Sunday, February 12, 2012

Syracuse Freedom Trail

Re-Introducing The Discover Syracuse Freedom Trail
by Samuel D. Gruber

In July 2007, while President of the Preservation Association of Central New York, I had the privilege of unveiling with then-Mayor Matt Driscoll and others the 11-sign Freedom Trail through parts of the City of Syracuse designed to commemorate and teach the important history of Underground Railroad, Abolitionist and African-American historic and cultural sites in the city. Syracuse was a center of the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad.  The famous Jerry Rescue had already been commemorated in a striking monument on Clinton Square erected in 1990, but there was little else to tell the story of people and places throughout Syracuse.

The Discover Syracuse Freedom Trail project was a partnership of the City of Syracuse and the Preservation Association of Central New York and celebrates momentous events in the Syracuse that took place mostly between 1830 and 1860. The signs also remember abolitionists – white and black -who helped make Syracuse a center of the anti-slavery movement in America. Individuals commemorated included Jermain and Caroline Loguen, Prince Jackson, Samuel May, George Vashon, Thomas Leonard, Stephen Smith, Hamilton White, George and Rebecca Barnes, William “Jerry” Henry, James and Mary Baker, and many others. The primary research and much of the writing for the project was done by esteemed historian Judith Wellman.

Syracuse, NY.  September 2006 unveiling of design for Freedom Trail signs. Parks Commissioner Pat Driscoll, PACNY President Sam Gruber and members of the Network to Freedom.

Syracuse, NY.  July 2007 unveiling of  Freedom Trail signs.  PACNY past-president JAE Evangelisti, Councilman Van Robinson, Mayor Matt Driscoll, PACNY President Samuel Gruber and others.

Syracuse, NY.  July 2007 unveiling of  Freedom Trail signs.  PACNY president Samuel Gruber, Parks Commissioner Pat Driscoll and Glen Lewis, Parks Department project coordinator.

I'm afraid that these signs are still too-little known, and that those who do know them now take them for granted.  It took a lot of research and hard work by many people (mostly volunteers) to create this project - and now, during Black History Month I want to remind people of its existence.  It was mean, too, to be only the beginning.  There are still more places to mark, and this trail can be and should be the basis of a local history curriculum for schools and civic, community and church groups. 

I look forward to walking and biking the full Freedom Trail route when the weather warms up. 

A Little History: The Underground Railroad in Syracuse

Before passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, the United States was a land of slavery. New York State had slavery until 1827. In 1860, four million Americans, all of African descent, lived in slavery. Many resisted through flight. Traveling by foot, wagon, boat, or railroad, between 100,000 and 150,000 sought freedom in Mexico, Canada, or the northern U.S. For its relative secrecy and speed, this flight to freedom became known as the Underground Railroad.

Syracuse was the “great central depot” of the Underground Railroad in New York State. From the 1830s until the end of the Civil War, thousands of African Americans passed through Syracuse on their way from slavery to freedom. Here, freedom seekers found help from a biracial group of abolitionist men and women who promoted the end of slavery, worked to end prejudice against African Americans, and organized the Underground Railroad. Rev. Luther Lee, Wesleyan Methodist minister, hosted 365 freedom seekers in one year. AME Zion minister Rev. Jermain Loguen, himself a freedom seeker from Tennessee, and Caroline Loguen sheltered about 1500 freedom seekers.

Freedom seekers came to Syracuse on foot and by road, canal, and railroad. In Syracuse, owners of the New York Central Railroad gave them free passes. People escaping slavery arrived either through Binghamton and Elmira in the south or through Albany and Utica in the east. Many traveled on to Canada, going west through Auburn, Rochester, and Buffalo, or north through Oswego. Many also stayed in Syracuse, and some bought property on the near eastside.

By the 1850s, people celebrated Syracuse as a “free city” and the “Canada of the United States.” While much of the Underground Railroad remained secret, it often operated openly in Syracuse. When federal marshals captured Missouri freedom seeker William “Jerry” Henry in Syracuse in October 1851, two thousand Syracuse citizens successfully rescued him, and the federal government never again tried to capture a freedom seeker locally. Newspaper notices regularly carried notices of fugitives who passed through the city on the “Underground Railroad.”

Locations and topics of Freedom Trail signs
Jerry Rescue Site, Clinton Street, between West Water Street and Erie Boulevard, just west of Clinton Square. 

In 1851, William "Jerry" Henry, accused of escaping from slavery, was held in the police station that stood on this site. A crowd of African Americans and European Americans broke open the door and freed Henry, who was taken to Kingston and freedom. This successful rescue was one of several challenges to the Fugitive Slave Law in major cities across the North. It mobilized people in Syracuse to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, and it helped make Syracuse a major haven for freedom seekers in the 1850s.

