Reference Entry

Myers, Stephen A.

Charles Rosenberg

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Myers, Stephen A.

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who called himself “Agent and Superintendent of the Underground Railroad,” and had also worked as a steamboat steward, was born in Hoosick, Rensselaer County, New York, legally defined at birth as the property of Dr. Johnathan Eights, a doctor who established a practice in Albany in 1810.New York's 1799 law for the gradual abolition of slavery provided that Myers should be emancipated at the age of twenty-eight, but he was freed earlier, when he was eighteen. He then worked as a grocer before getting a job as steward on the Armenia, one of the faster steamboats on the Hudson River, making the trip from New York City to Albany entirely in daylight.Myers married in the late 1830s—there is no published record of Harriet Myers's maiden name. Their children, at least those who survived infancy and were still alive in 1860, were Stephen Jr., born around 1840; Abram, one year younger; Catherine, born around 1846; and Harriett, born around 1849.By the early 1840s, both Stephen and Harriet Myers had begun assisting fugitive slaves from points further south, where no gradual emancipation had been legislated, to either settle in New York or move on to Canada. Their station served a route running from New York City up the eastern side of the Hudson River, sustained by towns with either Quaker meetings or settlements of free African Americans, through Poughkeepsie to Albany. One route then ran west along the Erie Canal, crossing into Canada at Buffalo. Myers's Albany Committee of Vigilance was praised by his fellow abolitionist David Ruggles as “the most efficient organization in the State of New York in the business of aiding the way-worn and weather-beaten refugee from slavery's shambles” (Hodges, p. 181).Among the Underground Railroad operators they were connected with were William Still in Philadelphia, Jermain W. Loguen in Syracuse, and people as far away as Delaware and Maryland, as well as in Canada. Harriet Tubman, one of the railroad's most famous conductors, frequently relied on the Myers as a stop on trips from the south to Auburn, where she lived, or Canada. From 1851 to 1855 they were assisted by William H. Johnson, a man of African descent born to free parents in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1833; Johnson later had some familiarity with the preparation for John Brown's attempted insurrection in Harper's Ferry.Myers founded the Northern Star Association, publisher of the Northern Star and Freeman's Advocate, 1842–1843. Over the course of ten months (1855–1856) Myers assisted 287 fugitives, paying $542.36 for transportation and $76.60 to feed them. Over six months during late 1857 and early 1858, they assisted another 118. He finally had to make a semipublic appeal for funds, because “The hundreds of fugitives that have fallen in my care during the last twelve years have required a great deal of labor and expense to make them comfortable. They are sent to me by the Underground Railroad, south of Albany, and in many cases they come poorly clad and are greatly in want of clothes, such as coats, pants, and under garments, both males and females” (Christianson, p. 68).Moving several times during the 1850s around the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany, the Myers settled at 194 Livingston Avenue, which is still standing. A renovation project began in 2007 to preserve it as a museum. Myers established the Florence Farming and Lumber Association in 1848, promoting settlement of a black farming community on land in Oneida County, New York, donated by Gerrit Smith, a real estate promoter who acknowledged that, of the eighteen thousand acres he had once owned in the town of Florence, the few hundred remaining were of very moderate fertility. The association eventually dissolved.Most of the funds for Myers's operation came from members of the newly formed Republican Party, including Thurlow Weed, publisher of the Albany Evening Journal. Myers eventually depended on the railroad for his income, retiring from work on the steamboat to devote himself full-time to the cause, living on about 10 percent of each dollar he received. He aided many to obtain work with local farmers, or other job openings, considering placement in the countryside safe and enabling them to earn some money. One of Myers's higher-profile passengers was Charles Nole, or Nalle, who had settled for a time in rural Sand Lake, where be was betrayed and apprehended. This set off a widely publicized campaign to prevent his reenslavement, including a dramatic physical rescue on 27 April 1860 by a large crowd of local abolitionists, led by Harriet Tubman.After the Civil War, Myers returned to working as a steward, at the Delavan House and the Fort William Henry Hotel, and as janitor to the postmaster in New York City. He also edited the Pioneer, and the Telegraph and Temperance Journal.Myers died in 1870 due to a diseased kidney. Funeral services were held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Street, where the Myers had been members. At least one child, Stephen Jr., had married by then; his wife Julia and their children Abraham L., 5, and Elizabeth, 8, were among the surviving family members. The Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School, constructed in 2005 in Albany, is named in honor of the couple's work.

Reference Entry.  930 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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