Podcasts Politics and Protest

New York City and the Underground Railroad: Escaping to freedom through a hostile city

PODCAST For thousands of people escaping the bonds of slavery in the South, the journey to freedom wound its way through New York City via the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a loose, clandestine network of homes, businesses and churches, operated by freed black people and white abolitionists who put it upon themselves — often at great risk — to hide fugitives on the run.

New York and Brooklyn were vital hubs in this network but these cities were hardly safe havens. The streets swarmed with bounty hunters, and a growing number of New Yorkers, enriched by Southern businesses, were sympathetic to the institution of slavery. Not even freed black New Yorkers were safe from kidnapping and racist anti-abolitionist mobs.

In this podcast we present some of the stops in New York along the Underground Railroad — from offices off Newspaper Row to the basement of New York’s first African-American owned bookstore. You’ll be familiar with some of this story’s leading figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Henry Ward Beecher. But many of these courageous tales come from people who you may not know — the indefatigable Louis Napoleon, the resolute Sydney Howard Gay, the defiant David Ruggles and James Hamlet, the first victim of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

PLUS: A trip to Brooklyn Heights and the site of New York’s most famous Underground Railroad site — Plymouth Church



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The many routes of the Underground Railroad, in an 1898 map by cartographer Wilbur Henry Siebert.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

An advertisement for the capture of a runaway slave, published during the colonial era (1760s)

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

….and another, from 90 years later.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

African-American New Yorkers lived in fear of being kidnapped by bounty hunters.

David Ruggles who operated America’s first African-American library and reading room on Lispenard Street. His home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Illustration by Bob Powers (from original engraving)

At the release of James Hamlet (i.e. the purchase of his freedom by the AME Zion Church), this handbill was distributed

Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University

Sydney Howard Gay worked with several operatives on the Underground Railroad and was one of the few to keep records of new fugitive arrivals.

Abigail Hopper Gibbons, daughter of esteemed abolitionist Isaac Hopper, worked as a battlefield nurse in the early years of the Civil War. She returned to New York in 1863, only to be chased from her home by angry mobs during the Civil War Draft Riots.

Harriet Tubman and her family — Gertie Davis [Tubman’s adopted daughter]; Nelson Davis [Tubman’s husband]; Lee Cheney; “Pop” Alexander; Walter Green; Sarah Parker [“Blind Auntie” Parker] and Dora Stewart [granddaughter of Tubman’s brother, John Stewart].

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

An illustration of Henry Ward Beecher‘s ‘auction’ of the enslaved woman nicknamed Pinky, held at Plymouth Church.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division

Inside Out Tours: Slavery and Underground Railroad Walking Tour
Walks of New York
Black Gotham Experience

Plymouth Church — Public tours every Sunday at 12:30. Visit their website for more information

Plymouth now has a New Abolitionists ministry, tied into New York state’s anti-human trafficking initiatives. Visit Plymouth’s website for further information.

Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad by Fergus M. Bordewich
Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner
The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (African American) by William Still

and, of course,

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Brooklyn Historical Society — In Pursuit of Freedom: A long term installation celebrating the lives of Brooklyn abolitionists

Weeksville Heritage Center — Site of one of America’s first free black communities in the 19th century

You may also be interested in New-York Historical Society‘s online exhibit New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War

We mentioned these past Bowery Boys podcast on the show. After you’ve finished listening to our Underground Railroad show, give these a try!

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