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The Black History Collection

~by Stella Star~

Tompkins County’s Rich, Revolutionary, and Important History

Hello everyone, thank you so much for coming out! Today, I’m very excited to show you The History Center in Tompkins County, a rich resource dedicated to the education and research of our shared past here in New York. We are going to be headed to the archives so you can all see the Center’s Black History collection. The collection was compiled in 2020, and addresses themes such as the lives of formerly enslaved people within New York, Black soldiers in the Civil War, and Black communities within Ithaca.[1] It even takes us further along the timeline of American history to the Civil Rights Movement with articles detailing Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Ithaca. We are going to be narrowing in on documents which focuses on slavery within Tompkins County and its abolition through the story of the Underground Railroad. Later, we will also be learning about a group who majorly coordinated and contributed to the Underground Railroad and the larger fight against slavery, the Quakers. 

            To begin, we will be looking towards the article “By late 1700s, slavery was a rarity in New York,” which first appeared in a 1984 issue of The Ithaca Journal.[2] Historian and Ithacan Carol Kammen sets the scene of 18th century New York which preceded the Underground Railroad. By 1750, New York had the largest Black population of any Northern state, yet many of its members remained enslaved, mainly by Dutch colonists and landholders. However, the state eventually saw an influx of white labor, decreasing the demand for enslaved people. Further progress included the influence of Quaker abolitionist ideas that led many to grant freedom to those they enslaved. Action taken by the New York Legislature mirrored New York’s gradual shift away from slavery, beginning in 1785 by forbidding the importation of enslaved people into New York and measures encouraging methods to grant and maintain manumission. In 1799, the Legislature ruled that enslaved people’s children would not be born into slavery, instead they would be considered bond servants until they could aquire their freedom in their late 20s. Nearly 20 years later in 1817, the state declared that in a decade’s time, all enslaved people 28 years and older would be set free. The large majority of enslaved people obtained freedom well before the middle of the 19th century, most notably during the War of 1812. There were consequences for those who worked against the state and their push towards abolition, seen in the case of one landowner who fled from New York in an attempt to sell his slaves, and was “indicated” for kidnapping when he attempted to return.[3] Though he was never arrested or tried, such disciplinary action, the newfound freedom of many enslaved people, and anti-slavery legislation exhibit New York’s quick and effective transition to be a progressive state for its time, favoring abolition and the enfranchisement of Black people.

            In “Slavery and freedom in Tompkins County,” Carrel Kammen again takes us through New York’s unique history.[4] She describes the conditions of the enslavement of those dubbed Caroline slaves. The state permitted Caroline slaves to enter yet prohibited their resale, often resulting in their eventual freedom. Such legislation represented an effective push towards abolition, serving as a transition stage edging New Yorkers towards racial equality, both politically and socially. By the early 19th century, Black people had not only settled in Ithaca, but developed two thriving communities independent of one another. One consisted of Black rural populations, majorly made up of formerly enslaved people who had escaped bondage by running away from either the south or New York City. The other instead was made up of those who lived their entire lives in Ithaca, descendants of those brought Northern by southern slave owners. The presence of free Black people and Black communities in Ithaca fostered greater acceptance and allowed for the increased independence and autonomy of Black people. New York’s unique history as one of the original sites for Black people’s lives after enslavement made the state an ideal location for the Underground Railroad. 

            We are now going to move onto our focus for the tour, the Underground Railroad, by examining Tendai Mutunhu’s journal article “An Underground Railroad Transit in Central New York.”[5] Mutunhu is a writer and assistant professor of African and African-American History at Guilford College, and the article today was written while he conducted research at Cornell University. His work informs us that the majority of Black residents who came to Tompkins County between 1820 and 1850 were runaway slaves that escaped from the south through the Underground Railroad. Ithaca quickly became the county’s hotspot for the Railroad as many of its residents, formerly enslaved people and other abolitionists, organized the network. The town’s headquarters were the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, otherwise known as St. James Church, where the majority of religious leaders within the church became station masters for the Railroad. The church’s basement, private homes, and private businesses made up Ithaca’s stations, providing refuge to runaways in secret trenches, cellars, and attics. Many runaway slaves came to New York after passing through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, or Delaware, and would often go as far as Canada. Runaways would cross the border by train, on foot, or receive transport within coaches or wagons owned by Railroad organizers and fellow abolitionists. Harriet Tubman herself brought runaways to Ithaca, some of which chose to stay in the town prior to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Though the law required all runaway slaves to be seized and returned to their slaveholders, Tompkins County did not comply, and neither captured nor sent back any runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad in Ithaca saw great success, as organizers “never lost a single passenger.”[6] Within the overall county, estimates of how many runaways passed through or stayed in the county near several thousand. We can now move onto Tom Calarco’s article which narrows our scope of the Underground Railroad even further. 

