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Utica remembers history of abolition

It’s been 150 years since the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States. The amendment was ratified after the end of the Civil War, but the

fight to end slavery took place over decades. One battle fought in 1835 in downtown Utica was commemorated recently.

More than 150 people packed into Utica’s oldest black church to celebrate Utica’s abolition history day, a day that helped change Utica and the nation’s history. One hundred eighty years ago to the day, 600 had men gathered in downtown Utica to start the New York State Anti-Slavery Society.

But they weren’t the only ones to show up, says Kathryn Silva, a professor of African-American history at Utica College.

“Three hundred anti-abolitionists were also there outside the building, knocking on their doors, trying to pound in the doors and stop African Americans from getting their rights and becoming free,” Silva said.

What followed was known as the Utica Riot. City leaders and other Uticans who were opposed to abolition broke up the meeting, forcing leading abolitionist to reconvene in nearby Peterboro, NY to form the anti-slavery group.

Utica had been chosen to hold the meeting because upstate New York was one of the most important centers for the growing abolitionist sentiment.  The Oneida Institute there had more African-American students than any other college at the time. Milton Sernett, a retired professor of African-American studies and history at Syracuse University said the institute provided a training ground for young men who called for immediate emancipation of the slaves.

“What is inspiring is the degree to which these abolitionists -- young and old -- put themselves forward for what they believed in, in spite of the opposition, they were a minority to be sure,” said Sernett.

Upstate New York was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves passed through en route to Canada and freedom. As many as 300 free blacks lived in Utica at the time.

At the celebration at Hope Chapel A.M.E Zion Church, members of the community gathered to learn more.

“I wanted to come and actually be part of something that was celebrating, or at least recognizing, the transition that this country has gone through,” said Natalie Williams, who has lived in Utica for five years.

Silva says that moments like these in history should always be remembered.

“We oftentimes think that the Civil War is the moment when people started thinking about slavery and ending it. It took many years for that to happen,” said Silva.

Emancipation did not mean equality. Rev. Gill Farnham-Us is the chair of the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica. She says even today the change is not complete.

We are convinced that it is important to know our history if we are going to change our future. And I’m here to learn more about the history of this area and be a part of making that change happen,” said Farnham-Us.

Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri proclaimed October 21 as Utica Abolition History day, a time to remember the past and remember its effects on society today.

This story is part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.