Preserving New York’s Ties to the Underground Railroad


A man of ambition as well as humanity, Harris built a new refinery on the Hudson at 160th Street, down the hill from the little villa, along with a wharf. He also bought a steamboat, which ferried passengers from Lower Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, with a stop at the wharf on 158th Street. Establishing a passenger line to compete with the Hudson River Railroad was a dicey proposition. But Harris’s true motive was probably to create a new Underground Railroad stop, Mr. Spady surmised in his book, “The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot.”

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 permitted slave-hunters to capture alleged escaped slaves without due process, making the city far more dangerous for African-Americans. In the face of these new threats to fugitives, Mr. Spady wrote, the “refinery and steamboat could have extended Harris’s effort to move them farther up the river on their journey to freedom in Canada.”

Beyond this possible infrastructure of liberty, Mr. Amodio’s report establishes that Harris and Newhouse were at the heart of a largely forgotten abolitionist enclave in northern Manhattan. In 1854, the pair co-founded the Washington Heights Congregational Church, which took an unwavering antislavery stance. Harris personally introduced as speakers two formerly enslaved African-American abolitionists, and a celebration of the sanctuary drew a delegate from Plymouth Church, an Underground Railroad hub now in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District.

“Guys like Harris were certainly bucking the tide, they were certainly not in the mainstream at all of political and racial thinking in New York City,” Eric Foner, the author of “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” said in an interview. “The city was tied in completely economically to the slave South. The New York merchants were the ones who transported southern cotton and controlled the cotton trade across to England.”

New York companies also insured southern slave-owners against the death of their human chattel, while the city’s banks lent money for the purchase of slaves and southern plantation land. Brooks Brothers and other city garment companies made money clothing enslaved African-Americans. In addition, New York had a pro-southern municipal government.

Kate Lemos McHale, director of research for the landmarks commission, was impressed with the report on the Harris-Newhouse Home, but not with the villa’s condition.

“As a result of the extensive modifications that have been made to the house and its architectural details, it does not appear to retain the integrity necessary for consideration as an individual landmark,” she wrote in response. “The alterations include the removal of the octagonal cupola and wraparound porch along with their decorative trim, replacement of windows and doors and removal of their enframements, and the addition of the permastone veneer.”



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