much of its activities were never documented.  This is very true for Ithaca specifically because of its small, rural nature but, with the limited resources that do exist and a little bit of creativity, we have been able to connect the dots and curate a tour of the influence that the Underground Railroad had on this tiny but powerful town.  By the end, we hope you have learned about both the history of Ithaca and the Underground Railroad and that this inspires you to take action and speak out against the injustices of our time because our world could always use another voice of freedom.  


Acknowledgments: I thank my grandpa for repairing grammar and helping me to refine my ideas.

Bauer, Ingrid. “Practicing Neighborhood and Community: An Ethnographic History of African Americans and the Southside Neighborhood in Ithaca, New York.” College Scholar Thesis, Cornell University, 2001.  

Cornell University Library. “The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection.” Home. Cornell University, 2020.

Cornell University Library. “The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection.” Samuel J. May Biography. Cornell University, 2020.

“Fugitive Slaves.” Essay. In Jon A. Lindseth Suffrage Collection. Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society: by the Executive Committee, for the Year Ending May 1, 1860. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1861, 47–61.

Galvin, Emma. “The Lore of the Negro in Central New York State.” PhD dissertation, Cornell University, 1943.  

Hill, Deirdre Hazel Pauline. “Without Struggle There Is No Progress: An Ethnohistoric Study of Ithaca, Noe York’s African American Community.” Master thesis, Cornell University, 1994.

“Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes.” Seneca County.  Accessed May 5, 2022.  

[1] Ingrid Bauer, “Practicing Neighborhood and Community: An Ethnographic History of African Americans and the Southside Neighborhood in Ithaca, New York” (College Scholar Thesis, Cornell University, 2001), 57.  

[2] “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes,” Seneca County, Accessed May 5, 2022., 1. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 66; Ingrid Bauer, “Practicing Neighborhood and Community,” 61.  

[11] Emma Galvin, “The Lore of the Negro in Central New York State” (PhD dissertation, Cornell University, 1943), 139; Deirdre Hazel Pauline Hill, “Without Struggle There Is No Progress: An Ethnohistoric Study of Ithaca, Noe York’s African American Community” (Master thesis, Cornell University, 1994), 13.  

[12] Ingrid Bauer, “Practicing Neighborhood and Community,” 62.  

[13] Cornell University Library, “The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection,” Home, Cornell University, 2020,

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Cornell University Library, “The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection,” Samuel J. May Biography, Cornell University, 2020,

[16] Cornell University Library, “The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection,” Home.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Jon A. Lindseth Suffrage Collection, Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society: by the Executive Committee, for the Year Ending May 1, 1860 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1861), 56.

[20] Ibid., 47.