New York City
On November 20, 1835, the New York Committee of Vigilance met officially for the first time after meeting informally for about a year. Its early leader was its secretary, David Ruggles, a bookstore owner, journalist, and community activist.
It had originated to protect blacks who were being threatened by slavecatchers operating in the New York City area. The city had become a haven for runaway slaves, many of whom escaped aboard ships out of the southern ports in Virginia, and North and South Carolina. Other early important members included Charles Ray, William Johnston, Samuel Cornish, and Rev. Theodore Wright. Working along with them was long-time Quaker conductor, Isaac Hopper, who had moved from Philadelphia and opened an antislavery bookstore, but who was not an official member.
Isaac T. Hopper
Influential New York City abolitionist Lewis Tappan, whose brother Arthur helped finance the Committee, later wrote that it was the model upon which all later Underground Railroad organizations would be organized.
During the late 1830s, a dispute over finances concerning the Committee arose between Cornish, publisher of the Colored American, and Ruggles. It eventually caused Ruggles to resign, in part though because of failing health.* And the leadership of the Committee passed on to Charles Ray.
* For a good account of Ruggles' life and the early years of the Committee, see Graham Hodges recent biography, David Ruggles.
In a biography published by his family, Ray is quoted as saying that “New York was a kind of receiving depot, whence we forwarded to Albany, Troy, sometimes to New Bedford and Boston, and occasionally . . . Long Island . . . . When we had parties to forward from here, we would alternate in sending between Albany and Troy, and when we had a large party we would divide between the two cities. We had on one occasion, a party of twenty-eight persons of all ages . . . . We destined them for Canada. I secured passage for them in a barge, and Mr. Wright and myself spent the day in providing food, and personally saw them off on the barge. I then took the regular passenger boat . . . . Arriving in the morning, I reported to the Committee at Albany, and then returned to Troy and gave Brother Garnet notice, and he and I spent the day in visiting friends of the cause there, to raise money to help the party through to Toronto, Canada, via Oswego. We succeeded . . . to send them all the way from here with safety.”
Above is the former home of black abolitionist, Rev. Theodore Wright, the pastor of Shiloh Church and mentor of Henry Highland Garnet, in the Soho District of Manhattan
Wright, who had become the Committee's president, died in 1846. By this time, the Committee had developed connections with the Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Boston Vigilance Committees. A new more integrated Committee and statewide committee formed after Wright's death. Isaac Hopper was the first president of the New York State Vigilance Committee, and Gerrit Smith was named president the next year, and continued thereafter. Others who were active in this later period were restauranteur, George T. Downing, and Colored Seamen's Home proprietor, William Powell.
Colored Seamen's Home, 330 Pearl St., New York City
By 1853, according to various published reports, the Committee had assisted as many as 2,700 individuals, and it is known to have continued to operate until at least 1860. Another New York City operation run by journalist Sidney Howard Gay and Lewis Napoleon was aiding about 100 fugitive slaves a year during the mid-1850s.
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