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 sixty people came out recently on a typically chilly winter morning to walk downtown Utica streets, 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, said Jan DeAmicis, a professor of sociology at Utica College.
“This was the beginning of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society,” DeAmicis said.
This inaugural walk along what is known among its organizers as the Freedom Trail, was set up by DeAmicis. 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’m very proud that our city was part of it,” Burns said. “I want to learn more.”
For others, the event was particularly personal. Pearl Thomas came to Utica from the South in the mid-1950s, because of her mother’s fear of anti-black sentiment.
"We should never forget about the past,” Thomas said. “We really try to teach our children, but many times, they don’t want to hear it because it sounds so negative. They don’t understand.”
DeAmicis said at one point 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 Utica’s abolitionist past is highlighted the way history has been in other cities.
"Syracuse has developed their Underground Railroad tour with some very nice artistic work, some nice signage,” DeAmicis said. “And when Mary and I walked that Syracuse tour, we said, ‘Well we can do that. We have more than they do.’”
The idea has caught the attention of some in the city government, for economic reasons. Andy Brindisi of the Utica Urban Renewal Agency said the program could help the city in multiple ways.
"Not only is it important from a historic perspective, but it’s also important because of the tourism dollars it can bring to the county,” Brindisi said.
And for this topic and in this region, people will come, said Utica College professor of history Christopher Fobare.
“People care a great deal about local history around here,” Fobare said. “People who generally say, ‘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 open, but hasn’t really achieved a critical mass of development.
Jon Kealy reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.