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Underground Railroad Active in WNY

Hist.-Soc-024By Mary Fox

The July meeting of the Ellicottville Historical Society featured a presentation by Della Moore, director of the African American Center for Cultural Development in Olean.

Moore told the stories of three slave women who traveled the “Underground Railroad.”

“All three women had the courage to say, ‘You don’t own me,’” said Moore. “They had a great reason to say that and act on it. The Underground Railroad was our first Civil Rights Movement.”

“Underground Railroad” is the term used for the system by which slaves moved from Southern plantations to their freedom in the North.

“Stations” were homes that took in the runaway slaves and hid them until they could safely be moved to the next station. We know very little detail about the immense system of routes, stations and safe houses of the Underground Railroad.

Only the “conductors” knew where they were coming from and where the next stop would be. Conductors risked their own lives to help the slaves to freedom.

Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pen name of Linda Brent, was a slave woman who wrote her autobiography called “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”

“I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the conditions of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I have suffered and most of them far worse,” she wrote. “Only by experience can anyone realize how deep and dark and foul is that pit of abominations.”

Sarah Johnson was a runaway slave from a plantation in Baltimore who made it on her own to Olean, N.Y. She was befriended by a doctor who taught her to be a midwife.  She was the first black woman to be deeded a house.

Margaret Garner, her four children, husband, mother and father escaped to Kentucky and crossed the frozen Ohio River to a safe house on the Cincinnati side where bounty hunters caught up with them. Garner knew the consequences of going back south and defied the system by killing one of her children, saving it from going back.

Certain homes in Ellicottville, it is rumored, may have participated as “stops” along the trail giving the runaway slaves food, a place to hide, clothing,  help to the next safe house and ultimately to Buffalo and over the river to Canada.

In Ellicottville, a 6-year-old black boy was found by Lewis Coit, a well-to-do farmer on Poverty Hill while he was out one day. The boy had been separated from his family on their way from Syracuse to Canada. (They were later reunited.)

“What is your name?” asked Coit.

The child answered, “Abram.”

“Would you like to come home with me?” Coit asked.

The boy answered “maybe,” and so the boy’s name became “Abe Maybee.” Abe grew up with the 12 Coit children. In December 1864, when he was 21, he went off to the Civil War.  At the end of the war, he returned to Ellicottville where he became a barber and a well-respected citizen.

Maybee loved to play the banjo, which can be seen at the Ellicottville Historical Museum along with other memorabilia and displays on the Civil War and the Underground Railway.

Moore will be portraying Abram Maybee’s wife, Martha, Saturday, July 20 on the Jefferson Street Cemetery Tours, along with several other portrayers representing their ancestors. Tours will be held at 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the museum on the corner of Washington and Jefferson streets. A tour of St. John’s Episcopal Church is included.

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