by Beth Slezak, Site/Program Manager at LifePath@Cohoes
The prominent roles of New York’s Capital Region and the City of Albany in the movement to safety of 100s of freedom seekers in the years before the Civil War was shared with attendees at a LifePath@ Cohoes presentation by Annette M Johnson, EdD, RD, MCHES of University at Albany. The presentation entitled “Stephen and Harriet Myers and the Underground Railroad” was held on February 17 in celebration and recognition of Black History Month.
Albany was a major receiving and forwarding depot for fugitive slaves sent north from NYC on the Hudson River and through the Hudson River Valley on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a network of people working together to move slaves through a series of escape routes that operated from the American South to Canada and Mexico. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 people escaped slavery via the UGRR in the 1800s before the start of the Civil War. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 the punishment for helping enslaved people escape was a steep fine of $1000 and 6 months in jail. On the opposite side, slave catching became a business opportunity for bounty hunters. To stay “underground” people used a train-themed code language to communicate as train lines were popping up all across the county. This became a great cover; safe houses were called “stations” and routes were called “lines”, people who assisted the freedom seekers were called “conductors” and the fugitives were referred to as “cargo”. A safe house would be identified by a lighted lantern hung outside.
Harriet Tubman escaped from a plantation in Maryland to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1849. She was a well-known conductor and it is estimated that she helped 70 people on 13 trips to the South. She, like all of those who assisted the freedom seekers, took great risks and paid the consequences of being caught. Stephen and Harriet Myers of Albany were among those who took that great risk.
Stephen Myers was the “Superintendent” of the Underground Railroad for many years. In the 1830s, Myers, himself a freed slave from Hoosick, NY, began helping escaped slaves. He eventually began publishing papers advocating for the cause, first the Elevator and then the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. Over the decades, Stephen and Harriet Myers along with other members of the Albany Vigilance Committee received hundreds of people seeking freedom. Many harbored in the Myers’ home located at 192 Livingston Ave in Albany before moving on to Syracuse, Oswego or straight into Canada. Stephen Myers became a leading spokesperson in the Albany area for anti-slavery activism and in 1856 was honored with a resolution from the Vigilance Committee for his work as an activist and spokesperson.
The Myers residence, headquarters for people fleeing north through the Capital Region, is now the location of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, Inc. Walking tours, education programs and activities and an annual UGRR conference are organized by staff and volunteers at the Livingston Ave address.