Built in 1833, St. James AME Zion is believed to be the oldest church structure in Ithaca and one of the first of the AME Zion churches in the country. An Underground Railroad station, St. James is located in a community that was an important transfer point for fugitive slaves en route to Canada. 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. The congregation officially expressed its anti-slavery sentiments through the writings and preaching of its pastors such as Thomas James who was known to have provided assistance to fugitive slaves. Famous leaders in the Underground Railroad are associated with St. James. Harriet Tubman, who played an active role in AME Zion church affairs in central and west New York, often visited St. James. Frederick Douglass is documented as visiting the church in 1852. Germain Loguen, an active participant in the Underground Railroad was St. James third minister.
St. James AME Zion Church continued to be a focal point in the black community of Ithaca into the 20th century. In 1906, in the basement of St. James, seven African American Cornell University students, frustrated by the discriminatory all-white fraternities, formed Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest official Black fraternity. Today, St. James plays an active role in the community as a religious and service center of the southside section of the city. Abolitionist Movement and Underground Railroad through Ithaca.
First, I think it important to briefly explain where, when, and why slavery in the Western Hemisphere began and by whom.
Slavery is the situation in which one person has total control over another.
The first large scale enslavement of African people by West Europeans began in the 1440s when Portugal engaged in slave trading with West Africa to served the sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands. By the early 16th century, Western Europeans had developed an organized slave trading system with the Caribbean and Americas. Europeans landowners first used Amerindians and indentured Whites to farm the new World. They had many labor problems with the Amerindians escaping and populations decreased as they contracted disease from Europeans. As they nearly vanished, Bishop Bartolome de las Casas appointed by Spanish government as the “Protector of the Indians” demanded that government liberate the Indians and recognize their rights as people. This led to shortage of field hands and protection did not extend to Africans. So Spain issued contract with Portugal which supplied Spanish colonies with Africans.
This trans-Atlantic “Triangular Trade” was main force bringing millions of Africans to Western hemisphere from East, Southwest and West Africa. Slave trading reached peak during 1600s and went well into 1880s. Slaves were forced to toil on sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations in the New World. By the 1600’s, Western Europeans extended their system into North America. Surplus slaves were shipped to North America to farm tobacco, sugar, rice, and indigo plantations. The first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the latter part of August, 1619 from Angola, a former Portuguese territory located in the southwest coast of Africa based on a letter from John Rolfe of the Virginia Company. A private warship that had attacked a Portuguese slave ship from Angola brought 20 or more Africans to Virginia to trade for provisions. At first they were treated as indentured servants but in 1641 Massachusetts sanctioned enslavement of African workers. Then Maryland and Virginia authorized slavery in 1660. Slaves were enslaved for life and any children born to slavers inherited the status of the mother. By 1755, all 13 colonies had legalized slavery. Geographic conditions dictated the use of slaves. The North used slaves mostly on small farms and as house servants but the labor intensive agriculture of the south benefited greatly from slavery. They worked on tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and indigo plantations. By 1770’s , as demand for and population of slaves grew in South, and threat of insurrection grew, colonial legislatures passed “slave” codes restricted movement of Enslaved Africans and Native Americans. As White colonists were petitioning for freedom from Great Britain, abolitionists were petitioning for human rights and liberty for all people including slaves. After the War of Independence, movement to abolish slavery gained widespread support. The movement, lead by African Americans and Quakers, swayed Northern state legislatures to gradually free slaves. But in the South, slavery was a critical element of their economy and the nation grew divided on the issue. In 1787, United Sates Constitution permitted slave trade to continue until 1808. To make matters worse, in 1750, the Fugitive Slave law allowed for the return of runaway slaves but also threatened protection of Freed African Americans.
In 1793, the introduction of the cotton gin nearly killed abolition of slavery.” King Cotton” ruled the southern economy. South became major supplier of raw cotton to Northern and European textile mills. Slave population jumped from 700,000 in 1790 to nearly 4 million in 1860 – 60 years. Although slaves were forced to work in terrible conditions did not do so without protest. They destroyed property, faked sickness, ran away committed suicide.
Slaves consistently used flight as a form of resistance. As early as the 1500’s, they ran away. Often they joined up with Indian tribes in Spanish North America. They formed maroon settlements in the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and Virginia, Bayous of Louisiana, and Mountainous regions of Kentucky and Tennessee. They moved into Spanish Florida, intermarried with Indians - Creeks and Muscogees. This group became know as the Seminoles, “Runaways”. With the revolutionary movement, antislavery sentiments flourished but then faded at beginning of 19th century (1800+). So freed slaves and Quakers formed organizations to push it.
By the 1820s, abolitionists in England and US established two African Colonies, Sierra Leone and Liberia, as a means to rid African Americans from Whites. Northern Africans opposed the move while southern Africans wanted it. Over 12,000 Africans were relocated.
Origin of Underground Railroad.
Earliest evidence of organized escape was 1786 when Quakers in Philadelphia assisted a group of refuges from Virginia to freedom. A year later a Quaker teenager, Isaac T. Hopper, began to organize a system of hiding and aiding fugitive slaves. Then several towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey offered assistance to runaways. In 1830, the Underground Railroad was recognized as an effective tool against human bondage. The term Underground Railroad originated when enslaved runaway, Tice Davids fled from Kentucky and may have taken refuge with John Rankin, a White abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio. The enraged owner, determined to get property back, chased Davids to the Ohio River but Davids disappeared without a trace leaving owner to wonder if he had “gone off on some underground road”. Typically slaves who fled from plantations in Delaware, DC, Kentucky Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia were more likely to take refuge in Northern states and Canada and western territories and those who lived in Deep South fled to Mexico and Caribbean. Others fled to maroon societies, Native American groups, and larger southern cities such as Baltimore, New Orleans, and Charleston.
