February 23, 2001

Pataki Honors Ithaca's Role in Freeing Slaves

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Until the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, many slaves — possibly hundreds — traveled through Ithaca and found hospitable accommodations in the local St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church and in the homes of several residents.

Scores of slaves traveled through Ithaca, recognized nationally as a stop along the Underground Railroad, as the area was considered a safe haven for escaped slaves looking for rest and refuge on their journeys from captivity in the South.

In remembrance of the state’s storied past, Gov. George E. Pataki announced the creation of the New York State Freedom Heritage Trail and a $1 million grant to support it earlier this month, Black History Month. The trail will include the St. James AME Zion Church, located at 116 Cleveland Ave. in Ithaca, once a vital link between captivity and freedom for many escaped slaves.

“This initiative will highlight the role New York’s communities played in what was the greatest struggle for human liberty in American history,” Pataki said.

The Underground Railroad was a diverse network of abolitionists who helped runaway slaves flee to Canada or American states where slavery was outlawed.

George Johnson, a barber born in 1835, participated as one of Ithaca’s most active members of the Underground Railroad and provided shelter, resources and free haircuts to conceal travelers of the Underground Railroad.

“The whole Underground Railroad was a series of different benevolent people [like Johnson],” said Linda Thornhill, ordained minister at St. James Church.

“Often, [abolitionists] brought clothes or money to the church because they knew this is where escaped slaves would be,” Thornhill said.

Escaped slaves rested at stops similar to the St. James Church along the Underground Railroad where they often received food, first aid, clothing and money.

Those who passed through Ithaca and the neighboring towns of Elmira and Binghamton usually departed along Trumansburg Road or took a steamship on Cayuga Lake. Often, their goal was to reach Buffalo or Rochester in order to cross into Canada, but several also found new homes in upstate New York after the state outlawed slavery in 1827.

“Many of these slaves, impressed by the support of the local community, decided to stay in Ithaca and constructed homes in the area surrounding St. James,” writes the National Park Service on its website.

However, the implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 made slave-catching a profitable occupation, and many slaves were forced to flee to Canada.

Along with the droves of slaves who escaped from the South, leaders of the abolition movement, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, also passed through Ithaca.

In fact, written records listing past members of St. James Church show that one of Harriet Tubman’s relatives, Eleanor Washington, lived in Ithaca and attended the church.

“Harriet Tubman passed through [Ithaca] several times,” said Casey Westerman, archivist for the Tompkins County Museum. “Her main objective was to get slaves to Canada, but because she was a fugitive there are not many records of her.”

Historians note that Frederick Douglass, known for his speeches and writings, strengthened the anti-slavery movement during his visits to Ithaca and was impressed by St. James Church.

“Frederick Douglass left a written legacy and spoke at the church,” Thornhill said. “He said St. James was ‘one of the cleanest little churches’ he had spoken at.”

Even today, St. James Church looks similar to how it did when it was built in 1836.

“There have been some cosmetic changes, such as painting and adding new windows, but it looks pretty much the same as it has in the past,” Thornhill said.

The church, designated as a national historic site, is recognized by the National Park Service and by the State of New York as part of the Underground Railroad.

The other houses in the Ithaca area known to have sheltered escaped slaves are no longer standing, except for the Hananiah Wilcox house in Etna, according to Westerman.

“Through [the Freedom Heritage Trail], we will preserve and formally recognize many of the significant historic sites throughout our State that are associated with the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movement,” Pataki said.

Archived article by Peter Lin