Podcast: A stop on the Underground Railroad






Melissa:    00:00    Hello, this is Melissa Hale-Spencer, the editor of the Altamont Enterprise and we are recording this podcast in a stunning, stunning row house in Albany and Arbor Hill. It's 194 Livingston Avenue and you can feel the history here. This was the home of Harry and Stephen Myers who were active in the underground railroad and the reason we're here is because we're going to be talking this morning with Mary Liz and Paul Stewart who are the founders of the underground railroad history project. And thank you so much for having us.

Mary Liz:    00:47    Thank you for being here.

Melissa:    00:48    And what I would love to do is just hear sort of from the beginning how this project came to like I knew Mary Stewart because she was a fifth grade teacher at Berne-Knox-Westerlo and I went to her classroom probably 20 years ago and she was teaching children about the underground railroad. They were on the edge of their seats raising their hands.  Very excited. And here we are now. So what happened in between?

Mary Liz:    01:16    Oh Gosh. So many things. Let's see if I could give a thumbnail sketch. I'm following the, um, my exiting of the classroom at Berne-Knox-Westerlo I decided that it was time to put my full energies into working on the underground railroad history project and helping to bring the history forward to figure out ways to engage the local community with this very inspiring and very different story of underground railroad activism. And while I was doing that, Paul Stewart was working as a volunteer journalist for a local community newspaper called the South End Scene and he as well was interested in bringing forward more documented information about local underground railroad activists. And so we thought, well, maybe it's time to have a personal research project. And the initial idea was that, you know, we'd find what we needed, we'd mark all those, those houses that had relevance to this history and then our life would go on and boy, we were never so wrong.

Melissa:    02:30    So this has evolved into actually buying a physical home for your project. And just tell us a little about this. There's a marker out front. And I was thrilled to learn, I hadn't known, that Stephen Meyer was a newspaper editor. And tell us a little about his paper and who he was.

Paul:    02:48    Myers was a person who was born in the, in the context of New York as a slave state. He, uh, uh, an African American man. He grew up in the capital region. Um, as he got older, he began working as a steam boat steward and as a seller of groceries, a variety of other tasks, but he was very interested in education. And so as one of the ways to help people in the community get education and sustain education, he was very interested in newspapers. And so he created a newspaper called the elevator, which was an initial effort at a newspaper. But then later on he collaborated with a couple of other fellows and creating something called the Northern Star and Freeman's advocate. So throughout his life he did things with newspapers and newsletters. So there's, this was something that was very, very important to him. After about 18, 31, he, well in 1831, he was assisting several people who had a escaped from enslavement and were making their way north or perhaps on to Canada and, so ever since 1831, he started helping people and he did this more and more and eventually he became the main point person for the underground railroad in the capital region. And what's neat about his story, unlike a lot of other stories, we hear about things that might have been involved in the underground railroad. He actually left a pretty good paper trail. Not as perfect as we might like, but there are letters, there are copies of the newspaper that he was involved in that survived. He has mentioned many times in the local press and many prominent people mentioned him in their biographies or their memoirs about this period. So he's a person that has a bit of a paper trail and, and so he lived in a lot of different places. He and his wife in the capital region in Albany particularly, but I'm the only building that seems to have survived where he was active in the underground railroad. Is this one at one 94 Livingston Avenue

Mary Liz:    05:11    I'd like to add as well. I think it's important to know that Stephen Myers was born, enslaved in New York state and one of the features that we tend to get excited about is that having been a man enslaved in New York state, uh, and then being manumitted or given his legal freedom around 1818, we're able to follow his story post emancipation so we can learn about how he lived out his life, which many times is a factor in a sort of a factor that we don't know about. Many people who did escape enslavement. We arrive at a point where we learn about their escaping and then there's really not much to follow the of their lives through. So in this case, we have these elements of Stephen Myers story after he was a monument it. And it helps us to better understand some of the real stories and the the real life experiences of are abolitionists

Melissa:    06:13    And also it's good to let people realize there was slavery in New York because so often northerners think of it is a southern problem as opposed to something that was throughout the country at the time and the specific page of the Northern Star that you've chosen to put on a plaque out front.  It just is chilling. They're two huge events that he's writing about as they happen. The Supreme Court decision between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which was so horrible. The situation that says across the ocean in England. So you feel like just reading that one page kind of grasped some of the major issues.

