The Colgate Scene
January 2006

Colgate events highlight region and its abolitionist past

Hugh Humphreys, former Madison County judge, presents a certificate to descendants of Harriet Tubman during the National Abolition Hall of Fame induction ceremony. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

One cool October morning in 1835, more than 300 people traveled to Utica, N.Y. for the inaugural meeting of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society.

But rioters shouting "damn the fanatics!" wouldn't allow the reformers to gather.

So the group retreated to nearby Peterboro, a tiny hamlet about 14 miles northwest of Hamilton, at the invitation of wealthy radical abolitionist Gerrit Smith.

There, the crowd assembled at the local Presbyterian church, where Smith spoke about two very controversial issues at the time: the right of all people in a democracy to free speech and the human rights of African Americans.

The speech galvanized Smith's position as a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement, and ignited a powder keg of grass-roots abolitionism in central New York.

Exactly 170 years to the day after that pivotal gathering in Peterboro, Smith and four other historical figures were honored by Colgate for their efforts to end slavery.

Orator Frederick Douglass, newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison, Quaker minister and women's rights activist Lucretia Mott, Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman, and Smith were all inducted posthumously into the National Abolition Hall of Fame (NAHOF), an initiative in which the university's Upstate Institute is involved.

The NAHOF, which was launched by the Smithfield Community Association in Peterboro with the support of the Upstate Institute and Morrisville State College last October, aims to honor famous abolitionists, bring attention to modern battles against injustice around the world, and educate the public about human rights issues today.

The events featured Colgate students, faculty, and staff, and drew more than 100 people to campus. Also present were a handful of descendants of the inductees themselves. Some trekked from as far as Maryland to participate.

"As a member of the community and an enthusiastic supporter of diversity, we felt it important for Colgate to recognize the significance of our region and the contributions of our forebears," said Jill Tiefenthaler, director of the Upstate Institute and the university's associate dean of the faculty. "This area is truly rich in history, and the university would like to play a part in exposing our students and the general public to that fact."

The day began with three panel discussions in Little Hall's Golden Auditorium.

The first examined the NAHOF. Nine members of the initiative's organizing committee, called the Cabinet of Freedom, explored the progress of the project since its launch and the nomination procedure of the inductees.

The second discussion, titled "The Second Abolition," tackled the tough issues of cultural heritage, diversity, and racism in contemporary society. The panel focused on ways to make the accomplishments of abolitionists relevant to students today.

The final panel explored the lives of the honorees. After brief histories of each were given, director Mike Kirk discussed a 10-hour docufilm about the NAHOF and anti-slavery movement that he plans to produce.

The activities concluded with a celebration featuring dramatic monologues and songs by Colgate students, a professional Douglass re-enactor, and inductions of Douglass, Garrison, Mott, Smith, and Tubman into the NAHOF. State Assemblyman Bill Magee and state Senator David Valesky both read official resolutions adopted by their organizations recognizing the NAHOF.

In the coming years, the NAHOF will also shine the spotlight on the quest to end inequality in the country, and that is what the inaugural class of inductees would have wanted, according to Michelle Jones-Galvin, great-great-grandniece of Tubman.

"If Aunt Harriet were with us today, she'd be stupefied by the enormity of this," said Jones-Galvin, who lives in Syracuse. "This has truly been karma for me. Every member of our family would have been honored to be here."

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