Black History Month: New York City And The Underground Railroad

As we celebrate Black History Month, we continue to share inspirational stories of survival. CBS2's Vanessa Murdock took a look at the role New York played in the Underground Railroad.

Video Transcript

- As we celebrate Black History Month, we continue to share inspirational stories of survival.

- And tonight, we take a look at the role New York played in the Underground Railroad. CBS News' Vanessa Murdock reports.

VANESSA MURDOCK: New York Harbor in the 19th century hosted ships billowing with goods harvested on the backs of enslaved people.

PRITHI KANAKAMEDALA: It is a city that is founded upon capitalism, and it's specifically that cotton and sugar industry.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Historian and educator Prithi Kanakamedala tells us even after slavery formally ends in New York State in 1827, the economy in the city remained rooted in the practice. At the same time, a small number of abolitionists organized and helped enslaved people find their way to freedom.

ERIC FONER: This was Black and white people cooperating with each other. That doesn't always happen in American history.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Eric Foner, historian and author, tells us the Underground Railroad flourished in the 1850s. The number of people seeking freedom nearly tripled.

STACEY TOUSSAINT: I think it's important to note that the vast majority of people on the Underground Railroad helping out and the abolitionists were African-Americans. But they had some very important allies.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Allies with money, influence, and visibility, says Stacie Toussaint, president of Inside Out Tours. We met her at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.

STACEY TOUSSAINT: It was called the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. That is because the pastor of the church, Henry Ward Beecher, hid people in the basement of this church.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Not just that, he hosted auctions.

STACEY TOUSSAINT: He would bring enslaved people from other parts of the country here so that the congregation could raise money to set that person free.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Plymouth Church, just one of many sites around the city that can trace their heritage back to abolitionist activity, and one of the few still standing. Another in Manhattan, 337 and 339 West 29th Street in Chelsea, belonged to James Gibbons and Abby Hopper Gibbons

ERIC FONER: It's a living, standing symbol. The fact the New York City is part of this feature of the antislavery struggle.

VANESSA MURDOCK: Foner describes the Gibbons' as radical Quakers and courageous, offering temporary shelter to those considered fugitive slaves. The Gibbons' and their home so well-known for abolitionist activity that an angry mob attacked during the Draft Riots in 1863.

This La Colombe coffee shop at 36 Lispenard Street in Tribeca stands where David Ruggles's home once stood. Today, only a plaque reminds us history happened here. Ruggles, a free Black man who moved to New York City in the 1820s, was a writer, editor, owner of a newspaper, and a staunch abolitionist.

PRITHI KANAKAMEDALA: Here was this man attempting to really push the envelope of democracy and make sure that people would have a fresh start. Find a job, find a home.

- His home offered safe passage to more than 600 people. One of those, Frederick Bailey, better known today is activist and author Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote, "I became relieved from it by the humane hand of David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance I shall never forget." Vanessa Murdock, CBS 2 News.

- Absolutely fascinating history right there. And most of the people using the Underground Railroad didn't stop in New York City, but they traveled on through to Albany and up to Canada, the only place at the time that they felt they could truly be free. And as Black History Month continues, you will see a series of stories here on CBS 2 News. You can also find more reporting at CBSNewYork.com.