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'Freedom Trail' Plan Would Link Manhattan's Abolitionist Sites

By Julie Shapiro | March 20, 2012 7:37am
David Ruggles was a leading abolitionist who helped rescue escaped slaves through his Lispenard Street home.
David Ruggles was a leading abolitionist who helped rescue escaped slaves through his Lispenard Street home.
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Bob Powers, Curriculum Concepts International

LOWER MANHATTAN — Jacob Morris has a dream.

Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, has long been fascinated by the many historical sites related to the abolition movement that are sprinkled throughout Lower Manhattan — and is heartbroken that most New Yorkers have never heard of them.

To draw attention to these little-known sites, Morris is launching a campaign to link them in a "Freedom Trail," similar to the one in Boston that focuses on the Revolutionary War.

"TriBeCa was basically New York City's Harlem before the Civil War," Morris said. "Downtown Manhattan was honeycombed with Underground Railroad locations, and there were residences and businesses of abolitionists."

To create the Freedom Trail, Morris envisions free maps showing a dozen or more historical sites south of Canal Street, along with an iPod walking tour and markers at each of the sites. In Boston, a path of red paint and bricks leads trail-goers from one site to the next, and Morris is considering proposing something similar for Lower Manhattan.

Any tour would have to include 36 Lispenard St., the house where David Ruggles, a leading abolitionist, sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of the men he helped to save was his friend Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an influential writer and orator.

Morris also wants to mark the spot where Elizabeth Jennings, a black woman, was forced off of a streetcar on Pearl Street in 1854 because of her race. She sued and, with the help of young lawyer Chester Arthur, who later became president of the United States, she won, forcing the desegregation of streetcars.

"She was New York City's Rosa Parks a hundred years before Rosa Parks," Morris said. "That should be marked as part of the Freedom Trail. These are signposts in the struggle for freedom and equality."

Other sites would include Sojourner Truth's onetime home at 74 Canal St.; the former James McCune Smith Pharmacy at 93 West Broadway, which hosted abolitionist meetings in its back room; and New York's first slave market, which opened in 1709 at Wall and Pearl streets.

Morris does not want the tour to gloss over the more disturbing pieces of the city's black history, because he believes it's important for people to know the whole story.

So while the tour would describe New York's important role in the Underground Railroad, it would also point out that the city was a center for bounty hunters searching for escaped slaves, and when the bounty hunters had trouble meeting their quotas, they sometimes kidnapped the children of free blacks and sent them south to slavery. 

"It tells the truth about where we come from and the path we've taken to get to where we are today," Morris said of the history tour. "We need to know this stuff — the adversity, the things that were surmounted."

Morris got the idea for a New York version of Boston's Freedom Trail several years ago when he was trying to think of a low-cost way of highlighting Downtown's historical sites.

Boston's Freedom Trail is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the northeast, drawing 3 million visitors and generating about $1 billion in economic benefits for Boston each year, according to its website.

The project recently won the unanimous support of Community Board 1's Youth and Education Committee, and now Morris plans to apply for public and private grants to get it off the ground.

"This is an important project for Lower Manhattan as it tells the story of the freedom trail that occurred right here in our community," said Julie Menin, chairwoman of CB1.

"[It] will be an important way for young people to learn about the history of the abolitionist movement."