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Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen
On Beyond Tubman
A major center of Underground Railroad activity in Albany has been found, still standing in Arbor Hill

By Miriam Axel-Lute

Quick: Name some major players of the Underground Railroad in New York state. Harriet Tubman? Yep, she passed through quite often. Anyone else? If you’re attuned to local history, you may have also come up with Charles Nalle, an escaped slave living in Rensselaer County who was captured by bounty hunters in Troy and dramatically rescued by local abolitionists. If you can’t come up with many others, you’re not alone.

There is very little in the general history books about Underground Railroad activity in the Capital Region, say Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, Albany residents who founded the Underground Railroad History Project. This is despite the fact that Albany was a key location on the trip north (fugitives often came by river, and were sent on west to Syracuse and Rochester or into the North Country on their way to Canada), and had a thriving abolitionist movement.

The Stewarts decided to make a long-range project out of their mutual interest in Underground Railroad history five or six years ago. “On the side, on days off, in between having our four kids and our regular employment,” says Paul, they’ve been “trying to sandwich opportunities to work on this” research, seeking as many details as possible about the people involved in the Underground Railroad in the Capital Region and figuring out ways to spread the word.

Out of the information they gathered, they created workshops that they bring to community groups, have held several conferences on the topic, and created a nonprofit organization to support the work. They also created a walking tour of downtown Albany, which they lead several times a year. Unfortunately, thanks to several fires in downtown Albany’s history, that tour, while fascinating, has very few surviving structures to point to, something the Stewarts have acknowledged by giving participants a binder that includes pictures of what once stood on many of the sites they visit.

But soon the project should have a more tangible tie to the past at its disposal: a house that once served as the headquarters for the local Vigilance Committee, was home to leading black abolitionist Stephen Myers, and most likely saw hundreds of freedom seekers pass through its doors.

The path to discovering the house was not a simple one: The Stewarts started by following the footnotes in more general secondary material to primary sources and archival material. “Reviewing those,” says Paul, “we inevitably would find people, places, and things mentioned, and we could go back and look for them.”

Stephen Myers showed up all over the place in this documentation. Born into slavery in Rensselaer county in 1800 but freed at age 18, he became one of the most consistent leaders of the abolitionist movement in the area from the 1830s to the 1850s. He published several newspapers throughout his life, most notably the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate, which discussed abolition, temperance and other issues related to the “social and economic betterment” of African-Americans. He was at different times head of the Northern Star Association and Albany’s Vigilance Committee. Vigilance committees, says Judith Wellman, a historian from central New York who has done much research on the Underground Railroad, were formed in most of New York state’s major cities, as well as many rural areas. Most were racially mixed, and composed of individuals who weren’t involved in assisting freedom seekers through a specific religious network like the Quakers.

Other Underground Railroad researchers in the area pointed the Stewarts to a flier housed at the Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., announcing a meeting at Myers’ house: 198 Lumber Street. An address was a precious discovery, but it meant the search had only just begun. Lumber Street is now called Livingston Avenue, and it has been renumbered at least twice, so it took many hours poring through old tax maps and deed records, with assistance from several knowledgeable people, to figure out if the house was still standing and which one it was. For a while they thought a neighboring property was the one. But finally, the Stewarts were certain that the 198 Lumber Street of the 1850s is 194 Livingston Avenue now. “It’s just amazing the detective work they did to find it,” says Wellman.

Now that it has been identified, it’s easy to believe that 194 is the place. Surrounded mostly by vinyl-sided frame houses, the brick rowhouse doesn’t exactly jump out at a passerby, but it does carry a certain gravitas that makes it easy to believe it’s got history lurking inside. The bricks were clearly once painted white, but that’s long enough gone that the remaining bits of paint don’t make the walls look unkempt as much as they look like a naturally faded part of the structure. Black plastic is tacked over the wooden stoop and fox grape vines and litter have taken over the narrow side yard, but the windows of the house’s two and a half stories are mostly intact, shades drawn behind their small panes. In the back, one corner is slightly collapsed, sparrows flying in and out freely.

In March, Myers’ house was accepted onto the State Register of Historic Places, and it is now being considered for the National Register. It sits only 200 yards from the border of the Arbor Hill Historic District, but its block was not included in the district because aside from 194, the block has seen substantial demolition, new construction, and “loss of architectural integrity.”