The original police station was demolished and replaced by the Raynor Block, often called the Jerry Rescue Building. The Raynor Block was demolished in the early 1970s, and the site is now a parking lot. In 1990, Syracuse erected the Jerry Rescue monument on the west end of Clinton Square. Designed by Sharon BuMann, his monument shows Jerry Henry, flanked by Reverend Samual J. May and Rev. Jermain Loguen.

Hanover Square, East Genesee and Water Streets

Hanover Square was a busy commercial district and civic gathering place in the mid-19th century, and African Americans were highly visible here at the heart of the city. Two major hotels, the Syracuse House and the Sherman House, stood along Genesee Street, where African Americans worked as porters, waiters, housekeepers, cooks, and cartmen.

In 1851, George B. Vashon, first African American lawyer in New York State, had offices in the Dana Block, at the northwest corner of Warren and Water Streets. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1824 and educated at Oberlin College, Vashon taught classics in Haiti and became New York State’s first African American lawyer in 1847. From 1855-58, he taught Latin at the abolitionist New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. After the Civil War, he practiced law in Washington, D.C., taught at Howard University, and became a clerk in the Treasury Department. He died in Mississippi in 1878. The Syracuse Standard noted that Vashon was “a Scholar, Lawyer and Orator, of . . . high endowments.” St. Louis, Missouri, named a school in honor of Vashon’s contribution to education.

Hanover Square witnessed many political rallies, some opposed to abolitionism. In January 1861, Samuel J. May and Susan B. Anthony spoke in Syracuse under the slogan “No Compromise with Slave Holders,” Men armed with knives and pistols invaded the hall, paraded the effigies of May and Anthony through the streets, and burned them in Hanover Square.

George and Rebecca Barnes Home, 930 James Street

George and Rebecca Barnes represent European American business and reform families, many of them identified with the Syracuse and Utica Railroad and the Unitarian Church, who were committed abolitionist organizers and Underground Railroad supporters and who used their resources to exert public pressure and to raise money for the cause.
Courier Building, NW corner of East Washington and Montgomery Streets

 In May 1851, from the balcony that still remains on the east side of this building, Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, issued a challenge. The federal government, he said, would enforce the Fugitive Slave Law in Syracuse “in the midst of the next anti-slavery convention, if the occasion shall arise.” This set the context for the famous rescue of William “Jerry” Henry on October 1, 1851.

Enoch Reed, Butternut Street

Enoch Reed was the only person convicted in the Jerry Rescue, but he died before he could appeal. It would be helpful to check assessments and maps again, to be sure of this location. Enoch and Jane Reed lived at the corner of Lodi and Butternut Street (where the Rite-Aid Drugstore is now).

Fayette Park, at East Fayette Street

Many outstanding houses once stood around Fayette Park, including the home of abolitionist Stephen Smith, who invited Frederick Douglass to speak in Fayette Park in 1847. Douglass, orator and editor of the North Star, was one of the country’s most influential abolitionists. Born in slavery in Maryland about 1817, he escaped in 1838 and moved to Rochester, New York. Throughout his career, he was a frequent visitor to Syracuse, working closely with local abolitionists. Hamilton White lived in the Greek Revival mansion at the southwest corner of the park, built in 1842. White gave money to the AME Zion Sunday School and to the Syracuse Orphan Asylum, and his brother Horace gave passes on the New York Central Railroad to freedom seekers.

Loguen Park, East Genesee Street

Instead of going to Canada, many freedom seekers stayed in Upstate New York. In Syracuse, they purchased property throughout the city, but especially on the near eastside, close to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Second Congregational Church, and the mission School. In this area lived freedom seeker Thomas Leonard, who assisted Harriet Powell in her famous escape of 1839, who with his wife Jane kept a sage house on the UGRR, and who, as an old man, tried to enlist to fight in the Civil War. Other freedom seekers on the east side included Elisabeth Crown, William and Sarah Brisco, Edward and Arabella Whipple, Margaret and Alexander Montgomery and Samuel Castle. Most famous of all were Jermain and Caroline Loguen who lived on east Genesee Street a short distance from Lexington Park.

Site of home of Rev. Jermain and Mrs. Caroline Loguen, 293 East Genesee Street

While many abolitionists, both African American and European American, aided freedom seekers in Syracuse, Jermain and Caroline Loguen’s home became the major stopping point by the mid-1850s.  As Milton Sernett noted in North Star Country, Syracuse became known as “the great central depot” of the Underground Railroad in New York State, the “Canada of the North,” and Loguen was called the “Underground Railroad King.” (162, 174) This is the single most important site for underground railroad activity in Onondaga County.

