Douglass’s Next Stop: Freedom In New York City
By D. W. E. |
My destination, 339 West 29th Street, is in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. It seems like an ordinary address, but this is no ordinary place. When I arrived at my destination, to my shock, I didn’t feel as if I was standing in front of something so important to history. The house is covered in scaffolding and almost looks uninhabitable. Known as the Hopper-Gibbons House, this building was an important stop on the Underground Railroad network for escaped slaves during the 19th century. The scaffolding and big wooden billboards in front of the Hopper-Gibbons House make this historic building stand out; it is the only row home on the block under construction. The rest of the block is dotted with similar row homes of the same height and roughly the same architectural style, each having a beautiful brown brick façade.
Perhaps the most famous slave to escape to New York City using the Underground Railroad was Frederick Douglass. According to Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Douglass escaped to freedom on September 3, 1838 at the age of twenty-one. Landing first in Philadelphia, he soon found himself in New York. “I left my chains,” he wrote, “and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind” (978). Douglass arrived safely but was overwhelmed with many feelings as freedom was new to him after a life of servitude. He described his state of mind as similar to “one who had escaped a den of hungry lions.” (979). His new experience in the Northern city brought about excitement and fear, as he knew almost no one. He later received help from a Mr. Ruggles, who operated a reading room on 36 Lispenard Street in the Tribeca area of Manhattan. While in New York, Douglass was married to Anna Murray by the Rev. James W. Pennington. (Papson and Calarco 394). According to Douglass’s autobiography, Anna Murray was a free woman who worked as a domestic in Baltimore and had been a member of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society prior to moving to New York City to marry Douglass (980). After their, union Douglass and his new wife relocate to New Bedford Massachusetts, where he became a lecturer and famous abolitionist.
In the mid to late 1800’s, the Hopper-Gibbons house was owned by Quaker abolitionists James Gibbons and Abigail Hopper-Gibbons. As part of the Underground Railroad network, they used their home to provide housing for slaves who had escaped to the North for freedom. According to a New York Daily News article by Lauren Dimon and Leonard Green, the current building owner started building a penthouse suite on top of the landmark. His efforts to continue construction on the landmark building was blocked by the Landmark Preservation Commission.
In an interview with a current tenant of this historical building who was quite knowledgeable about the significance of the house to American history, I learned more about the Quaker abolitionists James Gibbons and Abigail Hopper-Gibbons. According to the tenant, James and Abigail had two daughters, and during the 1863 Draft Riots, one of the daughters was home alone and had to escape by running across the roof of the other row homes. She was running to escape a mob who blamed the Gibbons family’s abolitionism for their sons’ being drafted in the Civil War and dying. The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 occurred in response to new laws passed by Congress that required men between the ages of 20 and 45 to be drafted to aid the military effort of the Union Army in the Civil War. The riots lasted five days with a death toll of approximately 119 people.
The question remains: did Frederick Douglass, who escaped on the Underground Railroad, spend a night in the Hopper-Gibbons House? On this point, the historical record is unclear. According to a New York Daily News article, he did. But this idea is confirmed nowhere else. The likelihood of Douglass having stayed at the Hopper-Gibbons House, or at least having spent a few hours there, can, however, be defended. Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker abolitionist and father of Abigail Hopper-Gibbons, the owners of this historical house, belonged to the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an organization in which Douglass was also active (Papson and Calarco 437). Perhaps this connection of shared rhetoric, belief, and activism allowed their paths to cross.
Dimon, Laura, and Leonard Greene. “Activists Fight to Preserve Chelsea Underground Railroad Landmark.” NY Daily News. N.p., 21 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
Douglass, Frederick.”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave ,.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.Edited by Baym, Nina New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 924-88. Print.
Papson, Don, and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &,, 2015. Print.
Tenant. Personal interview by D.W.E. 26 September 2016.