Rochester's Roots: The Underground Railroad

February 28, 2019 10:08 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- Throughout Black History Month, News10NBC has been digging into Rochester's Roots.

The Underground Railroad is a part of that history. 


The Rochester Museum and Science Center estimates 150 people per year came through Rochester's Underground Railroad in the 1850s.

It was a direct route to Canada.

The Underground Railroad had nothing to do with the actual railroad, nor was it underground. It was a path that slaves in the south used to escape and to get to Canada.

It was made up of conductors who guided slaves by night, and people in various cities who secretly provided food, shelter, money, supplies and whatever else was needed.

Some of those people lived in Rochester.

"It was about the 1830s when we have some of the documented evidence of the Underground Railroad activity..." said Kathryn Murano Santos, senior director of Collections and Exhibits.

Around that time, anti-slavery lectures and newspapers started popping up in Rochester.

It was natural for the Underground Railroad to follow, especially when you look at the route many African-Americans traveled to get to freedom.

Dr. David Anderson is a visiting community scholar at Nazareth College and a well-known storyteller in Rochester.

"It was essential to several lines of getting from slavery in the south to the north where you were quasi-free...but Rochester was also significant in the run from down south to Canada," said Anderson.

It's estimated that 100,000 slaves used the Underground Railroad to get to freedom, however, you will find very little evidence of its existence in the city.

"In Rochester, we found there were no Underground Railroad sites that still exist to this day...which is sad to think that piece of heritage is lost," said Murano Santos.

Santos is largely responsible for "Flight to Freedom" which opened in 2008. It tells the story of the local Underground Railroad.

"What we've aimed to do is tell stories, and to tell stories about the people and their experiences on the Underground Railroad," she says.

Stories about people like Harriet Jacobs.

Jacobs hid in a room in her grandmother's attic for seven years before she escaped from North Carolina. Jacobs lived in Rochester for a year and a half. Anderson says there was a draw to the 'Flour City.' 

"They certainly were making a run for the Douglass residence because that was a major stop on the Underground Railroad."

Douglass, as in, the famous former slave and Rochester abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Anderson says his wife, Anna Douglass, was always home and would feed and house freedom seekers. 

"Harriet Tubman would come through with groups and they would stay there a night or two, " said Anderson.

Harriet Tubman escaped her slave owner in Maryland and became a legend as an Underground Railroad conductor. It is believed she helped free 300 slaves.

She later settled in Auburn, where her home remains a tourist attraction. 

Locations in neighboring towns and other counties have been preserved like the Richardson Farm on East Henrietta Road and the Warrent Homestead on West Henrietta Road. 

Despite the loss of this important Rochester history, Santos says what she uncovered is a source of encouragement.

"So I think it's a really inspiring example that we can all look to because it was blacks and whites, it was women and was rich and poor people that were collaborating to make something happen," she said.


Lynette Adams

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