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The Chief Ithaca Station

~by Eugene Garcia~

St. James AME Zion Church

The name of a person or a movement could only say much. And after the person passes or the movement is forgotten, the facts we retain or learn are limited. In my section of the tour I’d like to give insight into Ithaca’s role in the Underground Railroad, consisting of many men and women who risked their lives fighting for the freedom of slaves. We find ourselves in Ithaca, a quiet and beautiful scenery, one that by the looks of it doesn’t seem to have much to say. And if you’re like me, the fact that you are not from this town or area has clouded your judgment; you probably think that it doesn’t seem like much happens around here. But within this town there are many hidden stories. Stories about abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. My section of the tour will be divided into two parts: the first taking a look at an abolitionists convention and the second examining the Chief Ithaca Station of the Underground Railroad. Both the convention and the station were essential in making possible the inclusion of everyone in spite of the color of their skin. 

            Let me read you a quote: “The true policy of a nation is in opening the fountains of knowledge to all.”[1] This quote comes from the Proceedings of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention, held at Peterboro, where a group of hundreds gathered in hopes of further developing solutions towards a nation where African Americans are as free as Caucasians. 

            The document, printed and well preserved, begins with the names of important figures in the organization, accompanied by their positions. Then it goes into the “Resolutions” the committee was aspiring to accomplish. The very first of these “Resolutions” states “That the slaves in these United States, as men, are justly entitled to the rights and privileges claimed for all, by the Declaration of American Independence.”[2] When taking a look at the very first resolution, one can safely conclude that the group’s intention centered on creating a nation where slavery was abolished. Those who attended such meetings were most likely supporters of the abolition of slavery, although not all publicly displayed their support.

            Attending the convention itself was dangerous for all participants, as not everyone agreed with their cause. An example of this can be found in the first part: a speech of Mr. Gerrit Smith, who was “not yet prepared” to be a member of the organization as he understood the threat it would pose on him and his relatives.[3] The second part that follows is dedicated “To The Citizens of The United States”[4] and discusses the constitutional rights that the country was built upon, highlighting the “for everyone”, not just for white people. And then there is a third part, addressed  to the supporters of “Immediate and Universal Emancipation.”[5] The final pages were the names of attendees, revealing how in Utica’s convention many names were lost due to an attack by a mob. 

            These documents provide insight in the discussions that were going on in the nation when slavery was at its peak. They teach us of the many heroes that aren’t necessarily mentioned in history books. These “heroes” are not limited by their race or their gender. Studying such contents is essential to the recognition of the nation’s growth. Knowing there were many supporters of different backgrounds risking their lives for an honest cause can also inspire similar efforts nowadays when it comes to injustices. When you read about these events, you inform yourself about the history of the land where you stand; and you learn that not far from places you know there was once a group of people fighting for that freedom you now possess. Some unanswered questions that we are left with after looking at this document would be about the rest of the names that got lost over time due to violent interruptions. We could also ask questions about the attacks against the abolitionists, because they are not described enough, and it can be tricky to understand who the attackers were and what their intent was; although one can make an educated guess. 

            In these copies, including speeches and resolutions from more than 50 years ago, one gets a more personal view of the historical events. Slavery was abolished but the fight for real equality was and still remains open. Although we are better than yesterday, yesterday’s news can still be of much use as it can teach us about unknown factors that we have to face in today’s struggles. Such factors are valuable to the preservation of places that remind us of this important historical past or simply the health of our nation. 

            One of those places worth preserving and learning about is right here, in Ithaca. Before the establishment of the Underground Railroad, a slaves pathway to freedom was a miraculous occurrence. Without any proper guidance, surviving this long and lonely journey was uncertain. When a group of individuals, both black and white, agreed that all men are in fact created equal, safe homes supported by a network of station masters were created to welcome the fugitive slaves. These safe houses were located all over the state of New York and in Ithaca the main station was the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME), also known as the chief Ithaca station. Many runaway slaves crossed paths with St. James AME Zion Church along with notable figures like Harriet Tubman and the “Railroad King.”  

            The formation of  the St. James AME Zion Church was led by Peter Webb along with other African American Methodists like Reverend Henry Johnson. Peter Webb was born a slave but managed to purchase his freedom in 1818.[6] Years later, a church where African Americans would be able to worship freely and that could be utilized as part of an escape route was established. Like in Webb’s case, others freed African Americans Methodists experienced the grand difference between Whites and Blacks in White Methodist Churches. This unjust exclusion inspired them to open a church of their own where they would “be treated respectfully and be free to worship in a non-segregated facility as free men and women.”[7] Due to lack of money for a property where the church would congregate, the home of Reverend Henry Johnson was used. 

