As the 1830′s drew to a close and the 1840′s began, committees were formed in some cities in the north to protect freedom seekers from re-enslavement, and to assist them in their flight to freedom in the north or in Canada. As slave catchers sought freedom seekers, these “vigilance” committees provided legal assistance, food, clothing, money, employment, and temporary shelter.
Such a committee formed in Albany in the early 1840’s, and one continued to exist up to the time of the Civil War. Albany’s anti-slavery newspaper, Tocsin of Liberty, identifies ten people, Blacks and whites, as members of the executive body of the local Vigilance Committee in 1842. Some are familiar names from the city’s history, such as Thomas Paul and Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Lattimore.
Albany’s Vigilance Committee worked alongside other local anti-slavery organizations such as the Liberty Party and the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society, and with anti-slavery newspapers such as the Tocsin of Liberty and the Albany Patriot. Another group, the Northern Star Association, like the Vigilance Committee, directly assisted freedom seekers. In the early 1840’s, the principal agent for this group was Stephen Myers.
The Northern Star Association published a newspaper, The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. Under Myers’ direction the group also sought employment and provided advocacy and education for people of African descent. Myers spoke around the region, raising money and publicizing the association’s work.
Anti-slavery groups did not always cooperate with each other. Historical documents show that the Northern Star Association and the original Vigilance Committee competed with each other in the early 1840’s. There was even some hostility between the Northern Star Association headed by Stephen Myers and the Vigilance Committee headed by Charles Torrey and Abel Brown. The Vigilance Committee accused Myers’ group for not doing enough to aid freedom seekers. It appears that the hostility between the groups subsided after Myers’ chief opponents, Abel Brown and Charles Torrey, left the scene. An activist Baptist minister, Brown campaigned tirelessly against slavery. He died of pneumonia in western New York in 1844 while on a preaching campaign. Torrey was imprisoned in 1844 for assisting fugitive slaves in Maryland and died in prison two years later. In the late 1840’s, Myers succeeded them as the key leader in the Vigilance Committee, directing the group into the early 1860’s.
After the passage of the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Law, vigilance committees sprang up in many other cities, including Lansingburgh, New York, where a committee held meetings in that city’s AME Zion Church. These committees expressed widespread citizen opposition to slavery, especially to the Fugitive Slave Law, which enlisted the power of the federal government on the side of slave owners.
The Underground Railroad was not a physical structure but a movement of anti-slavery activism, of which vigilance committees were a key element. Other organizations formed parts of the network that we call the Underground Railroad. Wesleyan Churches, Quakers, Free Will Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregants, Anti-Slavery Societies, Unitarians, and many members of Congregational and Presbyterian Churches all worked in the movement to assist freedom seekers. As well, many people with no organizational or denominational affiliation assisted freedom seekers in their pursuit of freedom. It was the concerted efforts of all anti-slavery activists, but especially the strategic work of the vigilance committees, that contributed to the successes of the Underground Railroad movement.
Illustration: An Albany Vigilance Committee flyer (courtesy of American Antiquarian Society).