            Tom Calarco, an author specializing in the Underground Railroad, has written and edited seven books regarding the network, and was the winner of the 2008 Underground Railroad Free Press Prize. His article “Stops on the Underground Railroad” details the individual stations within the Railroad’s larger network.[7] He begins with the St. James African Methodist Episocopal Zion Church, constructed in 1836. Another stop was  George Johnson’s barber shop, located in the basement of the Ithaca Hotel. It is estimated that Johnson sheltered near to 114 runaway slaves, supplying them with clothing, shoes, and funds to continue on to Canada. Other operatives included Benjamin Halsey, D.F. Tillotson, William Carman, and John Murdock, who hosted runaways in their homes on W. Court, S. Geneva St,. and W. State St., as well as the cellar of Merchants and Farmers Bank. Some potential sites have been uncovered as the result of the demolition of old buildings, such as Houses on E. State St. and E. Seneca St. which revealed hidden stairways, underground shelters, and secret trenches. Runaways would also stow away in the holds of steamers on the way to Cayuga Lake in order to reach Rochester and Charlotte. However, if waterways were not operating, fugitives could either go to a church two miles to the northwest of Ithaca, or a station in Ludlow, both of which led north. Over time, historians and authors have worked to collect information and discover the people and places involved in the Underground Railroad. However, we are still very limited in what we know about the Railroad due to its secretive nature. It was also very painful for many to discuss, specifically the formerly enslaved who relived their trauma every time they hosted new fugitives. Uncertainty surrounding the railroad is explored in our next source. 

            In “Life on the Run Myths and legends persist about the Underground Railroad connections,” Sue Rochman takes us through certain causes and effects of misinformation.[8] Local legends and myths have contributed to clouded information about the true facts of the Underground Railroad, causing historians and people to wrongly connect certain locations within Tompkins County to the network. Records are not always accurate either, with signs incorrectly commemorating historical events, people, and locations. Additionally, family accounts passed down through generations have not always been well documented, preventing researchers from accessing and benefitting from them. The concealment and secrecy required to keep the Underground Railroad intact and running has troubled historians and anyone who wants to know about its history and legacy. Such a record is essential to both Tompkins County’s past as well as the broader history of the fight for abolition and racial equality. It is fascinating how Tompkins County, an overall peaceful and rural area which seems to be unsuspecting, has such a rich and important history. Maintaining these records and continuing to piece together information in order to paint a clearer picture of history is essential to knowing how certain places have facilitated growth and change, and how we have arrived to the present. 

            As we move on in our tour, we come upon a document from Cornell’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection:

This pamphlet recounts the history of the Underground Railroad in Tompkins County, but focuses on the essential role of the Quakers, who provided consistent support, action, and resources to abolition movements. A Quaker Section of The Underground Railroad in Northern Ohio is a journal article written by Wilbur Henry Siebert and published in July of 1930.[9] The article documents a fraction of Quakers’ involvement in and contributions to the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s work is particularly salient given the extensive history linking Quakerism and movements for racial and social justice, and their legacy as one of the major groups of white abolitionists in New York. Quakers’ faith and its emphasis on equality heavily informed and motivated Quakers’ contributions to the Underground Railroad. They believed that slavery betrayed God’s will, and even urged members of their congregation to emancipate their slaves. Their advocacy took on various forms. Quaker families often collaborated to assist runaway enslaved people in their journey North, creating stops on the Underground Railroad and hosting fugitives. Quaker business owners also boycotted products created through slave labor, refusing to sell them to customers. Dominant Quaker thought had its shortcomings, believing that abolition should cause as little social disruption as possible at the expense of the continued enslavement of many. However, Quakers’ contributions are extensive and constitute a significant portion of abolition’s legacy within US history. 

