This page has not been updated since 1998.

The artifacts were removed from the church building and are on permanent display at the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse. The building is currently being used as a restaurant. 

 

Wesleyan Methodist Church, Syracuse NY

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The Church

The Syracuse community played a prominent role in the abolition movement. As early as 1839 activists assisted in the well known escape of Harriet Powell who had came to Syracuse with a family of Mississippi slaveholders. The Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded by a group who seceded from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843 over the issue of slavery. The land was purchased in 1846 and the church was completed in 1847.

In addition to being a point of congregation for abolitionists, the church was active in fund raising and publishing. The building served as a safe haven for refugees from the South at an important transportation crossroads on the way to Canada. Recounting his involvement with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Luther Lee, the church's founding pastor and editor of the anti-slavery publication the True Wesleyan, states that in Syracuse "...I did the largest work of my life on the Under-ground Rail-road. I passed as many as thirty slaves through my hands in a month (Luther Lee 1882:331)".

If fugitive from slavery made it to Syracuse their prospects for freedom were great, but they were travel weary, often hungry, and uncertain of their future. Jermain Wesley Loguen, himself a refugee from slavery, reflected on his initial arrival in Syracuse:

"...there I stood a boy of 21 years of age (as near I know my age) the tempest howling over my head and my toes kissing the snow beneath my worn out shoes-with the assurance that I was at the end of my journey--knowing nobody-- and nobody knowing me or noticing me....I stood there the personification of helpless courage and finite hope. (Jermain W. Loguen to Frederick Douglass, published in the Syracuse Journal 1856)."

Into this uncertainty runaway slaves streamed with the hope for freedom and the real fear of an uncertain future. And it is against this fear and uncertainty that the record of the abolition movement in Syracuse stands out. While true legal freedom was not obtained until the northern border was crossed, history shows that arrival in Syracuse meant freedom in practice. Attempts to counter the Underground Railroad movement, including the Fugitive Slave Act, failed to have a local impact. The only fugitive ever captured in Syracuse was freed by a group that included activists from the Wesleyan Methodist church. This action, known as the "Jerry Rescue" became a focal point for fund raising (reported in the 10/3/1855 edition of the True Wesleyan). As to the Fugitive Slave Act, Lee wrote:

"I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga-street [directly across the street from the church] I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning (Luther Lee 1882:336 - transcription from his journal)

The importance of the church (the physical structure and the congregation) to the abolition movement and the "Underground Railway" is clear and well documented. The actual role of the building's underground passage and the unique artifacts found there, is less definitively documented, but no less important. There is, not surprisingly, no first hand account of those who made the journey, took refuge, and created the art. Archaeological investigations indicate a high probability that the passage, as well as a bench and several faces carved into the wall are associated with those who successfully made their way to Canada.


The Artifacts

Sculpted FaceThis National Register structure is of definitive significance to American history and to the celebration of freedom; but, there is more to this building. A unique set of art survives within its basement. The art in the basement consists of a series clay faces sculpted on the walls in a passageway beneath the church. The art is the work of unknown artists from an era in which hundreds if not thousands of individuals quietly fled to freedom leaving scant trace of their passage north. Refugees are reported to have walked the streets of Syracuse in broad daylight prior to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. However, after this act and prior to the civil war the safety of those making their way to freedom became of more imminent concern, as illustrated by the capture and ultimate rescue of William Henry by citizens of Syracuse, including members of the Wesleyan Methodist congregation, in an event commemorated as the Jerry Rescue.

The faces are in serious need of conservation and all but two have already lost substantial detail. Archaeological studies of the basement carried out in 1994 documented the date of the passageway to the pre-emancipation era and also identified the presence of a long clay bench upon which refugees may have rested awaiting transport out of town. Based upon these studies the owner of the building made significant alterations in his construction plans so as to avoid damage to the art. Still, the surviving art remained in serious danger of deterioration due to changing environmental conditions within the building. The two most intact faces were literally on the verge of falling off the wall.

What's Been Done

An appeal for assistance was made through various media including a presentation and request for assistance to a group of conservators from New York City. Representatives of a new National Underground Railroad Museum planned for Cincinnati Ohio responded by offering to conserve the art and move them to the museum in Ohio. In the absence of other alternatives and in consideration of the grave peril of imminent destruction if not conserved, the property owner acted in good faith and agreed to give the art to the new museum and to provide some funds for the initial stage of conservation. Due to the intervention of the museum, the voluntary service of conservators from New York, and the good will of the property owner in transferring title to the art, a preliminary and partial stabilization of the art was accomplished in August of 1997. Ultimately, all of the professional conservators and archaeologists who have studied the site are in agreement that in order for the original art to survive they must be removed from the basement walls and that they must undergo extensive and expensive long term stabilization and conservation.

