UGRR Agents and Conductors
In New York City, Reverend Charles B. Ray was one of the most important agents.
Rev. Charles Bennett Ray
This is Ray's description of how the UGRR operated to and from New York City:
This road had its regular lines all the way from Washington; between Washington and Baltimore, a kind of branch. It had its depots in Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Troy, Utica, Syracuse, Oswego and Niagara Falls. New York was a kind of receiving depot, whence we forwarded to Albany, Troy, sometimes to New Bedford and Boston, and occasionally we dropped a few on Long Island, when we considered it safe so to do. When we had parties to forward from here, we would alternate in sending between Albany and Troy and when we had a large party we would divide between the two cities. We had here, on one occasion, a party of twenty-eight persons of all ages, from the old grandmother to a child of five years old. We destined them to Canada. I secured a passage for them in a barge, and Mr. Wright and myself spent the day in providing food, and personally saw them on the barge. I then took the regular passenger boat foot of Cortlandt Street and started. Arriving in the morning I reported to the Committee at Albany, and then returned to Troy and gave Brother Garnet notice, and he and I spent the day in visiting friends of the cause there, to raise money to help the party through to Toronto, Canada via Oswego. We succeeded, with what they raised in Albany, in making up the deficiency in my hands, to send them all the way from here to safety.
"Mr. Wright" was probably Rev. Theodore Wright, pastor of New York City's Shiloh Presbyterian Church. "Brother Garnet" was the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Troy's Liberty Street Church.
At a National Colored Convention in Buffalo in September of 1843, Rev. Garnet called upon slaves to rebel against their masters: "Brethren arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered.... Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. Remember that you are four millions!"
Frederick Douglass stood up and said Garnet's address displayed "too much physical force." If adopted, his sentiments would spark a mass rebellion which would accomplish nothing. By one vote, the delegates rejected Garnet's call for insurrection.
One month after the Buffalo convention, pro-slavery men broke into the Liberty Street Church, ran off a group of fugitives Garnet was hiding, wrestled him to the floor, and took turns spitting on him. A recent amputee with only one leg, he crawled home, more determined than ever to fight for the freedom of his people.
Charles Bennett Ray was not the only agent in New York City who forwarded people to the Capital Region. In the 1850s, Sydney Howard Gay sent many fugitives to Albany. A member of the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Gay edited the Society's newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard.
S.H. Gay sent fugitive slaves to Stephen Myers and to Jermain Loguen in Syracuse. He worked closely with another black man, Louis Napoleon. Gay and Napoleon received many people from William Still of Philadelphia. Napoleon conducted some of them to Albany.
A good number of the people Still sent to New York had been sent to him by Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware.
During his UGRR career, the great Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett helped nearly 3,000 people. He provided assistance to the most famous of all Underground Railroad conductors--Harriet Tubman. He gave her money to buy shoes for fugitives and hire teamsters to transport them in wagons.
Harriet Tubman was in Troy, New York, when U.S. Marshals arrested Virginia fugitive slave Charles Nall in 1858. She played a central role in Nall's rescue.
The ever-growing number of fugitive slaves forwarded to New York by William Still and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee made New York City a great "receiving depot." The next stops were Troy and Albany.
Albany was the major receiving and forwarding depot for fugitive slaves sent north from New York City on the Hudson River and through the Hudson River Valley. By 1849, the Vigilance Committee in New York City had aided 2,000 people.
Although some of the runaways who arrived in New York City were sent to New England, most were forwarded to Albany, where Stephen Myers was the Superintendent of the UGRR for many years.
Stephen Myers, his wife, Harriet, and other members of the Albany Vigilance Committee received hundreds of people. The following 1842 newspaper account reveals the scope of their work:
Runaway Slaves.--The report of the Vigilance Committee of the Abolitionists at Albany, for the last year states, that they have added about 350 runaway negroes since the opening of navigation last Spring. Of these fugitives, about 150 were men, 150 women, and 50 children. Most of them came from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and nearly or quite a hundred from Washington and Georgetown. These fugitives have gone chiefly to Canada, and the sum of $500 has been expended for their board, passage, and other expenses.
Stephen Myers forwarded most of the freedom seekers he sheltered to Syracuse or Oswego, but sometimes he sent people directly north. In 1842 he reported, "We assisted two slaves that were sent to our office by William Garner of Elizabethtown [N.J.]; we furnished them with money for Canada by way of Lake Champlain."
Myers may have assisted runaways while working as a steward on the steamboat Armenia, which operated between New York City and Albany.
In August of 1860, Harriet Myers wrote a letter to the abolitionist lawyer William Jay to inform him that two fugitives he had forwarded to her husband from Westchester had arrived with the money he had given them, and it was enough to get them to Canada. Eight others had arrived that month without any money. Harriet had to take care of them because her husband was in Lake George working as a butler.
In December, Mr. Meyers reported to William Jay that he had received more fugitives in the preceding eight weeks than he had in any previous four-month period.
The impressive UGRR history of Albany is celebrated today by the Underground Railroad History Project of the the Capital Region, Inc. This outstanding group organizes an annual UGRR conference, conducts walking tours, and is in the process of restoring the former home of Stephen and Harriet Myers.
Armenia Broadside. "An American Time Capsule, Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera," Rare Books and Special Collections Divisions of the Library of Congress.
Earl Ofari, Let Your Motto Be Resistance ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1972).
Harriet Myers, letter to William Jay, Aug. 20, 1860. John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, Katonah, New York.
Martin Burt Pasternak, Rise Now and Fly to Arms: the Life of Henry Highland Garnet. University of Massachusetts Ph D. 1981. University Microfilms International.
"Runaway Slaves." The Constitution, Jan. 11, 1843.
"Special Call." Emancipator and Free American, May 4, 1843.
Photo of Replica of Hudson River steamboat Armenia, courtesy Tom Calarco.
Stephen Myers, letter to William Jay II, Dec. 17, 1860. John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, Katonah, New York.
"To the Public." Northern Star and Freemen's Advocate, Dec. 8, 1842.