The Emperor and the Underground Railroad: Schenectady’s Richard P.G. Wright helped multiple people to freedom

An old gravestone of Richard P.G. Wright
This gravestone for Richard P.G. Wright is located in the African American Ancestral Burial Ground in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.
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NEW TALES OF OLD DORP – Richard P.G. Wright is often overlooked in favor of his famous son The Rev. Theodore Sedgewick

Wright, but RPG, as I refer to him, is worthy of a column in his own right.

He lived in Schenectady for 40 to 50 years of his life and left a great impact here. He was a champion of abolition, an important conductor in the Underground Railroad through Schenectady, a strong believer in the value of education for African Americans, and a man who garnered enough respect to join, flourish in, and influence generally white institutions.

RPG Wright was born in Swansea, Mass., circa 1778. He spent his youth in Providence, R.I., where he learned the barbers trade. Sometime between 1800 and 1810, he moved to Schenectady with his wife Lydia and small family and took up residence at 84 Ferry St. He opened a barber shop at 2 Canal St. in the David Hotel and called himself the “Emperor of the West and Knight and Baron Knight of all Hairdressers.”

In 1811, questions were raised about his status as a free Black man, as New York was still 16 years away from abolishing slavery. Twice in May of that year, Wright went to court to validate his manumission papers. Copies of these papers, which are available at the Schenectady County Historical Society, read:

“I do hereby certify that RPG Wright, a black resident in the city of Schenectady, who was born in the Town of Swansey, State of Mass., who is now about 33 years of age, is by me adjudged to be free according to the laws of the State of New York. May 1, 1811 Judge Cornelius C Christyance of Schenectady and Personally appeared before me RPG and produced as evidence of his freedom, Thomas R. Trip who was being sworn said That about 16 years since he resided in the Town of Providence Stat of Rhode Island — that he was at the time considered free and reputed as such and that according to the best of his knowledge and belief he is at this present time actually free. May 11, 1811 Richard Trip Sworn before me this 1st May 1811

Cornelius C Christyance [also spelled Christiance]”

 Wright carried these papers with him for the rest of his life should he need to prove his legal status as a free man.


Theodore Sedgwick Wright was born in 1797 in Providence, R.I.. He moved to Schenectady with his parents and spent much of his early life in the city. RPG wanted his son to have the best education possible so he sent Theodore to the African Free School in New York City. At the time there were few collegiate educational opportunities available to African Americans, but the seminary did allow for further training. Theodore was accepted into the Princeton Theological Seminary and graduated in 1828, the first African American to do so. He would follow this religious calling, becoming the pastor of the 1st Colored Presbyterian Church in NYC. Like his father, he was an avid abolitionist, supporter of the Underground Railroad, and drew quite a following.


RPG Wright quickly became involved in the abolitionist movement in Schenectady. His barber shop was often used for meetings as it was one of the few places African American men could congregate without falling under suspicion.

In 1816, RPG travelled with his son to Philadelphia to participate in a meeting at the Bethel AMC Church where the delegates voted against a proposal by the American Colonization Society (ACS) to encourage free Black Americans to migrate to Africa. The ACS was founded by Robert Finley, a white man, which focused on the idea that African Americans could not fully integrate into American society. It also tapped into the fear of Southern slave owners who believed free Blacks would convince the people they enslaved to rebel. The ACS was not an outlying group as many in the white abolitionist community supported their aims, including Eliphalet Nott of Union College.

RPG was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) of Schenectady. At the group’s first meeting in February 1838, RPG was one of the five men selected vice president. The AAS was a mostly white abolitionist group including Sidney Ross (president), Isaac Groot Duryea (corresponding secretary), and the Reverend John Nott.

In 1840, he helped organize the “Black People’s meeting in Schenectady about the elective process to regain ‘the unrestricted franchise of our population.’” He was elected president of the meeting, which was held at the Free Church on Jay Street. Theodore opened the meeting with a prayer.


RPG’s most famous action as a member of the Underground Railroad was his active role in aiding in the escape of Charles Nelson in 1838. According to Nelson’s account, “Charles Nelson the Story of a Fugitive from Slavery,” he traveled from his home in Louisiana to accompany his enslaver named Campbell to his wedding in Baltimore, MD. From there they traveled north to honeymoon in Saratoga Springs. From there, the couple, along with Nelson were to visit Niagara Falls, but when they arrived at the Schenectady Depot, they were forced to disembark from the train due to problems further along the line. Campbell and his wife made other arrangements to go the Falls, leaving Nelson behind.

Shortly after Campbell left, Nelson sought out RPG, known as the “Slaves well tried Friend.” RPG asked him “Would you like to be free?” Upon an affirmative response, RPG reached out to a Quaker friend, and under cover of darkness, Nelson was spirited to Vermont. Campbell, upon returning from Niagara Falls, sought out Nelson but could not find him and was continually stonewalled in his attempts to find him. He eventually returned to the south without Nelson, where he died in less than 2 years.

Nelson lived out the rest of his life in Vermont, a free man and business owner. Nelson was not the only person RPG helped escape enslavement. The 1843 annual report of the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society notes “Emp. Wright” as one of two agents who helped three people escape from their bonds.


RPG was raised up into Freemasonry under the leadership of Prince Hall, an African American abolitionist leader from Boston. After Hall was denied membership in the Grand Lodge of Boston, which did not allow non-white members, he petitioned the Duke of Cumberland, the Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England. Cumberland granted a charter to Hall to open the African Lodge, No. 459 (later named African Lodge #1) on Sept. 29, 1784, in Boston. Hall obtained the rights to open further African Lodges in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. RPG joined the Rhode Island lodge and was raised to Master Mason on June 23, 1794.

In Schenectady, RPG continued his affiliation with the Masonic Order and its affiliate Scottish Rite, for which he served in several executive roles beginning in 1822. Although he was active in the Masonic Order while in Schenectady, he was not allowed to join a lodge because of the color of his skin. He was listed as a visitor to five lodges in the Schenectady area. That is, someone who could take part in the rituals, but was not an official member of the lodge. Finally in August 1844, RPG, along with his son Theodore, was officially welcomed into St. George’s Lodge #6, the famed lodge of Schenectady. They were the first African Americans to become members of the lodge.

Richard P. G. Wright passed away in Schenectady on May 29, 1847, at the age of 75. He is interred in the African American Ancestral Burial Ground in Historic Vale Cemetery.

Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady. To reach him, email [email protected]

Categories: -News-, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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