Mary Liz:    07:01    We also found that of New York state, again, as you were you reminding us so often doesn't get included in the story about the institution of slavery in this country. A New York state, when it abolished the institution of slavery within its borders, it was 1827, so New York was second to the last of the northern states to abolish the institution of slavery. Records indicate as many as 10,000 people were set free and then as well, there were still laws on the books that protected the enslavers and slave relationship for up to nine months for people who came into New York state for various purposes from states that allowed slavery to be legally practiced.  So it as well there were state and federal laws that may providing any kind of assistance to freedom seekers criminal activity.

    07:51    So this was really a very risky time and even free people of color such as by this time in 1827, Stephen Myers have had, uh, received his freedom, but yet he and other African Americans were still at great risk for being apprehended and sent into enslavement based upon the way that the laws were written. So it really was a very, very risky time, much more so than we tend to speak about when we talk about New York's involvement in this period of American history.

Melissa:    08:20    So what does it do for your project to have this brick and mortar testament? Before we started, Paul showed me on his phone some pictures, if I'm assuming they're local kids dressed up in some period, um, clothing, just tell us a little bit about how you use this space

Paul:    08:44    Well the space itself as an organization, we certainly hold our meetings here or board meetings, committee meetings, have many people who come here  to who just want to see the place and we offer tours, for people to go through the building and see the various things. We have some exhibits on the second floor, that tie in with the history of the story of the underground railroad and other things in that time period such as the development of the Erie Canal that are relevant to understanding the period. We have some, some furniture from the period here in the building.  

Melissa:    08:44    I'm sitting on a beautiful empire sofa, covered in velvet, go ahead.

Paul:    08:44    Antique stove and some other items. And so we have a number of things that people can look at, touch and feel and experience a kind of put their head in the mode of being in that place, in that space where these events happen. We also have some, some posters in the building that, illustrate various aspects of the story, like the one over my shoulder here, which is a poster that was handed out by the vigilance committee of the underground railroad in the, in the mid 1850s, and it includes a lot of information on it about this place in this space. It says, uh, it offers the address of 198 lumber street and that is in fact where we are here at 194 Livingston Avenue, Lumber Street, having been renamed to Livingston after the civil war  

Melissa:    10:17    And that is signed by Stephen Myers as general agent and superintendent. Right. So another thing that you've done and I recently experienced and would love to talk about is you set up an annual conference and tell us how that came about and the function there.

Mary Liz:    10:35    Well, that all started because back at, uh, back in the beginning, let's see, the early two thousands, uh, Paul and I had been engaging in research up to that point and arrived at a point I said early 2000s where we thought it would be really nice if we could get together with other folks from other communities around the state who w we had heard were engaging in research similar to what we were doing and share our stories and see what else we could learn so we'd have a larger and more broader, more comprehensive understanding of this history and the story.  And we started looking around to see who might have a conference. Well, nobody did. So around our breakfast table staff meetings, we decided why don't we organize a conference? So we launched off and had the very first one in 2002 and we realized at that point that if we were going to continue the conference approach that we would need to be able to accept donations, look for grants and so on. So that's what it provided the impetus to form the non-profit educational organization, underground railroad history project. However, if I could go back to the conference for a moment. As I mentioned, our goal was to gather together people that had other stories to share related to this period in American history and not just share them among researchers, but to share them with the community because there was a foundational belief that the stories that were being uncovered, the voices of people who had been written out of history were sharing a story that we felt by rights belong to the community and so the very first conference really was intended to be an opportunity to bring together researchers and community members to share this very inspiring story. And I have to say we've just. Every year, the first year we did this, Paul and I were the only organizers and we were beat at the end of this one day and this one day conference and I remember at the end of the conference looking at each other as we were drawing things to a conclusion. I put down the microphone I was holding and I said to Paul, do we really need to ask if we need to do this again? And Paul said affirmatively, yes we do. So up came the microphone, asked everybody in attendance if we needed to do this again, and the overwhelming response was yes. So here we are, 17 conferences later every year and we've had a number of people from the community step up to the plate to participate in the planning and the organizing.

    13:13    So it has become a very, not only a signature piece for underground railroad history project, but it has become a venue for people to bring new research forward and now we have become much more deliberate, intaking a organizing or arranging the format of the conference so that it's not just about information sharing, but it's also looking at the relevance of contemporary issues and how they have their roots back in the institution of slavery in this country and what we can do to respond to the current civil rights issues that still are part and parcel of our life.