According to the application that Underground Railroad History Project has sponsored to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places, the interior of 194 is “deteriorated” and part of a bearing wall in the back has collapsed, but it also “includes a significant amount of architectural fabric that dates from the original construction period,” including plaster detailing, fireplaces, and original flooring.

Stephen and Harriet Myers used their house as the headquarters for the Vigilance Committee, and it was almost certainly also a safe house where fugitives received assistance, says Stewart. “It’s an exceptionally well-documented site, an exceptionally important one, and an exceptionally rare one,” says Wellman. “In each of the major cities there seemed to have been a coordinated spot, a centralized safe house. In Syracuse it was Rev. Jermain and Caroline Loguen’s house, but that’s now a Rite Aid, because of urban renewal. . . . [It was] the houses of Frederick Douglass and Amy Post in Rochester. Both of those are gone.”

Detectives and their discovery: Mary Liz and Paul Stewart in front of 194 Livingston Ave. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

194 Livingston is not only not gone; it stands poised to play a central role in raising the profile of Albany’s Underground Railroad history. The most recent owner was sympathetic to the goals of the project and helped put together the original application to the State Historic Register, but was also unable to keep up with the taxes. The county foreclosed on the building, which was being used for storage, and the Underground Railroad History Project requested that the property be turned over to the group. At the county’s last Audit and Finance Committee meeting, a resolution to give the property to the History Project for a nominal sum passed unanimously. The resolution was championed by District 2 representative Lucille McKnight, and strongly supported by District 4 representative Virginia Maffia-Tobler, in whose district the house now falls, after the recent redistricting. The resolution will go to the full county legislature at its next meeting on June 14, and all involved expect it to pass with no problem.

Paul Stewart says they are looking at some grant money through the state Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Environmental Protection Fund, which would cover about half the cost of restoring the building to its 1850s condition. The group plans to initiate a communitywide fund-raising campaign to cover the rest, and hopes to have the first floor and grounds ready for the public in about a year.

The History Project wants to make the Myers house into a “living museum,” open to the public, which would have interpretative material about the Myers and about the Underground Railroad in the region generally. Mary Liz Stewart says she wants the experience to go beyond “hearing a docent tell the story.” This will involve the UGR Players, a group within the History Project that has already been doing dramatic interpretations of Underground Railroad stories. When groups visit the museum, says Mary Liz, “People will be reenacting the characters of the Myers family, and also roles and characters of other people of the time, freedom-seekers, other abolitionists.”

The opportunities and dreams for the building are many, including internships for local residents and local students, a home base for the history project to expand its program offerings. McKnight envisions an “entire little campus that would bring back the pride for the African-American people . . . and give us our own African-American meeting place.”

The Stewarts are also excited about the possibility of doing some archeology. Few material artifacts have been recovered from the 1830s to the 1850s for some reason, explains Mary Liz, so it would be particularly exciting to carry out a dig in 194’s largely undisturbed backyard. She’s not hoping, however, to find any of the popular imagination’s symbols of the Underground Railroad—tunnels and secret hiding places.

“There’s so much to this story that doesn’t use tunnels, doesn’t use hiding places,” she says, that it would almost distract from the actual story of Albany, which was one of quite open organizing against slavery and support for the freedom seekers. One public resolution of the Vigilance Committee congratulated the Myers for assisting 287 fugitives in a 10-month period. “They were very public people, being that thorn in the side,” says Mary Liz.

McKnight is hoping that the museum can also bring about some racial healing, as schoolchildren learn about black and white abolitionists who worked together. Maffia-Tobler agrees. “It’s of tremendous importance, certainly for the African-American community, but for all of Albany,” she says.

Mary Liz is very excited about the possibilities for the building, but she also wants to be careful as the group settles down into its first physical headquarters not to lose the focus that the history project has tried to cultivate, on discovering and telling as many people’s stories as possible. “I hope we can see this house as representative of a larger Underground Railroad culture, pieces of which didn’t survive,” she says. “I don’t want us to make an icon out of Stephen Myers. Yes, he was very important, but he could not have done what he did without other people working alongside him.”

maxel-lute@metroland.net


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