In 1863, Emancipation Proclamation was signed during President Abraham Lincoln administration freeing slaves. It stated” That on this the 1st day of January, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United Sates shall be then thenceforward, and forever free.”
Slavery was legal in New York until 1827. However, there were free African American communities in the North in the 1830s. Wealthy groups supported the activities. Routes ran from South through Ithaca, Cayuga Lake, Auburn, and Oswego. Routes ran up Hudson River to Albany, Syracuse and then through Watertown to Canada.
From Ohio and Pennsylvania cities, the route ran to Buffalo or Rochester. From Rochester and Oswego, boat transportation to Canada was obtained.
The five Finger Lakes were important routes to Northern New York and then Canada. They are;
Keuka Lake, Cayuga Lake, Canandaigua Lake, Oswego Lake, and Seneca Lake
Three main New York conductors,
1. Jermaine Loguen’s Syracuse stations were New York’s most publicized.
He worked as an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Minister. He was a minister at St. James from 1846-1848 and station agent there.
2. Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her People”, was born in 1820 -21 in Bucktown, Md. She escaped from slavery plantation in Maryland in 1849 and began leading slaves form eastern Shore of Maryland to Canada, “The Promised Land”. She led over 300 slaves in 19 trips to Canada. She once had a $40,000 bounty on her head. Her motto was “Keep going”. She frequently visited and worshipped at St. James. She returned from Canada and settled in Auburn, NY where she is buried and her home still is.
3. Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist lecturer who toured England to pay his master in Maryland for Freedom in 1845. He was driven by a need to know his age. Slaves only knew season of their birth while whites knew their birthdays. In 1947, he moved to Rochester where he published the North Star. He helped form the Rochester ferry to Canada trip. He often visited St. James and referred to it as “the neatest, cleanest, colored meeting house”.
There were three major routes from the south. Tompkins County slaves came from Susquehanna Valley to principal stopping place in Elmira. From there they would either go north and west or to Ithaca by foot wagon or coach.
Ithaca was a “Transfer Point”. In Ithaca, a barber named George A. Johnson, of 121 E. State St. was an agent on the Underground Railroad. He provided shelter, clothing, money, haircuts to change appearance and helped 110 slaves between 1840-1850. His white friend, Ben Johnson and lawyer provided money also. In many areas, barbers served as ministers and representatives in movement. St. James was the main station in Ithaca as it hid many slaves in the basement for 20 years. The ministers were agents until slavery was abolished. People brought clothing food, etc to church because they knew it would help slaves.
Other Ithaca stations were:
126 E. State home of Leather Express – underground trench was found when original building was torn down.
113 East Seneca. When building was remodeled, a ground floor with a hidden stairway was found leading to a shelter.
214 W. State Street where Carpet Bazaar is. In renovating building, a secret cellar was found with 14 person capacity.
326 S. Cayuga St. - Frances Bloodgood housed slaves
1457 E. Shore Drive
Steamboat Simeon Dewitt took slaves to Cayuga Bridge and Auburn
St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
St. James AME Zion Church was founded Dec. 13, 1833 making it 170 years old last December. St James is one of the first churches under the AME Zion Church which was founded in 1796 and the oldest church structure in Ithaca. A Black man named Peter Webb was the founder. He was born a slave in Virginia and was owned by a white man named John Speed. Webb did not adjust too well to being a slave and became a burden to his master. So he told his master he wanted to buy his freedom and the master agreed. Webb worked as a laborer and hustler and raised the $384 price of his freedom and on Dec. 1, 1818, he became the first and last slave to purchase his freedom in the county.
After purchasing his freedom, Webb bought a farm and log cabin in Caroline. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church but wanted a church where Blacks would be treated respectfully and be free to worship in a non-segregated facility as free men and women. He led a group that charted St. James named after one of its early pastors Thomas James. On Aug. 15, 1836 land was purchased from Richard Varrick Dewitt known as the “Father of Ithaca” for $5.00 for the construction of the church on Wheat St – now Cleveland Avenue as the original and present site.
Between 1863 and 1864, 26 African Americans ages 17-47 enlisted at St. James to fight in the Civil War with the 26th United States Colored Troups. They were Henry W. Adams, Henry Allen, Morgan Dennis, Isaac Desmond, Sylvester T. Dorsey, Henry L. Green, Jacob Guess, George Guinn, Daniel Johnson, Jacob Johnson, George E. Jones, Thomas McChesney, George A. Richardson, John R. Ross, Henry Selby, Charles S. Shaw, Alonzo Smith, Henry Smith, James E.L. Smith, John Smith, John F. Smith, Joseph B. Smith, Edward Sorrell, John Sorrell, John Tyler, Zachariah Tyler.
In 1906, in basement of St. James, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the nations oldest Black fraternity, was formed at Cornell by Black students frustrated by discrimination of white fraternities.
The Ithaca Alumni chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was chartered at St. James in1980.
The Underground Railroad was a clandestine operation that began in the 1500s and later connected to and organized abolitionist activity in the 1800s. It wasn’t underground nor a railroad but a group of loosely connected networks that started in the South and worked through the North and ended in Canada. Western territories, Mexico and the Caribbean were other escape routes. The UR peaked in the 1830-1865 timeframe. Abolitionists not only fought to abolish slavery but also assist slaves in escaping. UR played a prominent role in the downfall of slavery because it was so effective and action intimidated slave owners. They looked at these activities as organized theft because slaves were their property. Most important features of the UR was the fact that there was no formal organization and records were seldom kept or were destroyed to protect conductors, agents and slaves. This has made historical reconstruction difficult. Agents such as David Ruggles, Calvin Fairbank, Josiah, Henson, and Erastus Hussey have only recently been revealed.
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