Union College event to honor escaped slave Moses Viney

Back in the 19th century, Moses Viney was easily the most recognizable face on the Union College cam

Back in the 19th century, Moses Viney was easily the most recognizable face on the Union College campus. Today, more than a century after his death in 1908, he’s back in the limelight.

A runaway slave who found his freedom in Schenectady and became a valet and constant companion to longtime college president Eliphalet Nott, Viney will be the focus of today’s Founders Day celebration beginning at 12:45 p.m. at Union’s Memorial Chapel. Along with the unveiling of a portrait of Viney by renowned artist Simmie Knox, Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson will be on hand to offer the keynote address.

Busy weekend

The day will kick off a busy weekend of activity on the Union College campus as the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region presents its annual conference Friday through Sunday. Viney will be a key ingredient in Saturday’s program with Schenectady High history teacher Neil Yetwin presenting a talk titled “The Odyssey of Moses Viney.”

Union College Founders Day Celebration

WHERE: Union College’s Memorial Chapel

WHEN: 12:45 p.m.


MORE INFO: 388-6000. Click here for related Gazette story.

“One of his jobs while he was working for Nott was to wake up the students to make sure they went to church,” said Yetwin. “He woke up Chester A. Arthur and the son of William Seward so they would get to the chapel. He was known as the grand old man of Union College. Everyone knew him.”

Yetwin began looking into Viney’s history about 15 years ago when he came across his gravestone in Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery.

“If anyone had told me way back when I started researching Viney that some day there’d be this much attention paid to him I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Yetwin. “It’s very gratifying to me, and a very positive thing for local history.”

Artist on hand

Yetwin will be at today’s celebration, as will Knox, a Washington, D.C.-based artist well known for his portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall. Knox’s work is a 36-by-36-inch oil on linen that shows Viney sitting in a chair reading the Schenectady Gazette.

“I didn’t change anything from the black-and-white photo they sent me,” said Knox. “He’s sitting there holding the Gazette. I didn’t change a thing except to color it.”

Knox said he was contacted by the college early last summer to produce a portrait of Viney.

“I guess I probably worked on it for about six months,” said Knox. “I would get started, maybe get about 60 percent done, and then I let it dry and settle down, and then I go back to it. I also apply a varnish to it, retouch it a bit, take a break and then go back and do the details. Sometimes it takes a little longer than you might think, but my philosophy is to not just get it done, but to get it done right.”

Viney was born in Talbot County, Md., on March 10, 1817 and escaped bondage in 1840, initially finding work at a farm in Glenville before hiring on with Nott. He worked with the Union president from 1842 until Nott’s death in 1866, and remained in the employ of Nott’s wife, Urania, up until her death in 1886. For two years, 1850-52, Nott sent Viney to Canada when word came that slave hunters were in Schenectady looking for him. Eventually, Nott bought Viney his freedom and summoned him back home to Schenectady.

“They were close enough that Viney became a conduit between Nott and the faculty at Union and everyone else associated with him,” said Yetwin. “When Nott was ill, Viney would carry him around campus, and my impression is that Viney felt tremendous gratitude toward Nott for giving him this life. So, it seems like there was a real friendship between the two men.”

Knox, who grew up in Mobile, Ala., and was a boyhood friend of baseball great Hank Aaron, had never heard of Viney before being commissioned to do the painting. A portrait painter for the past three decades whose subjects have included Aaron, Knox has been to the Capital Region on one other occasion, to unveil his portrait of former University at Albany president H. Patrick Swygert in 2001.

“I stopped teaching in 1979, so I’ve been working as a full-time painter since then,” said Knox, who has also done portraits for comedian Bill Cosby and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I went to school as a biology major, but painting and sculpting were always my first love. It’s been great to be able to devote all my time to my art. I’ve been very fortunate.”

The look of the painting won’t be a surprise to Yetwin, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking forward to seeing it.

“There’s only three surviving pictures of Moses Viney and the one they used as a model for the artist — him reading the Gazette — is the best of the three,” said Yetwin. “It’s a great old photograph, and I checked out some of Mr. Knox’s work on the Internet. He’s obviously a wonderful painter.”

Opening address

Underground Railroad Conference

WHERE: Union College campus

WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday afternoon

HOW MUCH: Saturday programs are $35 for adults, $20 for senior citizens and $10 for students

MORE INFO: Go to www.ugrworkshop.com or call 432-4432

The weekend’s Underground Railroad Conference begins with an opening address Friday at 6 p.m. by Dr. Norman K. Dann, a retired history professor at Morrisville State College who has written two books on the Underground Railroad and is publishing another about abolitionist Gerrit Smith later this year.

There will be more than 30 hour-long workshops and presentations on Saturday, including Yetwin’s talk at 3:30 p.m., while Sunday’s activities will include bus tours to Vale Cemetery in Schenectady and the Mabee Farm State Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction.

“We had around 140 people that first year, eight years ago, and we’ll probably be around the 300 figure this year,” said Paul Stewart, who founded the Underground Railroad Project of the Capital Region with his wife, Mary Liz. “We’ve expanded from six workshops that first year to roughly 30 this year, and what was basically a one-day program has expanded to three.

‘Abolitionism and the Struggle for African-American Freedom: The Union College Experience”

WHERE: Schaffer Library at Union College

WHEN: During regular library hours, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday, and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.


MORE INFO: 388-6278

“It isn’t a one-dimensional story,” added Stewart. “It has so many sides to it, with wonderfully rich personalities and stories that come out of all this research. We’ve learned that you can easily spend an entire weekend looking at the various aspects of the Underground Railroad and all the people connected to it.”

For more information on the Underground Railroad Conference, visit www.ugrworkshop.com or call 432-4432.

Along with the Founders Day celebration and the Underground Railroad Conference, Union College’s Schaffer Library is hosting an exhibit, “Abolitionism and the Struggle for African-American Freedom: The Union College Experience.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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