New Yorkers have a rich history of fighting for their freedom. Colonizers seeking religious freedom, the abolition movement of the 1800s, the Underground Railroad, Civil rights, Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and for those seeking asylum, New York has played a prominent role in these struggles for freedom. It has been considered an important center for liberty in the history of the United States. However, for more than two decades in its early history, it was the capital of American slavery. Out of these early decades of slavery, there also rose a powerful resistance to this abhorrent institution - leading to the state having a prominent role in the abolition movement. It is in this history of pursuing liberty that continues to contribute to the identity of our state.
The laws of a changeless justice bind Oppressor with oppressed; And close as sin and suffering joined. We march to fate abreast.
Booker T. Washington
In response to racial riots in East St. Louis during the summer of 1917,
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, established in 1909) wasted no time in composing a retort and soon issued a call for a Silent Protest Parade. “You must be in line,” the Association commanded.
On July 28, nearly 10,000 black men, women, and children wordlessly paraded down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Silently marching in solidarity to the beat of a drum, the throngs of protesters clutched picket signs declaring their purpose and demanding justice.
This was the first protest of its kind in New York, and the second instance of African Americans publicly demonstrating for civil rights.
Image: Silent parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots, 1917. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
New York State has a history of slavery. The first slaves arrived in Dutch New Amsterdam by way of the Dutch West India Company sometime around 1627. But slavery did not last as long in New York as in other parts of America. By 1827, slavery was outlawed completely. New York became a center for the national abolition movement and the Underground Railroad. Individuals like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony defined a legacy of New Yorkers who sacrificed in the fight for freedom.
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth was a freed slave in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York in 1797. After her escape, Truth challenged prevailing notions of racial inequality and gender interiority and became an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil and women’s rights in the 19th century.
Image: Sojourner Truth. Image courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts, and Special Collections.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was the covert effort to assist the escape of North American slaves. Due to a unique combination of progressive politics, developed canalways, emerging railroads, and a central location near the Canadian border, New York State was a key link in the Underground Railroad movement. Communities of free African Americans, Quakers, and white abolitionists provided assistance along the way.
Born (circa 1819-1823) a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman saved an amount of money from her labor and changed her name in preparation for an escape to freedom. In 1849, an unknown Quaker woman was one of the first to help Tubman cross “the line” - referring to the Mason Dixon - via the Underground Railroad.
Also known as “Moses to her people,” Tubman was later a “Conductor” on the Railroad, helping to guide as many as 300 slaves to freedom. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, NY until the end of her life.
Image: Harriet Tubman, circa 1885, Horatio Seymour Squyer. Image courtesy Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery.
Escape to Freedom
Solomon Northup was a free man in Saratoga Springs, New York before he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Two white men recruited Northup to travel to Washington, D.C. to perform violin in their circus. He accompanied the men, leaving the free state of New York. Upon entering Washington, D.C., Northup was drugged and sold into slavery. For twelve years Northup was enslaved and working on Louisiana plantations until he was able to get in contact with government officials who argued his case and freed him.
Northup’s detailed account of his time enslaved is considered one of the most accurate and unbiased accounts of slavery. Twelve Years a Slave became an instant best seller. Derby & Miller reported advance sales of 10,000 copies before the book was even ready to print.
Image: Solomon Northup Arrival Home and First Meeting With His Wife and Children. Illustration by Frederick M. Coffin and wood engraving by Nathanial Orr, Twelve Years A Slave, published 1853 in Auburn, NY by Derby, Miller, & Co.
The Great Migration & The Harlem Renaissance
From 1917 to 1970, in pursuit of a better life from the discrimination and disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow South, thousands of African Americans fled northward in what became known as The Great Migration. Most of the masses migrated to urban cities, with the largest African-American neighborhood settling in Harlem, New York. While in Harlem, African-American musicians, artists, scholars, poets, etc. gathered together and exchanged ideas that celebrated their traditions and pride and became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly known as the 15th Infantry of the New York National Guard, was the first African-American regiment of the New York National Guard. Facing discrimination at home, the 369th served 191 days of combat in France, longer than any American regiment of World War I, the German army nicknamed the soldiers “Hellfighters” due to their actions on the battlefield.
Image: The 369th Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of the National Archives.