Joseph Mitlof created this shrine to the Underground Railroad in Nyack in 2004. As founder of the Historic Underground Railroad Society, Mitlof has been the driving force behind three historic markers situated along the path of the Nyack Brook that commemorates what some have called the first civil rights movement in America. For Mitlof, the telling of the story of the Underground Railroad is not just an effort to preserve buildings and erect plaques, but an opportunity to celebrate an event that he believes “epitomizes the concept of people helping other people.”
A shroud of secrecy surrounded the actions of the men and women who provided aid to escaping slaves before 1863 when slavery was abolished. It was the notorious clandestine nature of the network of safe houses called stations that made me stop in my tracks when I saw the words Underground Railroad in large black letters on the side of Mitlof’s structure. The shockingly incongruent signage had served its purpose. I was reminded that Nyack was an important stop on the route that escaping slaves took to reach freedom in Canada. And my appetite had been whetted to learn more.
Slavery was abolished in 1827 in New York State. According to noted historian Carl Nordstrum, there was a substantial free black community in Nyack by 1850. Arriving in Rockland County should have been the equivalent of reaching the Promised Land for fleeing bondsmen. However, aiding an escaping slave was a crime on either side of the Mason Dixon line. Passed in 1793 and expanded in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act allowed bounty hunters called “blackbirders” to roam the country seizing people of color for return to the South regardless of whether they had been indentured.
It is widely held that Nyack was the mid point between two locations on the Underground Railroad: Jersey City, 39 miles to our south and Newburg 40 miles to our north. In a contemporary account of the secret sanctuary movement published in 1886, Dr. Frank B. Green confirmed Nyack as a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also mentions names of families who were known to be involved in the clandestine activity, including the Hesdras and the Towts.
The first marker that Mitlof helped erect was unveiled on Presidents’ Day in 2002. Mitlof convinced the American Legion to fund the project on the site of the Hesdra house in his capacity as the group’s historian. The home of freed slave Cynthia Hesdra and her husband Edward stood at the corner of Route 59 and 9W and was destroyed by order of the Urban Renewal Agency of Nyack in 1977, despite the objections of the Historical Society of the Nyacks and Village Trustee Noel Oursler.
If you extend the chain of markers that Mitlof has started to the east and west, you could create a compelling black history trail through Nyack.
- First stop: Mount Moor cemetery, the segregated black burial ground that has been overrun by the Palisades’ Mall,
- Second stop: the Hesdra House, where local historian Dr. Lori Martin has recently shined a spot light on the contributions of Cynthia Hesdra,
- Third stop: St. Philips AME Zion Church, founded by Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass contemporary John W. Towt,
- Last stop: the John Green House, home of a 19th century figure that owned slaves.
The added poetic justice of this route is that it almost perfectly follows the path through our community that escaping slaves took to reach freedom.
Giles R. Wright, the official black historian of the State of New Jersey, relies on five criteria for verifying an Underground Railroad site: the age of the building, its location, the ownership during the years the Underground Railroad was operating, oral history and the rare written document. Mitlof does not suggest that his converted garage, which is located in a parking lot between Catherine Street and Main Street just below Midland Avenue, is an actual Underground Railroad location. However, his placement of markers seem to meet the Giles Wright test: near the Hesdra house, St. Philip’s, the church founded by abolitionist John W. Towt, and along the route of the Nyack Brook, which was used as a landmark for escaping slaves.
Mitlof, who is white, describes himself as a child of the 60’s who watched as the nation went up in flames during the unrest that followed the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He fears that the combustible material of racial discord still clutters the public square. For Mitlof, the Underground Railroad symbolizes a period in our history when blacks and whites came together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable injustice.
By elevating the section of the underground railroad that ran through Nyack, as Mitlof and other local scholars are attempting to do, we can give people another reason to consider Nyack a unique and historically significant destination. More importantly, embracing this period of history honors those nameless souls who passed through our village in the ultimate pursuit of life, liberty and happiness and those who lived here and bravely risked everything to see that the greater good be done.
Joseph Mitlof would like to expand his shrine into a proper exhibition space to introduce school children to the history of the Underground Railroad movement. If you are interested in helping, contact Mr. Mitlof at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the period visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Special thanks to Brian Jennings, the Librarian Supervisor at the Nyack Library and Dr. Lori Martin, author of the Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra.