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Risking It All

~by John Smith~

The Story of Henry Moore

Allow me to provide a brief history of Ithaca and its involvement in the Underground Railroad. Ithaca is situated in Tompkins county, New York, a small middle-class community, that housed runaway slaves from all over the United States, although slaves came mainly from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. While many of the African American slaves were passing through to Canada, from 1802 to 1810 a large number stayed in Ithaca.[1] New York ultimately abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, and many African Americans began to move to areas of upstate New York like Tompkins County that were believed to offer them economic opportunities. A vibrant African American community began to form in Ithaca, with job freedom and the creation of the first African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Founded by the Webb family, the A.M.E. Zion Church became the hub for the Underground Railroad in Ithaca. A.M.E. Zion Church’s congregation put their skills together to aid runaway slaves. Once runaways arrived in Ithaca, they were housed with the community members and provided food, clothes, and money.[2]

            Welcome to the house of Henry Moore. What looks like an ordinary white house to the average observer, has a much deeper history when you look a little deeper. This fenced-in property, including a neat looking house with a quant backyard, was actually the home built by Moore, a freed slave who initially went to Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad as a child. He later moved to Ithaca. Moore was a barber by trade and built his house at 213 S. Pain Street, Ithaca, New York in 1850. He aided the Underground Railroad by turning his residence into a safe house for the network. 

            While the Underground Railroad is a rich part of American history, unfortunately there are few recorded primary sources about it. Accordingly, we use the Wellman Scale to indicate the likelihood that a site was part of the Underground Railroad. The Wellman Scale is out of five, with five meaning the site is conclusively documented as being a part of the Underground Railroad. The residence of Henry Moore is given a two on the Wellman Scale as we have minimal oral history about the site but no evidence to the contrary. This lack of evidence regarding the Moore house, and sites around the country like it, is largely because the Underground Railroad was not one single organization. Rather, it was a collective of people who collaborated to assist runaway slaves. Another reason for the lack of recorded history about the Underground Railroad is that it was illegal, and thus it was very dangerous to record names of those who received or provided assistance. If someone was caught aiding and abetting a runaway, the punishment was swift and severe.[3] Due to this risk, many of the accounts surrounding the Underground Railroad are based upon oral tellings and information pieced together by a medley of sources.

            Now, while we have minimal evidence around the Moore site itself, I would like all of you to close your eyes and imagine you are back in 1850. You are assisting a runaway. Imagine the dynamic in the house and around the neighborhood. Now I will tell you a story about Moore.

            It was late afternoon as Moore finished his last haircut for the day. His customer was a regular at the barbershop, and while he sat in the chair he flipped through the newspaper. The customer came upon an interesting story and began reading it aloud to Moore. The story was about an escaped slave who had made it to New York, but had been recaptured and brought back to Louisiana. The article mentioned the two accomplices who housed the slave during his short stint in New York, and the indictments under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 they both received due to their illicit involvement. As he listened with keen interest, Moore reflected silently on the letter he had received in the mail just a few days prior. The instructions were clear and simple: in the evening of the 20th of May, Moore was to wait at the road on the northern side of town until midnight, and if the runaway woman did not arrive, then he was to return the next night. Moore finished up the haircut and closed the store. On the walk home, Moore meandered through town as he thought about arriving home to his wife, Jane, with a nice piece of cooked venison on the table. His favorite meal. Moore then remembered the article from earlier, and thought about how he could lose it all with one wrong move or one nosy neighbor. Moore was grateful for the support in town, as many of the Ithaca residents were in favor of the abolitionist cause. However, there were those men, Moore knew who they were, always running their mouths and giving him dirty looks. Moore could feel the deep hatred they held for blacks and the desegregation movement that was taking hold in the north. How naive they are, Moore thought to himself.