            The journal itself is quite light and thin, making it quite approachable and easily readable. The language is also straightforward and concise, communicating a large amount of detailed information. As indicated by the title, the journal marks and details stops on the Underground Railroad within Northern Ohio. The journal especially pays attention to the people invested in each stop of the Underground Railroad, taking the reader through the occupations, political activism, family, and personal history of Quaker individuals. The writing details the methods employed by abolitionists to house, hide, clothe, and transport enslaved people escaping to freedom. 

            The importance of such a document is its ability to educate readers on the methods and people who came together to assist fugitives. Such a source brings further reality and specificity to such a far-reaching and extensive network by detailing its locations and providing it a physical dimension that still exists and is easily accessible. Further significance can be attributed to the fact that the Underground Railroad was clouded in secrecy, and therefore information regarding the escape of enslaved people is limited. Additionally, the unique role of Quakers is essential to the history of abolition, as they made up a substantial fraction of white abolitionists. Quakers also contrasted with previous religious groups, who employed their faith to justify and expand slavery as opposed to advocating for its abolishment. 

            The reader of Siebert’s journal may remain with unanswered questions regarding further collaboration and networking among Quakers, and how individuals coordinated and communicated throughout the region to facilitate the railroad. Further information which could answer such questions could include forms of correspondence such as letters, religious beliefs uniting Quakers in their mission, and evidence of meetings where abolition and the Underground Railroad were discussed. However, given the threat of discovery which could result in arrests or heavy fines and resulted in extreme secrecy, such sources may be difficult to acquire. 

As our tour comes to a close, we can do some of our own analysis about the sources we have seen and explored. If we ourselves were doing the work of researching the Underground Railroad, where would we start to look to verify past information or discover new knowledge? We might want to connect with descendants of abolitionists to gain further perspective, consult with current inhabitants of buildings suspected to be a part of the Railroad, and engage with local folklore as a starting point. If you want to explore these questions, the Underground Railroad, or Black History within Tompkins County, the History Center is a reliable and informative resource for learning and discovery. Thank you all for coming today, we hope to see you again!


Calarco, Tom. “Stops on the Underground Railroad.” Ithaca Journal. February 26, 1993. Black History Collection.

The History Center in Tompkins County. “Guide to the Black History Collection,” 2020.

Kammen, Carol. “By Late 1700s, Slavery Was a Rarity in New York.” Ithaca Journal. October 20, 1984. Black History Collection.

Kammen, Carol. “Slavery and Freedom in Tompkins County.” Ithaca Journal, June 23, 1979. Black History Collection.

Mutunhu, Tendai. “Tompkins County: An Underground Railroad Transit in Central New York.” Afrom-Americans in New York Life and History 3 (July 1979).

Rochman, Sue. “Life on the Run Myths and Legends Persist about the Underground Railroad Connections.” Finger Lakes Fall Guide, 1996. Black History Collection.

Siebert, Wilbur Henry. “A Quaker Section of the Underground Railroad in Northern Ohio – Cornell University Library Digital Collections.” F. J. Heer printing co., July 1930. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection.

[1] The History Center in Tompkins County, “Guide to the Black History Collection,” 2020,

[2] Carol Kammen, “By Late 1700s, Slavery Was a Rarity in New York,” Ithaca Journal, October 20, 1984, Black History Collection.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carol Kammen, “Slavery and Freedom in Tompkins County,” Ithaca Journal, June 23, 1979, Black History Collection.

[5] Tendai Mutunhu, “Tompkins County: An Underground Railroad Transit in Central New York,” Afrom-Americans in New York Life and History 3 (July 1979).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tom Calarco, “Stops on the Underground Railroad,” Ithaca Journal, February 26, 1993, Black History Collection.

[8] Sue Rochman, “Life on the Run Myths and Legends Persist about the Underground Railroad Connections,” Finger Lakes Fall Guide, 1996, Black History Collection.

[9] Wilbur Henry Siebert, “A Quaker Section of the Underground Railroad in Northern Ohio – Cornell University Library Digital Collections” (F. J. Heer printing co., July 1930), Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection,