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Black History Is Our History: Exploring New York City's Role In The Underground Railroad

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- As we celebrate Black History Month, we continue to share inspirational stories of survival.

CBS2's Vanessa Murdock took a look at the role New York played in the Underground Railroad.

New York Harbor in the 19th century hosted ships billowing with goods harvested on the backs of enslaved people.

"It is a city that is founded upon capitalism, and it's specifically that cotton and sugar industry," said Prithi Kanakamedala, associate professor of history at Bronx Community College CUNY.

Kanakamedala says even after slavery formally ended in New York State in 1827, the economy in the city remained rooted in the practice. At the same time, a small number of abolitionists organized and helped enslaved people find their way to freedom.

"This was Black and white people cooperating with each other. That doesn't always happen in American history," said Eric Foner, a retired professor of history at Columbia University and author of "Gateway To Freedom."

Foner says the Underground Railroad flourished in the 1850s and the number of people seeking freedom nearly tripled.

"I think it's important to note that the vast majority of people on the Underground Railroad helping out and the abolitionists were Africa Americans, but they had some very important allies," said Stacey Toussaint, president of Inside Out Tours.

Those allies had money, influence and visibility. CBS2 met Toussaint at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, a stop on her tours. She says Henry Ward Beecher founded the church in 1847 to help enslaved people.

"It was called the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. That is because the pastor of the church, Henry Ward Beecher, hid people in the basement of this church," Toussaint said.

Not just that, he hosted auctions.

"He would bring enslaved people from other parts of the country here so that the congregation could raise money to set that person free," Toussaint said.

Plymouth Church is just one many sites around the city that can trace their heritage back to abolitionist activity and one of the few still standing.

Another in Manhattan is 337 and 339 West 29th Street in Chelsea. It belonged to James and Abby Gibbons.

"It's a living, standing symbol of the fact that New York City as part of this feature of the anti-slavery struggle," Foner said.

Foner describes the Gibbons as radical Quakers and courageous, saying they offered temporary shelter those considered fugitive slaves. The Gibbons and their home were so well known for abolitionist activity that an angry mob attacked during the Draft Riots in 1863.

A LaColombe coffee shop at 36 Lispenard Street in Tribeca stands where David Ruggles' home once stood. Today, only a plaque reminds us history happened there.

Ruggles, a free Black man who moved to New York City in the 1820s was a writer, an editor, owner of a newspaper and a staunch abolitionist.

"Here was this man, attempting to really push the envelope of democracy and make sure that people could have a fresh start, find a job, find a home," Kanakamedala said.

His home on the Underground Railroad offered safe passage to more than 600 people. One of those was Frederick Bailey, who later became known as prominent activist and author Frederick Douglass.

In a manuscript, Douglass wrote, "I became relieved from it by the humane hand of David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness and perseverance I shall never forget."

Most people using the Underground Railroad didn't stop in New York City, but traveled on through to Albany and up to Canada, the only place at the time they could truly be free.

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