30 September 2005 – 10 February 2006
  Bird Library, 6th floor

Viewing Hours: Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


During the decades-long struggle to abolish slavery, thousands of African Americans risked their lives to escape from their bitter bondage in the South to seek freedom in the northern states, or beyond in Canada. One by one or in small groups, slaves were aided in their perilous journeys by a clandestine network of fellow African Americans and sympathetic whites that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

Syracuse served as an important station along this freedom trail because of its central location on the Erie Canal and its associated waterways and travel routes. Central New York was also home to many of the most outspoken and defiant opponents of slavery. Jermain Loguen, himself a refugee from slavery, publicized the address of his home at East Genesee and Pine streets as a shelter. He sought and obtained support for his efforts from local abolitionists and reformers, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage and Samuel J. May. Gerrit Smith, from nearby Peterboro, applied his considerable wealth and influence to advancing antislavery activities in Syracuse through public debate, published tracts, direct aid, and daring acts of civil disobedience.

The passage by Congress in September 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Law—which made interfering with the slaveowner’s right to recover his “property” a federal crime with severe penalties—virtually guaranteed that dramatic conflicts would arise between those who sought to end slavery and those who tolerated the compromises that allowed it to continue. Resistance and conflict had already been brewing for some time in Syracuse, as demonstrated by the case of Harriet Powell in 1839 and others, prompting Secretary of State Daniel Webster in May 1851 to brand the city a “laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason.”

Webster’s characterization was apt. Within a few months, a large crowd would storm a municipal jail to free a fugitive slave who had been apprehended by means of the controversial law. The famous “Jerry Rescue” became a potent symbol and rallying cry for Gerrit Smith the following year when he was elected to Congress and for the abolitionist movement in this region.

This exhibition organized by Syracuse University Libraries vividly documents the flourishing antislavery activism in Syracuse and the surrounding communities during the period between the 1830s and the 1850s. We have gathered original artifacts housed in the library’s Special Collections Research Center along with items on loan from the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Madison County Historical Society, and the Onondaga Historical Association.

The exhibition is presented in conjunction with this year’s Syracuse Symposium and its theme of “borders.” We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Kaleidoscope Project, a diversity initiative between the Divisions of Undergraduate Studies and Student Affairs to broaden the understanding of diversity and promote healthy dialogue about related issues at Syracuse University. Additional funding has been provided by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Warren and Edith Day Fund of Syracuse University Libraries.

On 2 October 1851, the day after the Jerry Rescue, Gerrit Smith proposed the following resolution condemning Daniel Webster for his outspoken support of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and it was adopted at the Liberty Party convention:

Whereas, Daniel Webster, That base and infamous enemy of the human race, did in a speech of which he delivered himself, in Syracuse last Spring, exultingly and insultingly predict that fugitive slaves would yet be taken away from Syracuse and even from anti-slavery conventions in Syracuse, and whereas the attempt to fulfill this prediction was delayed until the first day of October, 1851, when the Liberty party of the State of New York were holding their annual convention in Syracuse; and whereas the attempt was defeated by the mighty uprising of 2,500 brave men, before whom the half-dozen kidnappers were “as tow,” therefore,

Resolved, That we rejoice that the City of Syracuse—the anti-slavery city of Syracuse—the city of anti-slavery conventions, our beloved and glorious city of Syracuse—still remains undisgraced by the fulfillment of the satanic prediction of the satanic Daniel Webster.