Melissa:    13:51    Your keynote speaker this year and our readers can read about it. You had to authors a black woman who describes herself as a daughter of slavery. Sharon Morgan, speaking with Tom DeWolfe who says he is a son of slave traders and they had made a real effort to understand slavery from both sides and wrote a book about a gathering at the table and spoke I think very powerfully at your conference and just before the podcast Mary Liz was telling me a story about throwing a desk and I hope you will repeat it because what that did, the the keynote speakers, just at this recent conference, with give people a sense that we should be doing something not just reading about history because those forces from history are still with us.  So just tell us a little about that story.

Mary Liz:    14:53    Well, I'm long years ago, my goodness. Oh golly. I'm trying to think time-wise. It was at least over a decade ago, I was reading a magazine article that was in a magazine still being published today called rethinking schools and rethinking schools magazine provided some alternative interpretations of various things related to the topic of education. And so this one particular article involved an educator who's a high school teacher, very long standing, high school teacher engaging in some very thought provoking conversations with students about contemporary civil rights issues and the roots of the, uh, the issues themselves. And so the, the analysis was deep and broad and the students were really getting very excited but also getting very angry. And she, she relayed in her article, all of a sudden one of the students was so filled with rage. The only thing he could do was stand up and throw a desk in the classroom.

    15:51    And what it did for her was, it certainly shook her up, but it also helped her to realize that she wasn't doing with their students what they so desperately needed, which was to take the next step and say, what can we do about these injustices? How can we respond? And for me that was a very personally moving engagement with an idea that I hadn't thought too much about. And that has really become that, that idea of what do we do now? We have analysis, we have new information, what do we do with it now in order to try to make this world a more just and equitable place for all of us?

Melissa:    16:31    So what do we do and how does your organization help us figure that out?

Paul:    16:40    Well, part of what we do through our organization is to try to help people come to terms with the past, to understand it, we talk about slavery and the relationship with so many of our institutions today, having been based in the work of enslaved people.  We also try to help people to understand that they have a part in the process that they can make changes in our society, that they need to be affirmative about it and step forward. And I think that in the context of what we do in terms of exploring the story of the underground railroad, we, we engage people and we help them to, to look for those places where they can make change.

Mary Liz:    17:18    I'd also like to add to that what we found with Paul and I found in our research was that certainly are underground railroad activists, the majority of whom were African American and as Stephen Myers case, he was enslaved other abolitionists for born free. But as they worked together collectively, they're very obviously at the top of their list of concerns and strategizing was what to do to abolish the institution of slavery. And second on their list would have been what do we need to do to meet the of freedom seekers who were coming into the community.  We have a list of 50 who came to the Stephen and Harriet Myers residence. So clearly a very definite need to be addressed by our abolitionist. But then for our black abolitionists, they also took another step and that was to decide on ways in which they could respond to the prejudice and discrimination that was part and parcel of their lived experience. So when it came to equity in housing voting rights, jobs, you know, these men were working together locally but then also working together in their network of African Americans around the country on strategies to ensure that, or to challenge the, uh, you know, the prejudice and the discriminatory practices that they were engaged. They were encountering.

Melissa:    18:46    We still have discriminatory practices today. Absolutely. And I don't know if this is too personal of a question, but it occurred to me as I was listening to Sharon Morgan talk about as a black person, how she was wary of white people. And I just wonder listeners, don't know this, but Mary Liz Stewart is white and Paul Stewart is black. And I just wonder in your own relationship at this is become something that you've worked through as kind of a model for the rest of us

Paul:    19:20    I think both of us came from a background where we were trying to honestly confront the issues that were, that society struggles with and confront them for ourselves. And I think that we both made resolution in our own lives, of openness and being genuine in our encounter with each other. And so that's been a great for us. We certainly want to carry that ball down the field in relation to other people as well. Um, and so in, in part this story of the underground railroad symbolizes that for us and is also a vehicle for bringing that kind of reconciliation to broader, broader world.

Melissa:    20:08    I love that answer. I know Paul has to get back to his real job, but just tell us a little about the community loan fund, which is where you work.

