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Black History Month: Iconic Abolitionist Used His TriBeCa Home As Part Of Underground Railroad

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- On a corner in TriBeCa, hundreds of people sought refuge on the Underground Railroad.

The house belonged to a young black abolitionist and publisher who mentored the likes of Frederick Douglass. Yet, his story is hard to find in most history books.

CBSN New York's Aundrea Cline-Thomas recently learned more about the life of David Ruggles.

Patrons shuffle in and out of the La Colombe coffee shop at the corner of Lispenard and Church streets, many without the slightest idea of the location's significance.

During the 19th century, 36 Lispenard St. was a three-story home to abolitionist Ruggles, a free black man who moved to New York City in around 1827, when slavery was ending here.

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Underground Railroad
La Colombe coffee shop at the corner of Lispenard and Church streets was once a stop along the Underground Railroad. (Photo: CBSN New York)

His home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, a refuge to more than 600 people.

"The Underground Railroad was not about tunnels and attics. It was very much about ordinary people coming to New York to live their lives quite publicly and to restore their own human dignity," said Prithi Kanakamedala, an associate professor of history at Bronx Community College. "[Ruggles] really was putting his life on the line in terms of trying to figure out both political and legal freedoms for free black people, but also trying to figure out how we can end slavery in the United States with immediate effect."


Ruggles helped a fearful runaway slave named Frederick Bailey, who later became known as prominent activist and author Frederick Douglass.

In a manuscript, Douglass wrote of his distrust of others after arriving in New York, saying "I became relieved from it by the humane hand of David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance I shall never forget."

Ruggles gave Douglass money and encouraged him to join the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts.

"We know it was David Ruggles who inspires Douglass to stay in the United States. We might have lost Douglass to Canada, because he probably suffered huge emotional trauma from slavery and was looking to escape," Kanakamedala said.

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Ruggles did a lot of work through the New York Committee of Vigilance, which he co-founded with other black and white abolitionists. He literally burst into homes with the goal of preventing the kidnapping of free Negroes from the city of New York.

"He goes to Brooklyn to accuse a police officer of kidnapping free people of color, and kidnapping them to the South and putting them in slavery," Kanakamedala said.

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Ruggles' boldness was also shared in his writings, creating a first of its kind publications like the "Mirror of Liberty." Each act put his life on the line.

He was just 40 years old when he died. These days, his heroism is relegated to mere mentions, but his impact has been monumental.

He's an American icon, most have never heard of.

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