Orleans County favored abolition long before Civil War
Orleans welcomed Frederick Douglass, Underground Railroad and freed slaves
ALBION – Orleans County was a stronghold for the abolition movement, as churches broke free from more conservative congregations to press freedom for slaves.
Schools urged students to favor the cause, and even welcomed a black student at the Albion Academy, decades before the Civil War.
Residents served as conductors on the Underground Railroad and they refused to follow the Fugitive Slave Act, defying the law that said runaway slaves needed to be returned to their owners.
Dee Robinson, the Gaines town historian, discussed the county’s anti-slavery leanings during a history talk today at Hoag Library.
“Albion schools have always been integrated,” Robinson said.
The Albion Academy used to stand on the East and West Academy Street block. The building was knocked down for a bigger Grammar School, which is now used as senior citizen apartments and the Meals on Wheels program.
When it was the Albion Academy, the school was part of the Underground Railroad, Robinson said. The school superintendent would keep blacks in a back room and would deliver them food during the day through a back staircase. At night, they would move to another stop on the Underground Railroad, perhaps up to Ridge Road at a cobblestone house owned by a local judge. That house still stands on the south side of Route 104, west of Route 98.
Robinson, the Gaines town historian, has written a book, Historical Amnesia, about the contributions of local women in Orleans County back in the 1800s. She has discovered facts about pioneer black residents and the community’s embrace of the abolition movement.
“There is still a lot of research to do on this subject in Orleans County,” Robinson told a group at her monthly “Tea with Dee” historical lecture at Hoag Library. “You have to separate the folklore from the fact.”
She combed through old newspapers, old Census records and copies of Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper based in Rochester for some of her findings on early black history in Orleans County.
One black freed slave left an enduring mark on Orleans County and later in Lansing, Mich., where he was that community’s first black resident.
James Little was born in approximately 1792. He was bought and sold several times, including one sale for $65. Little was given to Joseph Hart of Albion as part of his wife’s dowry. Hart would free Little. When he was about 20, Little took classes at the Albion Academy at Hart’s urging.
When Hart died in 1839, he left 80 acres to Little in Lansing, Mich. Little moved there in 1847 and farmed with his wife. The couple had no children.
Little was active in church and in many social causes, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Industrial Aid Society. “Father Little,” as he was known in Lansing, was well regarded in black and white circles, and among the poor and more well to do.
“He was a welcome guest in the homes of many of the wealthiest, most cultured people,” according to a historical account of Little published on Jan. 8, 1961 by The State Journal in Lansing. “He was greeted lovingly in the humble homes of poverty, and no one, no matter how low or godless or profane, ever gave him taunt or insult or ill-treatment.”
Little died on March 10, 1884 at about age 90. The pallbearers at his funeral included six people, three black and three white.
One of the leading orators and writers for the abolition cause often visited Orleans County. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became a famed orator and writer, arguing the abolitionist cause in the 1840s and 1850s. He travelled to the country’s biggest cities, trying to inspire the masses to talk up the cause.
Douglass also spent a lot of time in Orleans County. Twice he made extended visits in Orleans County, going from church to church and meeting hall to meeting hall. He wrote about those experiences in The North Star, the newspaper he owned in Rochester that pressed an anti-slavery message.
In 1849, he was in the Orleans County area for about three weeks. He first spoke at the Universalist Church in Clarendon on March 19 “to a small but attentive audience,” according to his account in the April 20, 1849 issue of The North Star.
He then spoke at South Barre at a schoolhouse on March 20, and then at Pine Hill in Barre the following day and then in Oakfield. Douglass expresses frustration in “protracted” church meetings that often didn’t take up social issues of the day.
“They are so busy in trying to save that invisible and undefined part of man called the soul, that they see his body, the image of God, trampled in the dust unheeded,” Douglass wrote.
Robinson shared Douglass’s accounts of his Orleans County visits. He was back in South Barre on March 22 and March 23. He spoke in Albion on March 24 and then at Eagle Harbor on March 25. “The streets were so muddy that the people could only get to the meeting house in wagons,” Douglass said.
He went to West Gaines the following day but there had been no arrangements made for a meeting. On the March 27-28, he gave lectures in Johnson’s Creek, first at the school house and then at a church.
He spoke to small crowds in Lockport on March 29-30, and then spoke in Ridgeway on March 31 at the Universalist Church. He then went to Lyndonville the next two days on April 1-2. Douglass wrote he was feeling feverish the second day in Lyndonville, but felt his strength renewed by children singing anti-slavery songs, such as “I am an abolitionist , I glory in the name.”
Douglas then spoke in Medina at the United Methodist Church on April 3, in Gaines, West Gaines and Albion on April 5, and at Eagle Harbor on April 7.
“The audience was quite disorderly, being in part made up of some boatmen, whose highest idea of manliness seemed to be disturbance,” Douglass wrote.
He ended that speaking tour of Orleans County on April 8, speaking to a large crowd at the Baptist church in Holley.
Douglass was back in Orleans County in 1855, speaking at several locations, including West Kendall, Carlton, The Two Bridges, Yates Center, Countyline Corners, Shelby Center, Eagle Harbor, Gaines, Clarendon and other spots.
“He had a heavy schedule in Orleans County,” Robinson said.
The county showed its support for abolition before Douglass visited. In 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia. Three years later a branch opened in Orleans County, with chapters started in Murray and Knowlesville in 1837.
Robinson noted some churches were so adamant in pushing for abolition they broke from more conservative congregations. The Free Methodist Church in Albion was the first Free Methodist church in the world, founded partly on a pro-abolition platform. The Free Congregational Church in Gaines also splintered from the Congregational Church.
Robinson found reports of a meeting in 1850 at the Orleans County Courthouse in Albion. Congress had just passed the Fugitive Slave Act, but the local residents at the meeting issued an opinion on how the law should be enforced locally.
“They agreed to disregard the law,” Robinson said.