Prince Jackson House Site, North State Street

Houses on North State Street that date from the 1820s through the 1850s. Several of these exist and help us understand the neighborhood context in which Prince Jackson (indicted for his part in the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry) and other African Americans worked along the canal.

Rose Hill Cemetery, Lodi street

Rose Hill Cemetery was the burial place of almost all African Americans who lived and died in Syracuse before the Civil War. Known abolitionists include Prince Jackson (indicted for his part in the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry) and Thomas Leonard, who assisted Harriet Powell’s escape in 1839.

Former Wesleyan Methodist Church, Jefferson Street

The Wesleyan Methodist Church was a biracial abolitionist congregation and a major center of the Underground Railroad. Luther Lee, pastor (1843 and 1852-55) and editor of the True Wesleyan (1844-52), assisted as many as 365 freedom seekers a year. Charles, Montgomery, and Chloe Merrick raised money and supplied passes on the railroad to freedom seekers. James Baker, Georgia-born whitewasher, and Mary Baker, his Maryland-born wife, were freedom seekers themselves. After helping to rescue William “Jerry” Henry in October 1851, the Baker family fled to Canada.

The church hosted a prayer service for John Brown when he was hung on December 2, 1859. It also hosted a gathering of Syracuse black citizens on January 20, 1863, to celebrate Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Wesleyan Church members also supported the early woman’s rights movement. Susan B. Anthony spoke here in 1852 and demanded for women “all the rights enjoyed by men, even to the ballot box.” 

Today the church houses The Mission restaurant. 

The Project: Background and Implementation

The Syracuse Freedom Trail commemorates places, people and events in Syracuse significant in the history of the 19th-century Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad. The series of eleven illustrated information signs is a project of the City of Syracuse and the Preservation Association of Central New York (PACNY). Installation of the signs, will begin at Clinton and Hanover Squares, and continue at sites throughout the city during the summer of 2007.

The Freedom Trail project developed following PACNY’s leadership role in the rescue and conservation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church Faces, which had been deteriorating in situ beneath the abolitionist church located at Columbus Circle. PACNY helped create a coalition of community groups including the Central New York Community Foundation, the Onondaga Historical Association, Bethany Baptist Church and Syracuse University to ensure that the Faces stayed in Syracuse and were protected and conserved.

In 2001, PACNY urged community involvement to extend this work into the city by creating a trail of signs and markers to commemorate and teach the historic lessons of the 19th-century abolitionist and freedom movement. A grant from the Preservation League of New York State funded the research to create such a trail. PACNY published the results in booklet form, and they have been on line since 2002
( Subsequently, the Syracuse Common Council, at the urging of then member Kate O’Connell and supported the rest of the membership, allocated fund for the manufacture of signs for a Freedom Trail provided PACNY create the signs. PACNY, in cooperation with the City Department of Parks and Recreation and Community Development and with input from local community and TNT groups, chose appropriate sites for the placement of signage, developed a format and overall design, undertook additional research, obtained illustrations and maps for use on the signs, and then wrote and edited appropriate texts. PACNY also negotiated with contractors for graphic design, and for the manufacture of the signs and their metal frames.

Original research for this project by PACNY was made possible by a grant from the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts. Funding for the manufacturer and installation of the signs comes from the City of Syracuse. The research, writing and editing of texts is the work of PACNY volunteer members led by Prof. Judith Wellman. The Queri Development Company provided additional funding.
PACNY, the City of Syracuse Department of Parks and Recreation, and the City of Syracuse Department of Community Development thank the many people who have made this project possible. Special recognition is due to Dr. Judith Wellman who headed the research team. J.A.E. Evangelisti who headed the production team; the staff of the Onondaga Historical Association, which provided help throughout the project; Commissioner Pat Driscoll and the staff of the Department of Parks and Recreation and Commissioner Ortiz and the staff of the Department of Community Development.  The implementation of this project was assisted by Dennis Connors, Beth Crawford, Samuel Gruber, Vanessa Johnson, Milton Sernett and many others.


  1. Sam, This is a wonderful context for the present efforts to save the old Peoples AME Zion Church at 711 East Fayette St. Thnaks so much for posting at this time especially as we go forward with this next chapter!
    Nancy Keefe Rhodes

  2. Is there an actual map of the trail, or just this listing?

  3. I am interested in the Edward and Arabella Whipple sign at Loguen Park, East Genesee Street. I am related to Edward and Arabella. When I found the initial article a few years ago I cried. I've still not found any information on them prior to Syracuse. Can you put us in touch with someone who can get us a up close photograph of the sign?

  4. It is an excellent thing that the effect to save the AME Zion Church which is a historical buliding. When Minister E. Proctor was pastor, I serve as his preacher steward for that time period.
    It should be saved.