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Syracuse, Cazenovia home to significant moments in Black history

A bronze statue depicting two men exiting a structure on a brick monument.
Scott Willis
The Jerry Rescue monument at Clinton Square depicts the heroic rescue of William Henry, a fugitive slave who had been arrested earlier that day.

Local historians are recognizing the role Central New York played in the abolitionist movement this Black history month. The region is home to key moments of resistance to slavery in the 19th century.

Cazenovia, about 25 miles southeast of the city of Syracuse, was the site of a historic event to fight the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which called for enslaved people to be returned if they escaped, even to a free state.

Dorothy Willsey, president of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, said the village hosted what then-U.S. Rep. Gerrit Smith of New York called a landmark abolitionist meeting.

“Gerrit Smith invited Frederick Douglass to call this meeting and it was going to be held in the church that is now where the Cummings Theater is in Cazenovia. But there were so many people that they moved it to an apple orchard," Willsey said.

The museum, which will have video lessons all month long highlighting events they say don’t often make most classrooms, is also of historic significance. Located in Madison County's town of Petersboro, it was the site of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society inauguration in 1850.

The resistance continued in Syracuse when abolitionists who gathered for an 1851 convention rushed a local jail to keep William "Jerry" Henry from being returned to slavery. The Jerry Rescue monument in Clinton Square honors the event.

Onondaga Historical Association curator, Robert Searing said the statue memorializes the first time civil disobedience was used to fight the Fugitive Slave Act.

Later in history, Searing said the Syracuse chapter of Congress on Racial Equality or CORE, also President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Lyndon Johnson comes to dedicate Newhouse 1—while he's here, he's met with protesters from the local CORE chapter who were basically trying to get to push him over," he said.

For more on the events that shaped the region’s Black history, the Onondaga Historical Association's website includes Black History Month archives.

Matt Hassan is a senior broadcast and digital journalism student at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. He is minoring in History and sport management. Matt grew up in Port Washington, New York on Long Island. He creates print, radio, and television stories almost daily on a wide range of topics, including hard news, profiles, and sports. Matt hopes to pursue a career as either a reporter or producer of news.