Most people have heard of or seen the Jerry Rescue Story and Monument. You might also know the Mission Restaurant downtown gave safe harbor to escaped slaves, as did other local homes. In the last part of C-N-Y Unknown Underground, we’ll fill in some interesting details; each historic connection might have had more significance than you know.
You might have seen it on the west side of Clinton Square. It's probably the best known monument to Syracuse's anti-slavery past...the Jerry Rescue Statue. The sculpture depicts Jerry, whose real name was William Henry, as he was being broken out of jail. At his side in the sculpture are Abolitionist Reverend Samuel May and prolific Underground Railroad Conductor Reverend Jermain Loguen.
It's somewhat well known that the act of civil disobedience in 1851 was to flout the 1850 fugitive slave law. You might not know just how significant it was...or where Jerry came from. And what is shown in the tall statue is not exactly as it went down...but artist Sharon BuMann has a pretty good reason for why she created it just this way.
“I wanted to have them coming out of the jail, but I also wanted the relationship between the black and the white, which I selected Jermain Loguen, he was a main player, as well as Samuel May. They were all about nonviolence. They themselves did not take part. But I said artistically, they were instrumental in making it happen. They stood on the sidelines to make sure everything was copasetic as it went on.”
That linkage between black and white abolitionists was important to Bumann. In the background of the sculpture there's evidence of the hundreds of people that took part…and broken shackles on his wrists. She wanted to show his captivity – even though he probably didn’t have them on when he was broken out. A star you can see at the base of the work, pointing North, South East and West – is a symbol of Justice.
She says once she won the commission, from a field of almost 150 artists, she sat in Clinton Square night after night to get a muse, the vision fr the sculpture. Of course her extensive research uncovered just who was William “Jerry” Henry
“Jerry was actually the son of a plantation owner and a mulatto house servant, I guess. So he was probably very fair-skinned. And his father had him educated right alongside his half-brothers and sisters.”
He actually became a clerk for the plantation…and, by some tellings, was actually not a runaway by the time he made it to Syracuse.
“His father passed away and his step-brother took over, and he and Jerry didn’t see eye-to eye. But his father had told him, ‘when the time comes if you want to leave, you’re free to go.’”
So when federal marshals and the agents of angry slave owners, bounty hunters arrested Jerry, he likely wasn’t even a slave – but was being made an example. Onondaga Historical Association Director Gregg Tripoli says it more than backfired…resonating through most of the other free states.
“I think the most important thing of that event was that it was a really national-level event that happened here in Syracuse, that involved both black and white people. People felt it was inherently unfair because of the burden it placed on everyday people to turn in their fellow citizens. And the refusal to people in Syracuse to bow to that was really the beginning of the end of the fugitive slave act.”
Nevertheless it did have its drama…Jerry was hidden at various houses around town, then rushed off to Canada…authorities in pursuit. And, for the abolitionist, it wasn’t without consequences.
“And the folks who took part in it were indicted and were charged. Some went to trial and some actually went to trail along with Jerry to flee from being prosecuted for the part that they took in the ‘Jerry Rescue.’”
Sculptor Sharon BuMann hopes when people look at her monument, they’re inspired to learn more about the story and the different people involved.
CHURCH BUILT IN 1845,UNDERGROUND RAILROAD STOP, HAD UNIQUE EVIDENCE
Over by Columbus circle is another of the city's fairly well know Underground Railroad stations. Caddie-corner from the fountain to the east is the former First Wesleyan Church, now the Mission Restaurant. The O-H-A's Gregg Tripoli is pretty sure this was a clandestine stopover for escaped slaves, or as they were called, freedom seekers.
"When it was the First Wesleyan Church, it was a safe house where runaways were kept in the basement. The story goes, they cared their images into the walls of the basement there…not uncommon for lots of folks who are captive, held somewhere, kind of, ‘so-and-so was here, we were here.’”
The O-H-A Museum on Montgomery Street in Syracuse has a few of those carvings, saved from when the basement was renovated for the restaurant. And Tripoli says they fill in what is often murky history.
“It is believed that they are the only three-dimensional evidence of the Underground Railroad in existence. Oftentimes you come across these homes that had a reputation, but we don’t really know where or the details. The point was not to have any telltale sign that someone was there. So there isn’t a whole lot of hard-evidence record of the Underground Railroad.”
WOMEN'S RIGHTS SITE ALSO KEY ABOLITION CENTER
If you want to find another place where freedom seeking blacks holed up at times, you have to drive out to Fayetteville. The Matilda Jocelyn Gage house is, of course, better known for its place in women's rights...but founder and board member Sally Rausch Wagner connects the social justice causes.
“In fact, if you scratched an abolitionist, you would generally find a women’s rights advocate. They held their national conventions concurrently so that people could go to both. If you listen to an anti-slavery speech, women’s rights was probably brought into it and vice-versa.”
Gage flouted laws in both areas – violating the fugitive slave act . and attempting to vote when it was illegal for women to vote…to point out injustice. Wagner says she was born into it.
“The home of her parents was offered as a station on the Underground Railroad. Her father was a founder of the Liberty Party, the very first anti-slavery party, and he ran for office on the Liberty Party ticket. Matilda Joslyn Gage remembered being at an anti-slavery gathering in Syracuse where they sang a William Lloyd Garrison song, ‘I’m and abolitionist and glory in the name’.”
It was none too popular – she notes only two homes in Fayetteville offered sanctuary. The museum that’s in her home now has an Underground Railroad Room. It has many evocative features: names on the walls of people who escaped slavery through here; a mat showing how Africans were packed into slave ships and brought here, which visitors are invited to lie down upon; the roof adorned with the alignment oF the stars on the day slavery was finally over, June 19th, 1865, known as Juneteenth. And Wagner describes a special feature that really brings home the experience.
“We don’t know where the freedom-takers that Matilda Joslyn Gage harbored and gave sanctuary to, we don’t know where they stayed.”
Research when forming the museum talked of hiding in plain sight…and a carpenter came up with one strategy used at the time.
“…sometimes behind a bookcase. So he figured out how he could construct a bookcase in the side of a room. You can open a door, it’s a little trick door, and you can go inside there…and it is scary,” Wagner adds.
Gage called harboring former slaves seeking freedom one of her proudest acts. Her risks – of fines and jail – for both abolition and women’s rights came, as her daughter wrote, from her "hatred of injustice and love of liberty."
The Gage home is one local connection to abolition history, as are the Wesleyan Church and the Jerry Rescue.
Our past Unknown Underground pieces highlighted Gerrit Smith’s incredible financial support for abolitionist causes, as well as Jermain Loguen’s very public role in helping more than a thousand to freedom.
Like many areas, people here know a bit about significant local history. But Syracuse’s role in the Underground Railroad and by extension the abolition of slavery carries significance greater than simply local landmarks and monuments can pay justice …and beg further understanding