“I am here to remove a disorderly person,” the neighbor said.
“Find such a person here, and I will aid you in his removal,” Ruggles responded. “I was invited here to relieve humanity.”
The first histories of abolitionism tended to be written by white men, and they tended, none too surprisingly, to privilege the narratives of white abolitionists, generally overlooking black leaders like Ruggles. (Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ exhaustive David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City, out last winter, leaned against this trend.) But the omission also points to larger fissures within the movement. Ruggles was skeptical of the unequivocal, largely Quaker-derived pacifism espoused by most white antislavery organizations. He wrote, “We cannot recommend non-resistance to persons who are denied the protection of equitable law, when their liberty is invaded and their lives endangered by avaricious kidnappers.”
Ruggles’ brand of abolitionism was more confrontational, less spiritual and wary of rhetorical abstraction, targeting kidnappers with any combination of cunning, law and blunt force. He then trumpeted the tales of his run-ins far and wide through the press. And though he was said to excite the “liveliest emotions in every heart,” his was more the gospel of a speedy-tongued wordsmith than a spiritual appeal. His audience, mostly black, had never needed the mandate of an ecclesiastical authority to condemn slavery.
After a bout of financial troubles and in deteriorating health, Ruggles decamped to Northampton, Mass., in his 30s. He left behind the house on Lispenard Street and the Mirror of Liberty, and exited New York the way he came–penniless. Spent by his work and close to blind, he took up the practice of hydropathy, the so-called water cure. By the time he died, he was completely blind and all of 39 years old.
The townhouse on Lispenard Street was demolished, as was the neighboring headquarters of the Mirror of Liberty. In 1927, in the midst of another economic boom, it was supplanted by a branch of the National City Bank of New York, now better known as Citibank. In The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford made note of the new building’s “splendidly successful” modernism, and it would take decades more for historians to unearth its significance (though by then the bank would be–what else but?–a Payless Shoes store).
Meanwhile, another real estate skirmish has once again cracked open questions surrounding the underground railroad. Manhattan’s last known underground railroad junction, a townhouse on West 29th Street, jutted through the racket of history a few years ago when its owner began illegally constructing a fifth-story penthouse, inciting a small storm of preservationist fury that continues today. To historians, the building’s roof is an integral piece of its history. During the 1863 Draft Riots, the daughters of Abigail Hopper Gibbons, the abolitionist who sheltered fugitives in the house, escaped over the street’s level rooftops.
Which is, of course, the strange boon we inherit in lieu of a historical vernacular: the incendiary messiness of all times at once. A kind of cracked mirror thrown back at us, it is a history without neatly delineated victors and vanquished, one more implicating of us all. It’s also the real, irrefutable fact of daughters ascending across rooftops and fugitives seeking sanctuary, the prospect, again and again, of redemption.