Almost 200 years ago, Utica was home to a passionate abolitionist community determined to rid the young nation of slavery. Now a local group is trying to remind the public of the significance of the city’s role in the anti-slavery movement.
Nearly 60 people came out recently on a typically chilly, winter morning to walk street after downtown Utica street, each of which had a story to tell from the days of the underground railroad.
“From the Hayden Building on Baggs Square, where fugitive slaves were rescued, to Mechanics Hall, where freed slave Solomon Northup spoke, Utica has many sites that shout the history of the abolitionist movement,” Jan DeAmicis said in a statement.
“This was the beginning of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society,” DaAmicis said.
This inaugural walk-along, what is known among its organizers as “The Freedom Trail,” was set up by DeAmicis, a professor of sociology at Utica College. Along with a colleague, he mapped a route around downtown Utica to highlight the city’s significant role in the fight against slavery.
For some on the tour, like Linda Burns, the walk was a lesson in local history.
“I feel very proud that our city was a part of it, and would like to learn more,” Burns said.
For others, the event was particularly personal. Pearl Thomas came to Utica from the south in the mid-50’s, because of her mother’s fear of anti-black sentiment.
“We should never forget about the past. We really try to teach our children, but many times, they don’t want to hear it because it sounds so negative,” Thomas said. “They don’t understand.”
DeAmicis says at one time, only New York and Boston had more than the three anti-slavery newspapers found in Utica.
“Not only was this a literate population, but there was an industry if you will, of cranking out anti-slavery newspapers, anti-slavery pamphlets and brochures, anti-slavery lecturers that went all around the area,” DeAmicis said.
DeAmicis and his colleague Mary Hayes Gordon are trying to raise funds to make this a permanent, self-guided walking tour. Beyond putting up plaques and donating memorabilia to museums, DeAmicis hopes for the day when Utica’s abolitionist past is highlighted in the way history has been in other cities.
“Syracuse has developed their Underground Railroad tour with some very nice artistic work, some good signage, and when Mary and I walked that Syracuse tour, we said, ‘Well, we can do that. In fact, we have more than they do,’” DeAmicis said.
The idea has caught the attention of some in the city government for economic reasons. Andy Brindisi is with the Urban Renewal department.
“Not only is it important from a historic perspective, but it’s also important because of the tourism dollars that it could bring to the county,” Brindisi said.
“And for this topic and in this region, people will come,” says Utica college professor of history Christopher Fobare in a statement.
“People care a great deal about local history around here,” Fobare said. “People who generally say, ‘eh, I’m not really that concerned with history or I’m not that into history,’ will then speak very passionately about local history.”
As an added benefit, the trail could also help an area that has seen some new restaurants and loft apartments, but hasn’t really achieved a critical mass of development.
A walking tour of the past perhaps is bringing new life to an old part of town.
Jon Kealy is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College at www.nyrp-uc.org