Paul:    20:20    So the community loan fund is a non-profit organization that's been around since 1985 and the idea is bringing together, um, people who want to invest locally, uh, and they, they invest their money in the loan fund. Um, the loan fund has a loan pool, so people a loan to the loan pool, you know, individuals and institutions, the community. And then that money is loaned out to a non-profit organizations that have a return to the community and to micro enterprise businesses into low income home owners who, um, uh, may have some issue with their home, you know, maybe a furnace that needs to be replaced or, or windows or some other feature that threatens their home ownership. So, we make affordable capital available to those markets and um, you know, basically it's, it's trying to, to invest locally and, and use those dollars, for the advancement of the community to building up the community.

Melissa:    21:28    Do either of you have any closing thoughts? We quickly run through our time.

Paul:    21:32    We didn't talk much about the physicality of the building here. One of the things that is special about this location is that although there are many places people say, oh, this, this place had something to do with the underground railroad or that place had something to do. The underground railroad. This place is one of the best documented places in connection with the underground railroad. Um, you know, we have the vigilance committee flyer, which I mentioned before, which specifically identifies that the vigilance committee, the underground railroad met, uh, at 194 Livingston Avenue, excuse me, at 198 Lumber Street, which is 194 Livingston Avenue. Uh, we also have documentation of that have 50 people who pass through New York City were referred to a string of places of which this is one, um, and uh, on their journey to, to Canada.

    22:20    So, um, uh, and there are many other features about the story that, that are, that are, that add to the documentation that underlie then undergird it. So, then the other thing about this, this place of course, when we first came to this building, the building was under threat of a, I think within 10 years it would have been a pile of bricks. There was a wall collapsing in the basement. There was a crack in the east wall, a bulge in a hole. The chimneys had been taken off. The gutter system had failed and was largely absent. And on the backside of the building, water had been running down the building. And the rear wall was sagging, uh, and so, uh, all of these issues and a crack in the east wall too, and it was I think the basement collapsing.

    23:06    So all of these things have been addressed. The windows had been replaced. Um, the, the, uh, the, the gutter system has been put back, chimney's been put back on, uh, the, uh, the wall in the back has been re brick and mortar in places where the mortar had been washed out, uh, and the underpinnings of the wall strengthened so and many other features fixed. Um, so the building is in great shape now in terms of going forward, there's still some issues on the inside that we have to deal with, but, but we're working on it, uh, and, and still working on the restoration.

Melissa:    23:47    Is there anything people should know if they want to be involved in this, or contribute?  And when, when are you open? If people want to come see?

Mary Liz:    23:50    Probably the, a place to start would be to mention the underground railroad history project website, which is w, w, w dot underground railroad history.org. There is a lot of information on that website to answer questions, but also if people would simply like to call us, we're more than happy to be at the other end of a phone at five, one eight for three to four, four, three, two. And for those who like facebook, there is a very robust facebook page which is also an excellent source of information, but also the, uh, frequent goings on of things happening at the Myers residence and elsewhere. The other thing probably to mention is that I'm the stephen and Harriet Myers residence is one of the initiatives of underground railroad history project. We do have other things that we do, one of which is that Paul and I frequently go out to the public to speak to groups of, you know, various sizes and ages and whatever.

    24:42    So if anyone's interested, give us a call. We can talk further about possibilities for speaking to groups of off what would be off site for us off-site from the Myers residence. We have a summer, a teen program that we hold every year. Now. This is year eight. We're entering into um, and again, uh, very uh, productive, changing experience for the teens who engaged with us. So those are something that we do have again, some other programs which are highlighted on the calendar page of the underground railroad history project website and I would encourage people to check out that page. There's some very different programming opportunities that we like to arrange with the, with the community. And the other thing I would mention too is that, um, there is always the opportunity for those who are interested to step up to the plate, to volunteer with the organization, to become members, to become donors.

    25:38    You know, there is always the need for continued funding to both sustain what's going on and to expand the outreach that we've started and try to continue over the years. And we certainly are very happy to talk with people about what those various active engagement opportunities could look like for them if interested. So when we're open, we are open to the public open hours of routinely 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM, Monday through Friday and Saturdays 12 to four. But we can make ourselves available at other times if you need or interest in coming to the Myers residence.

Melissa:    26:16    Well thank you and thank you for keeping this piece history, bringing it to life really, it's great.

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