            Harriet Tubman often visited the St. James AME Zion Church, as it was a stop for her Underground Railroad work and a place for her to worship God. Jasper Woodson was one of the slaves guided by Harriet Tubman. He was on his way to his freedom in Canada when they made a stop at St. James AME Zion Church. An interview done in 1945 with Mrs. Fred Smith gave insight into her fathers’ stories about coming to Ithaca “through the underground railroad from Georgia” and how “he just didn’t want to go no farther.”[8] The church provided a safe haven in many forms, making Ithaca more friendly for African Americans than other areas. Jobs were more accessible and so “a number of those who escaped… remained”[9] creating a growing African American community. And people like Woodson, who had grown tired of running and hiding, decided to make Ithaca their home. 

            I would like to follow with an imaginary story that I created, based on these facts. Before we get into the story, I would like to clarify that the St. James AME Zion Church can be analyzed using the Wellman Scale. Due to the secrecy of the Underground Railroad and its participants, many sites or stories are merely rumored and we do not have much documentary evidence to prove their existence. The Wellman Scale provides a way to identify the reliability of a site or person. It consists of 5 Levels: 1 being perceived as false or not supported by concrete evidence while 5 has documents and stories that correlate with them. St. James AME Zion Church is Level 5 as it has documents and stories like Woodson’s to support its status with the Underground Railroad. 

            The story I created is about a runaway slave who was fortunate to make it to St. James AME Zion Church:

I have to keep running, I have to keep going. That’s what I keep telling myself. Now that I’ve come this far, returning to my master would be suicide. I don’t think of returning, I just wonder if we’re captured, would the punishment be more than if I willingly go back? No, I have to push all these thoughts out of my mind. I have to keep running, I have to keep going. We meet our guide, Tubman, where the song leads to. I’ve heard stories about the Underground Railroad but I’ve always been afraid of becoming the protagonist of one of these stories. It was when the Master beat one of my sisters to death that I realized I needed to flee. I should’ve done so a long time ago, I should’ve taken her with me. But that’s not possible anymore, if I keep running, if I keep going it’s for us.  The guide has given us clothing to appear more clean and put together. But all this running and hiding, going into waters has taken a toll on the clothing and us. I’m so exhausted. I don’t allow myself to fall asleep, or at least not through the whole night. I’m always afraid that if I close my eyes, I’ll wake up back in that place. Tubman said we have a couple of stops including a church that welcomes runaways and black people attend. Apparently this community is more friendly than others when it comes to black people. 


A couple of days have passed since my last entry. St. James AME Zion Church and the community really are welcoming to runaways. As soon as we arrived we were given food and other supplements. We also have our own bath time, privately, and our own beds. On service days, we go to church and thank God for our safe arrival and pray for our staying. My original plan was to go further North, but I’ve gotten a job and I’ve gotten to know some people. I can’t lie: there are whites who sometimes stare too much, and some do more than just staring. But we’ve been told to keep our heads down and carry on. The insults are not pretty but they’re better than what I had before. I could never imagine myself returning, not willingly. I believe that God will keep us protected, that’s what Tubman and the Reverend say.


            I hope you enjoyed my story and that it made you think about what it might have meant to escape through the Underground Railroad. I’d like to guide us back to discussing the known facts of the church as a site of the Underground Railroad. In 1841, Jermain Wesley Loguen became the pastor of St. James AME Zion Church. Loguen was a former runaway slave assisted by the Underground Railroad. With his leadership position in the church known for being a safe house, Loguen “use[d] the church as his base of operations.”[10] Having experienced the horrors of slavery first-hand, Loguen decided to continue using the church as the chief station of the Underground Railroad in Ithaca and to support this endeavor throughout his life. He was later known as the “Underground Railroad King” for offering both the church and his home as stations.[11] This eminent effort in a time where harboring runaway slaves was illegal, proved him as a brave and dedicated stationmaster and Pastor. 

            But what does the church look like now? And what can it say about the history within those walls? The church is now surrounded by houses and it still plays an important role in the essence of the community.  For many it is their house of worship while others like me go for the history lesson it provides. There are engraved stones offering information about its eminent role in the Underground Railroad and other historical events. Due to the history embedded in St James AME Zion Church, researchers and historians often visit this site to document its influence on the town and the people. Examples of such scholars include Adam T. Smith and Lori Khatchadourian from Cornell University, who are leading an excavation to “not just …[reveal] the history of this community” but to “actually [build a] community.”[12] In this excavation, they are digging and hoping to find something that connects or goes back to the Underground Railroad. They also feel they are building a sense of community as researchers and citizens are joining the project and the cause. In his interview, Reverend Terrance King, the current pastor of St James AME Zion Church, revealed how this excavation “has sparked a renewed interest in the church’s rich abolitionist history.”[13] Projects like this excavation are shedding light on the church and its impactful role years ago. The church’s recognition is important because it allows the church to be protected from eventual threats and to be marked as a landmark, and most importantly it allows people to be informed of the history in their town. Learning about this history will also spark other people’s bravery and encourage us to fight for justice and antiracism today.

