The details of Harriet Tubman’s visit to Schenectady may never come to light, but her exploits here in 1860 will forever be a part of the city’s history.
That was made certain Saturday afternoon outside the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church, when Hulett Street between Albany and Hamilton streets was renamed Harriet Tubman Way. A former slave who became famous for her work on the Underground Railroad, Tubman died in 1913 in her early 90s in Auburn, where she was closely associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
“She was a strong woman of faith, and this is a great way for us to uphold her legacy,” said the Rev. Ruby J. Smith, pastor at the Duryee Memorial. “She had faith and courage, and her example should help us be just as vigilant about peace, justice, love, freedom and brotherhood.”
In April 1860, Tubman was in Troy helping runaway slave Charles Nalle escape to freedom. He had been living and working in Troy for two years before being arrested by U.S. Deputy Marshall John W. Holmes and Henry Wale, a slave catcher hired by Virginia planter Blucher Hansborough. Before they could return Nalle to his former owner, Tubman, who just happened to be visiting relatives in Troy at the time, and a large group of people in Troy helped Nalle make his escape. After crossing the Hudson River, the story goes, Nalle and Tubman hid out in Schenectady for a few days before continuing farther north. Eventually, Nalle’s friends in Troy raised enough money to purchase his freedom and he returned to the city.
“We don’t know the details, but it is alleged that they stayed on a farm somewhere in Schenectady for a few days,” said Marsha Mortimore, a member of the Duryee Church and a local historian who has done extensive research on blacks in the history of Schenectady. “She was a great woman, and the reason we’re acknowledging her is to celebrate her life and history here, and because she gave the AME Zion Church in Auburn some of her property to build their church. There are more than 25 AME Zion churches in the Western New York Conference, and she has always been associated with the church.”
Mortimore said the official name of Hulett Street, which runs from State Street to Strong Street in the Hamilton Hill section of Schenectady, will not change. The street marker, designed by Lori Trowell, a graphic artist in the Dallas area, was unveiled Saturday at the southeast corner of State and Hulett streets.
The marker consists of an image of Tubman; a phrase she’s often associated with, “Every Great Dream Begins with a Dreamer”; and the new street name: Harriet Tubman Way.
Mortimore started the project almost two years ago and worked with Trowell to come up with the design of the street marker.
For her next project, Mortimore says she’s teaming up with local re-enactor and impersonator Walter Simpkins to designate part of Lafayette Street in Schenectady as Moses Viney Way. Viney was a former slave who found freedom in Schenectady and donated a section of his property to build the current home of the Salvation Army.
“I think it’s important for us to do this and continue to show the rich contribution people of color made to Schenectady,” said Mortimore. “The legal name of the street isn’t going to change, but this is a way to keep that history alive. We had a good crowd of people out there on Saturday and a big cheer went out as they unveiled the sign. It was very exciting.”
The event, which was followed by a concert at the Duryee Church, also served as a fundraiser for the Harriet Tubman Homestead in Auburn, which became part of the National Park Service in 1975.
For Smith, who taught in the Schenectady school system for 30 years before retiring and heading to the seminary, it was a very special occasion.
“It really is the honorable thing to do,” she said, “and Marsha worked very hard to get this thing done. I’m very glad to say that she’s a member of this church. She did a great job.”