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Remembering NYC’s unsung heroes who helped slaves find freedom

Posted: 6:14 AM, Feb 15, 2017
Updated: 2017-02-15 06:14:18-05

MANHATTAN –These were some of the biggest black American heroes of the big city of Manhattan in the 19th century. All were free, most risking their lives to save others.

“In Manhattan nearly 40 percent of every household had an enslaved black person working for them,” historian Reginald Poe said.

It’s something the New York of today likely couldn’t imagine.

“New York was the center of the abolitionist movement but yet it was mired in slavery as much as the South,” Poe said. “If you asked New Yorkers if they were against slavery – they would say yes. It was a horrible situation but yet they kept slaves.”

Thomas Downing, a free black man from Virginia, with his famed Oyster House restaurant on Broad Street was one of the most prominent New Yorkers and secret underground railroad conductors of his time.

The lawyers, the judges, the rich, the famous flocked to Downing’s Oyster House.

All the while his George covertly operated a flourishing underground railroad stop in the basement, buying many slaves passage to Canada. And opposite to the Downing’s quiet lifesaving was David Ruggles, a boisterous advocate for freedom.

“David Ruggles was one of the most ardent and ferocious abolitionists of all time,” Poe said. “Born free in Connecticut, he came to New York at 17.”

Ruggles was an underground railroad conductor at 36 Lispenard Street, guiding some 600 escaped slaves, including Frederick Douglass. He had the first black-owned printing press and ran the nation’s first black bookstore. Starting in the 1830’s he helped inspired a generation of radical abolitionists.

Meanwhile, Catherine Ferguson ran what’s credited as the city’s first Sunday school from her home at 51 Warren St. She bought her own freedom, and reading lessons, baking cakes to pay off her debt.

“Her passions were freedom and literacy,” Poe said.

Separated from her own mother at the age of 8, her passion was children. She went on to house, raise and find homes for some 48 street children, black and white, in addition to teaching others. she instilled a core lesson in each.

“Literacy is the key to success,” Poe said.

To learn more about the MAPP (Mapping the African American Past) kits, read more here.