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The Forgotten Liberator

What does it take for one person to oppose an international system as insidious and devastating as racism? On Martin Luther King Day, we consider the courage, risk, and profound effort involved in the fight for equality.

Martin Luther King challenged the system. He suffered devastating losses and celebrated remarkable victories, changing the course of American history during the Civil Rights Era. 120 years earlier in New York City, David Ruggles did the same thing.

New York abolished slavery in 1827, and a free black community slowly began to form in Manhattan. Enslaved people fled the south seeking freedom in New York, but it wasn’t that simple. Fugitive slaves and black New Yorkers could lose their freedom at any moment; southern enslavers flooded New York City, seeking fugitives and free blacks to sell into slavery. The threat of kidnapping and enslavement weighed heavily on thousands of people in New York. As David Ruggles witnessed this danger and fear, he took action and became a key figure in ensuring safety for fugitive slaves and free black New Yorkers.

David Ruggles was born free and well-educated in suburban Connecticut. In 1828, he moved to Manhattan at age 16 and opened a grocery store. As a teenager, Ruggles was pulled to the abolitionist cause and sought ways to get involved in the fight for equality. His education enabled him to write articles and essays, contributing to anti-slavery publications. He even sold and distributed these papers in his free time, broadening the reach of the abolitionist message. In 1834, he closed the grocery store and opened the country’s first African American-owned bookstore, and the city’s only abolitionist bookstore. Located on Lispenard Street, his business became the center of the Underground Railroad in New York.

His store featured anti-slavery publications like The Emancipator, The Liberator, and The Extinguisher. He was the writer, printer, and publisher of The Mirror of Liberty, the first journal edited by an African-American. He wrote articles and essays for many of the pamphlets and newspapers he published, he personally tended to fugitive slaves to ensure their safety and freedom; he was a vocal anti-slavery organizer and abolitionist, and he had a lot of enemies.

In fact, David Ruggles was one of the most hated activists of his time. David Ruggles’ store was burned down three times. He was nearly kidnapped and sold into slavery on two separate occasions. He was beaten in jail. There were several efforts to lynch him. He was in ill health by the time he was 34 years old.

And yet, Ruggles persisted. He advocated for self-defense and civil disobedience as means of achieving equality. David Ruggles founded the New York Committee of Vigilance in 1835, which won the right to trial by jury for fugitive slaves, protecting free blacks and sheltering more than 1,000 fugitives while educating enslaved laborers about their rights in New York. One of the many people protected by Ruggles’ tireless work was Frederick Douglass.

The resilience it took to be widely hated and opposed, and continuing to do what he knew was right, was one of the many traits Ruggles had in common with Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the reasons we are telling his story as our first blog post!

Ruggles died at the age of 39, leaving New York City—and the abolitionist movement here—forever changed. He did not live to see the end of slavery in America, but his work was imperative to the country’s shifting attitudes and the strength of the abolitionist movement. His courage, his relentless efforts towards the abolishment of slavery, and his passion for justice, changed the lives of thousands of people. The odds were stacked against him, yet he was not powerless. Neither are we. As you explore lower Manhattan, pause at 36 Lispenard Street and imagine Ruggles working, living, and shaping history on that very ground.

What is Ruggles’ legacy? Why have we—or haven’t we—heard his name before? How do businesses like Ruggles’ bookstore change communities, shape movements, and inspire change? What can we do today to challenge social injustice?

To learn more about New York’s involvement in Slavery and the Underground Railroad, take Inside Out’s walking tour.