            Moore opened the door to his house and the smell of chicken wafted to his nose. Slightly disappointed, he walked into the kitchen and greeted his wife. They had a quiet dinner, as they both reflected on the night’s upcoming activities. Both Moore and Jane were aware of the consequences. However, they knew what they were doing was right and just, even if the law said otherwise. Just like the Civil War, sometimes you had to go against the legal code to ensure that morality was achieved. As the sun began to set, Moore started mentally preparing for the night ahead. Sometimes this was a smooth transition. The runaways would stay for a night or two, and then move to the next safe house, usually in Rochester, as they snaked their way up to Canada’s border. Canada was the only place where a runaway could truly be free. He and his wife made the bed in the spare bedroom for their guest. They closed all the curtains around the house and made sure to lock the back door. Moore put on his shoes and a long trench coat. As he opened the door and stepped through the threshold, he looked back at his wife and smiled, thinking to himself how beautiful she was. Moore quietly closed the door and stepped out into the night sky. It was warm, but the air was damp with a drizzle of rain coming down. Moore turned down the street and began the forty-five minute walk to the meeting point. When he arrived, there was no noise and no one to be found. His eyes scanned the tree line for movement, and after seeing none he sat down next to a bush. After a few minutes, Moore heard a rustle and stood up abruptly. His gaze caught that of a young woman no older than 30, who cautiously made her way towards him. Moore gave a warm wave, as he was eased by the presence of a female matching the description of the runaway he was to meet. The woman approached Moore, and he could just make out her face, tired but determined. She extended her hand saying, “are you M”? Moore responded “yes”. The woman introduced herself as Tituba, and they both set off back down the road towards Moore’s house. 

            They arrived home to Jane quickly opening the door and ushering them inside. Moore brought her over to the kitchen table where a towel had been placed below the chair. He immediately began cutting her hair, shortening it, until Tituba looked almost unrecognizable. Jane proceeded to show Tituba to her room and said goodnight. Tituba quietly whispered, “thank you,” as Jane blew the candle out, bringing the room to darkness. Moore and Jane went silently up to their room. Moore was too tired to speak, and as nothing eventful had happened, he felt no need to make conversation. They both went to bed knowing in their heart that they had achieved another job well done.

            As the sun started peeking through the window, Moore woke to the sound of dogs barking in the distance and a bang on his door. Moore ran downstairs and peered through the peephole. It was the neighbor, Joel looking frantic. He quickly opened the door. Through his panting, Joel explained “I was at the general store right and early this morning and two tough looking guys with blood hounds were walking around asking questions, they roughed up the store clerk a good bit asking about where one would hide a runaway. He said your name, Moore! God damn it, he said your name!”


            “Tell me you’re not hiding one right now.”

            “We have to get her out of here.”

            “Tell me what I need to do”

            Moore instructed Joel to stay at the house to watch Jane. They both ran downstairs, and Moore woke the girl from her heavy sleep and unbolted the back door. Tituba came running around the corner, and Moore held her by the arm as she was buttoning up her dress. He quickly explained the situation and how time was of the essence. Moore racked his brain as to what to do next. He quickly grabbed a bucket of rabbit grease and smeared it on a horrified looking Tituba. “It’s to hide your smell from the dogs,” explained Moore. Moore brought Tituba out the back door and into the back yard. You could hear the dogs getting louder as the slave hunters approached. Moore and Tituba both ran through the backyard and hopped over the fence. As they ran into the street, Moore looked back and saw one of the slave hunters running towards them; luckily his dog was still on the leash. The next moment, the man bends down and unclips the dog. Moore knew that it was on. He gave Tituba a slip of paper and told her to run until this road ended, then turn the corner and read the note. Moore turned around facing the dog. It started hurtling towards him, as it got closer he pulled out a switchblade and in one swift motion he slit the dogs throat. The dog let out a yelp as it crumpled to the floor. Next was the man. He was probably twice Moore’s weight but did not look like the most nimble of men. Moore let him get closer and closer, and as the unknown man lunged at him he sidestepped and slashed him. The man fell to the ground clutching his stomach. Moore stood over him and looked around to assess the situation. Seeing no one else, he bent down and drove his switchblade through the man’s jugular. The man let out a quick cry and then silence. Moore looked up to see Tituba running down the road. He knew that she would get away. But Moore had more pressing things to deal with now.

