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The Insider's Connection

Underground Railroad

Maritcha Lyons: Racial Equality Activism and Shaping the NYC Public School System

How did one woman’s lifelong fight for racial equality shape the New York City school system? How might growing up around activism inspire a young person to create change? How many people have heard the name Maritcha Remond Lyons? Maritcha Lyons was Albro and Mary Lyons‘ third child, born into a free black community in Lower Manhattan on May 23, 1848. Maritcha’s parents ran a sailors’ clothing store to cover their work as conductors on the Underground Railroad; the fight for freedom and racial justice underscored Maritcha’s entire childhood. Maritcha was ill a lot as a child, but she was always eager to get an education. Maritcha attended Manhattan’s Colored School #3. In the summer of 1863, 5 days of racial violence ensued. The Draft Riots, ultimately targeting free black New Yorkers, made the Lyons’ home on Vandewater Street one…

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January 13, 2020

Seneca Village: New York’s First Black Property Owning Community

Whose perspectives represent a city’s story? Who gets to shape the public perception and legacy of a city’s communities? Which voices are left out when land, architecture, and public space are changed by the government? In 1824, the odds were stacked against the formation of free black communities in New York City. New York finally abolished slavery in 1827 (one of the last northern states to do so) but free black New Yorkers would still face systemic barriers that made social advancement nearly impossible.  Even after free black men could get jobs and own property here, they were barred from most skill-based trades. They couldn’t vote unless they had over $250 worth of property, which very few did. Black institutions were attacked constantly, and fugitive slaves were vulnerable to capture. Most of New York City’s population was settled downtown.  Meanwhile,…

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December 4, 2019

Brooklyn’s Abolitionists on Duffield Street

Can gentrification change–and even erase–history? What kinds of buildings mobilize a community to dispute a city’s attempts at eminent domain? What stories do New York’s streets tell, and who controls those stories? The Fugitive Slave Act had just passed when Harriet and Thomas Truesdell moved into 227 Duffield Street in 1850. This set of laws, passed as an attempt to stop southern secession, incentivized citizens to assist authorities in capturing runaway slaves. It denied runaway slaves the right to trial by jury, and punished free citizens who attempted to aid in their escapes. But stronger restriction was met with stronger resistance. The Underground Railroad–a network of people and safe houses that assisted runaway slaves in their escapes to Northern states and Canada-reached its peak in the 1850s. It was getting increasingly difficult to be an abolitionist, but some of Brooklyn’s…

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September 16, 2019

Enslaved Woman Hiding in Plain Sight: A Story of Daring Escape

What did it take to escape from slavery? How was it possible? No matter how many accounts we gather about the creativity, courage, collaboration involved in escape, we know some pieces of the puzzle will always be missing. When we encounter these stories, we must remember that there are many more that we’ll never know. Ellen and Williams Craft were enslaved in separate households in Georgia. They got married, and shared the trauma of being separated from their families at a young age. Ellen and William did not have children while enslaved, fearing that they’d be taken away. William was allowed to keep a small fraction of the wages he earned as a cabinetmaker in a shop where his owner collected the rest of the money. He and Ellen planned to leave around Christmas, coming up with an elaborate plan….

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February 11, 2019

African American Heritage: The Businessman Who Set People Free

 How do the stories of buildings and people reveal secrets of the city’s history? How did New Yorkers get involved in the Underground Railroad? How is it possible that significant secrets to the history of New York hid for so long in plain sight? When you stand at the corner of Broad and Wall Street, you’re overwhelmed with iconic buildings: Federal Hall on the north side, the New York Stock Exchange across the street, Trinity Church on the west side of Broadway. It’s a vibrant intersection, rich with history. You could spend the day considering who has stood right where you’re standing. Where were they going? What were they talking about? What crises and triumphs might they have been facing? Visitors seldom stand on that corner and consider Downing’s Oyster House, a swanky restaurant that catered to New York’s elite between…

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February 4, 2019

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…

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January 18, 2019

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