NYC's Underground Railroad history at your fingertips
STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 3/16/2012, 4:51 p.m.
Every now and then, one needs to be reminded of who really built this country.
Head down to the Financial District in lower Manhattan and, with the help of Stacey Toussaint, you'll find out where the power lies. Walking around Wall Street, you'll see the edifices and streets put together by the great men and women of this nation.
And many of the people responsible for this foundation weren't free.
Every Saturday at 2 p.m., Toussaint, president of Inside Out Tours LLC, takes curious New Yorkers and tourists alike on the New York City Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour. Chronicling how slaves suffered and triumphed in what's now known as "The City That Never Sleeps," the tour emphasizes how slave labor, primarily from Angola and Congo, was big business and how those slaves dealt with it or escaped.
Toussaint took the AmNews and several other interested writers and tourists on a Thursday morning tour with a bonus destination that made the trip even more worthwhile.
Visiting spots like the original site of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, New York City's first Black church and a stop on the Underground Railroad, the National African Burial Ground Memorial, Foley Square and various areas commemorated with plaques but washed of the pain and suffering, Toussaint takes you back to the 17th century and the reign of the Dutch West India Company, which profited heavily off the slave trade.
According to Toussaint, "Forty percent of New York households owned slaves. New York was the slavery capital of the North, rivaled only by Charleston, S.C. One in five New Yorkers at the height [of slavery] would have been enslaved."
There's a statue that acts as the centerpiece of Foley Square, just a few blocks north of City Hall. It's called "The Triumph of the Human Spirit" and was constructed to commemorate all of the African slaves who were brought to New York.
"It also marks the spot of the 1741 slaves' revolt executions," said Toussaint.
"People were accused of being involved in the slave revolt on very scant evidence and tortured into confessions," she said. "They were brought to this spot right here and thousands watched them be executed either by hanging or burning."
Toussaint showed the crowd a plaque on the ground of Foley Square commemorating the unfortunate event.
But along with the realization of the adversity African people faced in New York was the amazing triumph of those who were willing to risk life and limb to be free.
Toussaint took the group to the house of David Ruggles. Ruggles was an abolitionist and journalist who helped almost 600 slaves escape. One of those slaves was named Frederick Douglass. And while the guide did mention the anti-abolitionist attacks of 1834 that destroyed many homes and businesses, Ruggles' legacy is something African-Americans could be proud of and others could admire.
But the bonus, optional stop available to the tour group cemented the tale of triumph amid the tragedy for Africans in New York.
Plymouth Church, located in what's now known as Brooklyn Heights, opened in January of 1850 and, relative to the era, was also a place where progressives could feel at home. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe, preached there about women's rights and abolition during services.
In the church is a plaque marking the area where Abraham Lincoln once sat to watch a service. Over 100 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered part of what would eventually become his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech at the church.
The basement of the church was used as a rest stop for slaves on the Underground Railroad who were continuing their trip north. With its close proximity to the East River, it served as a gateway to quickly ship runaway slaves to their destination after rest and a good meal.
Rose Brooks, director of history ministry services at Plymouth Church, said that the place of worship was like the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad in New York.
Walking into the basement, you realize that the slaves barely had any sunlight when they stayed down there. All they had was hope and the belief that there was something better waiting for them in the end.
If anyone, Black or white, finds themselves in New York City and wants to learn its real history, not just the history pushed by City Hall propaganda and other tourists traps, accompany Toussaint and company along to learn about the history of a people whose achievements tend to be whitewashed from the books.
The New York City Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour is a highly recommended experience.