The art is temporarily stabilized through the good will and hard work of a few who have persisted on their behalf. However, when spring arrives the job must be completed at considerable expense to those who accept the challenge. Will this challenge be accepted by those who reside in Syracuse and the State of New York or will we sit passively by letting others step forward to perform the "rescue" thus losing an important and symbolic link to our heritage

What Happens Next?

There is no question as to the significance of these resources. The questions which we must answered without delay are:- Will the act immediately to commit sufficient funds to take responsibility for the care of these significant resources? In the renewed spirit of commitment to the "Freedom Trail" - will the City of Syracuse and the State of New York integrate the building and the art into a significant educational and interpretive center which would at once commemorate valorous acts of our community and those how at great risk sought freedom? Are we capable of joining together to act quickly in accepting both the financial responsibility and the social commitment to preserve this building and the art at home in New York so that our children and succeeding generations may see and experience this important aspect of our collective heritage?

The Preservation Association of Central New York has developed an immediate plan for preservation of the artifacts, and a longer range proposal for preservation and development of the Wesleyan Methodist Church as a focal point for presenting the important role that Syracuse played in the worldwide struggle against slavery. A major effort is underway to develop the resources needed to assure the proper preservation and interpretation of the artifacts, and to secure the cooperation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in assuring they remain in Syracuse.

Major Progress has Been Made:

The Onondaga Historical Association has committed the necessary space, and is working with other organizations to assure adequate resources for the permanent display of the artifacts within their museum, located less than 1,000 feet from the original site.

The Community Foundation of Central New York has established a special fund to receive contributions dedicated to the Project. Persons wishing to contribute to the support of this project can contact the Community Foundation of Central New York at 315-422-9538 (see mailing address below).

On November 16, 1997, Syracuse Newspapers columnist Dick Case wrote about the church and it artifacts. [Text]. A meeting was held on November 20 at Bethany Baptist Church. On November 20, the Syracuse Post-Standard published an editorial about it. [Text] Approximately forty community residents and leaders discussed the problem and formed a task force to pursue potential solutions [News Article].

On December 4, 1997 the Task Force met, and received news of the commitment of the Onondaga Historical Association, the Community Foundation of Central New York, (described above) and other efforts to develop necessary local resources. A representative of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was also present, to discuss the conditions under which that organization would feel comfortable releasing title of the artifacts to the control of the people of Syracuse and Central New York. This presentation was listened to with interest.

Also on December 4, the Syracuse Herald Journal published an editorial in support of the preservation project, and also calling for a larger commitment to the presentation and interpretation of Central New York's proud abolitionist history.

On December 15, the Onondaga County Legislature created the Onondaga County Freedom Trail Commission. This Commission will assume responsibility for coordinating the preservation and interpretation of Onondaga County's Underground railroad resources. A copy of the resolution creating the commission will be posted soon.

On December 18th it was announced that the Rosamond Gifford Charitable Trust has granted a total of $100,000 toward the project, half of which is in the form of a challenge grant to other local donors. This brought the total amount of local funds raised during the first month of effort to $120,000. A total of $250,000 in local funding is sought for the first phase of the project, which will provide for the preservation of the Underground railroad "Faces."

On December 26, the Syracuse Post-Standard published another lead editorial calling on community sources to contribute to the Faces project.

On January 21 it was announced that corporate contributions have brought the total raised from local funds to nearly $200,000. A drive to cap off the local fundraising effort will take place in February, with stepped up efforts to assure that Governor Pataki and the Legislature make available the remaining funds needed to assure the proper care and interpretation of the Faces. Once this is achieved, the major thrust of this project will be to secure the permanent location of an interpretive visitors center for the UGRR in the Wesleyan Methodist Church building. Contributions to date:

CNY Community Foundation : $20,000
Gifford Foundattion : $100,000
KeyBank : $15,000
OnBank : $15,000
Syracuse Newspapers - S.I. Newhouse Trust: $15,000
Niagara Mohawk : $ 10,000
Fleet Bank : $ 10,000
MONY $5000 : $ 5,000
Individual donations : $ 4,400 (as of 1/15/98)

Persons interested in attending future Task Force meetings, or nominating candidates for the Onondaga County Freedom trail Commission, are invited to contact Rev. Ronald Dewberry for more information.

Contributions can be mailed to:

Underground Railroad "Faces" Conservation Project
c/o CNY COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
500 S. Salina Street - Suite 428
Syracuse, NY 13202


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