            Over the years, Ithaca and the area surrounding St. James AME Zion Church still remains a largely African American community. Although much has occurred since the Underground Railroad, one can still see its effects in the organization of housing. In her “A Snapshot of African American Life in Ithaca, 1900 to 1940,” Ingrid Bauer explained how “their choice of the Southside was probably related to the location of the St. James AME Zion Church…”[14] Still in the present the church and its community remain as a reliable place to live nearby or simply to go to. Due to known racist incidents, when deciding a place to live African American residents have to think about the racial diversity of the area. Bauer continues by stating that “Class and race were intimately connected in the formation of residential areas.”[15] Ultimately when it comes to housing, class and race are important factors because based on how much money you may have, you can afford a house in a “nice” neighborhood. African American neighborhoods tend to be labeled as not “nice.” This difference is what can also steer Caucasians in the present towards a less diverse neighborhood, if they allow these stereotypes to influence their choices. 

            Around 1900, Bauer explains that even before residential segregation was “enforced by law,”[16] referring to the Jim Crow Laws, neighborhoods were segregated. This reaction is from the racist ideas that have come to grow over the years, which affect both sides. Black and White people may try to stay away from each other in fear that racist incidents may occur. This mindset still remains and impacts our present but not as much as before. Bauer describes how African Americans were “actively discouraged from purchasing homes in other parts of town.”[17] The clear intent with these types of discouragements is to separate Whites from Black people. Today we still see this disproportionate ratio in many neighborhoods, but in the area where the St James AME Zion Church is, African Americans have been and are still welcome.

            Today, we explored the Abolitionist Convention held in Utica along with its contents. We have also visited the St James AME Zion Church and discussed its role in the Underground Railroad, while mentioning some familiar names and new stories to learn. And towards the end I have tried to give an update on the progress of the church and neighborhood over the years. We have tried to familiarize ourselves with the effort of the abolitionists and the runaway slaves, and the Pastors in charge of a safe house in order to understand why we have to thank them for the progress that we achieved today. Most of us have some preexisting knowledge about these types of movements or the people like Harriet Tubman or about the local area; but sometimes we still lack major knowledge about these figures or places. My vision for my part of the tour was for you to familiarize yourselves with the reachable history within our grasp, either through a document or through a remarkable landmark such as this church. 

Author’s Photos


Cornell University Library. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection. Proceedings of the New York anti-slavery convention, held at Utica, October 21, and New York anti-slavery state society, held at Peterboro’, October 22, 1835.

Kelley, Susan. “A ‘freedom church’ unearths its Underground Railroad history.” Cornell Chronicle, December 1, 2021. Accessed May 12, 2022.

Montana, Rob. “Open Doors: St. James AME Zion has long legacy of welcoming.” Ithaca Times, February 23, 2012, Updated February 27, 2021. Accessed 12 May 2022.

The History Center in Tompkins County. “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers. 2005.

The History Center in Tompkins County. Black History Collection. Folder 1. News clippings on local Black History.

The History Center in Tompkins County. Black History Collection. Folder 19. A Snapshot of African American Life in Ithaca, 1900 to 1940, by Ingrid Bauer.

The History Center in Tompkins County. Black History Collection. Folder 23. Ithaca’s Black Community by Field Horn, 1987.

[1] Cornell University Library, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Proceedings of the New York anti-slavery convention, held at Utica, October 21, and New York anti-slavery state society, held at Peterboro’, October 22, 1835,, 14.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] Ibid 18.

[4] Ibid, 23.

[5] Ibid, 30.

[6] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 1, News clippings on local Black History.

[7] Rob Montana, “Open Doors: St. James AME Zion has long legacy of welcoming,” Ithaca Times, February 23, 2012, updated February 27, 2021, accessed 12 May 2022,

[8] Ibid.

[9] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 23, Ithaca’s Black Community by Field Horn, 1987.

[10] Ibid., Folder 1.

[11] The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom,” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers, 2005.

[12] Susan Kelley, “A ‘freedom church’ unearths its Underground Railroad history,” Cornell Chronicle, December 1, 2021, accessed May 12, 2022,

[13] Ibid.

[14] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 19, A Snapshot of African American Life in Ithaca, 1900 to 1940, by Ingrid Bauer.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.