            Now while this was not a true story, I hope that it gave you a sense of the real involvement and dangerous risks that members of the Underground Railroad undertook during this time period. Certain parts of this story were pulled from historical evidence, such as the punishment under the Fugitive Slave Act, the journey to Canada, the rabbit grease, the haircut, the use of mail to pass information, the dynamic between neighbors and those who helped runaways, and the manner in which the slave catchers arrived in town and found Moore. Thousands of slaves had to consider these factors when running away from the plantations, and many were successfully freed through the Underground Railroad by a network of people who risked their freedom by assisting them. Their stories and the hardships that they underwent will not be forgotten. To finish my part in exploring these historic events, I would also like to show you an original document from the time.

            The document is a slave ledger providing information about slaves rented out by their “owners”. Slave rental developed out of a need by some for short-term slave labor, usually by those who did not wish to own slaves themselves. This unwanted ownership could be for a few reasons, including poor whites hiring for the harvest season or because people wanted to avoid the stigma of slave ownership. This process of slave renting began during the early 1700s. Owners and renters signed contracts for slaves to perform work over a specified time period. As the profitability of crops such as tobacco and rice diminished, owners realized that they could make more money by renting their slaves rather than utilizing them themselves.[4] The slave “hiring out” process became more refined in the 1800s, with third party agents getting involved in creating contracts and overseeing the deals between renters and owners. Slave renting also allowed skilled slaves the potential to essentially earn their freedom. For these skilled slaves, such as carpenters and blacksmiths, their masters would take a good portion of the money, however, these slaves still pocketed some of the fee and could slowly purchase their freedom. The slave rental market became so popular that white people grew fearful of the freedom so many African Americans had walking around their cities, so in 1845 the South Carolina General Assembly outlawed it.[5]

            The hiring out of the slave workforce is an interesting process from a societal standpoint. Usually, poor whites were low on the hierarchy of society, yet with this influx of slaves for hire, it allowed poor whites to have a taste of this power dynamic. What once was only for the rich was now accessible to all, and thus everyone in America could use this tool to benefit from slavery. Slavery for hire shifted societal norms and this economic opportunity afforded to poor whites is to blame for potentially perpetuating slavery. 

The slave ledger is a powerful piece of history because it reminds us that our ancestors treated other human beings as chattel. These slaves were quite literally traded like animals, and the ledger is there to prove the existence and terms of the transactions. The ledger contains the identity of the slaves who were rented out and other pertinent details of the transaction, including the rental period, to whom they were rented, and the rental price. The ledger is written in cursive, and is difficult to read without the familiarity the writer undoubtedly had about the parties and transaction terms. This leaves some unanswered questions about what the specific content of the ledger. To answer those questions, we would need to find additional information about the slaves who were being rented. However, this information can be found through a close reading of the ledger as well as conducting additional research into the content of other slave rental ledgers. While the specific content is hard to decipher, the overall meaning of the ledger and the underlying transactions are clear. Preserving this ledger is extremely important, as holding and viewing this physical evidence brings to life the abhorrent dealings of early America.  

            I chose to show you this ledger, because of the powerful feelings it elicits. Immediately in its presence we come to visualize the extent of the atrocities slave owners and renters committed in the past. I hope this part of the tour was interesting for you. Thank you for listening! 

Slave ledger:

Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection, #4681. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Picture taken by author. 


Booker, Jackie R. “Slave Renting. Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America. June 21, 2022.

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.

National Park Service. “Exploring a Common Past: Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad.” Accessed May 18, 2022.

National Park Service. “Ulysses S. Grant, Slavery, and the ‘Hiring out System’ in St. Louis (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed May 18, 2022.

[1] 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), 6.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] National Park Service, “Exploring a Common Past: Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad,” accessed May 18, 2022,

[4] National Park Service, “Ulysses S. Grant, Slavery, and the ‘Hiring out System’ in St. Louis (U.S. National Park Service),” accessed May 18, 2022,

[5] Jackie R. Booker, “Slave Renting, Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America,, June 21, 2022,