February 29, 2016
Underground Railroad’s area ties traced
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Jeff Ludwig, director of education at the Seward House Museum, discusses the underground railroad in central New York Saturday at the Central New York Living History Museum. Ludwig’s talk centered on William Seward, a lawyer who lived in Auburn in the 19th century and became governor of New York and Secretary of State in President Abraham Lincoln’s administration.
CORTLANDVILLE — William Seward was more than a New York governor, more than an antislavery senator or Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state. He sheltered slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad that weaved through Cortland and Cayuga counties.
William Seward may not have had a direct link to Cortland County, but what he did in the name of the antislavery movement and for civil rights is something residents here can take pride in.
About 40 residents gathered Saturday afternoon in the auditorium of the Central New York Living History Museum to learn about William Seward, a19th century Auburn lawyer who went on to become governor of New York from 1834 to 1847 and secretary of state to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson from 1861 to 1869.
The lecture was given by Jeff Ludwig, public education director at the Seward House Historic Museum in Auburn, who talked about Seward’s life and how his home in Auburn became one of the most well known stops for those escaping the oppression of slavery.
Ludwig was introduced by Kevin Walsh, director of the Homeville Museum exhibit of the Living History Center, who said after the lecture while Seward was an Auburn resident, his story can still resonate in Cortland County.
“History actually transcends county lines or town lines,” Walsh said. “I think it’s important that we recognize that all of Central New York was ... a huge driver of history.”
The Underground Railroad was a network of people assisting between 40,000 and 100,000 people escaping slavery in the South.
“The Underground Railroad stretched from Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River into Canada consisting of residences, barns, stores, ... (and) warehouses,” he said. “Everyone in the chain offered protection and risked prosecution and jail, injury and even death.”
Passengers on the Underground Railroad would walk miles under the cover of darkness; the Seward home was among the last stops along what Ludwig described as possibly the most treacherous part of their journey.
“Our part of New York was the highway into Canada and freedom, which made it in many ways the most dangerous part,” he said. “It was here where bounty hunters and slave catchers were lying in wait very eager to claim a reward.”
The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal to “harbor or conceal such a fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person.” That did not deter Seward or his wife, Frances, a staunch abolitionist, from providing a safe haven in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The dining room and the kitchen of the Seward home were once in the basement until the family built an addition onto the house in the 1840s. The rooms remained and became one of the most popular stops on the Underground Railroad, Ludwig said.
The Sewards also received a great deal of help from Harriet Bogart, a free-born black woman and longtime paid servant of the family, and her husband, Nicholas, who helped connect people with the Sewards.
At the time, Seward was a U.S. senator representing New York and Ludwig talked about how he not only delivered passionate speeches calling for an end to slavery and better education for blacks and women, but backed up his rhetoric with action.
“He would be looking Southern colleagues in the face one day and then back at the home in Auburn during the off season, while slaves were coming through,” he said.
Cortland residents and museum members Bob and Shirley Randolph said they found Ludwig’s lecture informational and entertaining.
In addition to learning more about the role Central New York played in helping people find freedom, Bob Randolph was reminding them of the piece of that history in his family.
“I’ve got a daughter that lives in a house in Blodgett Mills that’s got part of the railroad,” Bob Randolp said. “I like the history. I try (not) to miss any of the programs they have. They’re great.”
“We were here for the Underground Railroad (talk) last year when they had it, but it’s a different perspective,” Shirley added. “I never knew Seward was a part of it. It’s amazing, the people that were involved in that underground system.”
After the talk, Ludwig quoted Seward saying, “It’s going to be generations before these evils caused in our community of slavery are eradicated.” Work remains to be done, but Ludwig said knowing the history is one step closer to making that happen.
“Just because the Civil War’s over doesn’t mean the same passion for righting historical wrongs and injustices is gone,” Ludwig said. “I was hoping ... to start a conversation and to get people thinking, to remind them of where we’ve been as we think about where we’re going.”
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