Anti-Slavery Activism and the Underground Railroad

Robert Bowne (1744), the great-grandson of John Bowne, was both an early and prominent abolitionist in the family active in the anti-slavery movement. In 1785, he joined with Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Eddy, and George Clinton (who was married to Hannah Bowne Franklin) to form the Manumission Society of New York which in turn founded the African Free School in 1787. Robert J. Murray, Jr., father-in-law to Catherine Bowne Murray (daughter of James, another of John Bowne’s great grandsons) was also an early trustee and longstanding treasurer of the Society. Both the definition and purpose of manumission was the emancipation of slaves.

The Manumission Society’s work included protesting the widespread practice of kidnapping black New Yorkers (both slave and free), only to sell them elsewhere, and providing legal assistance to both free and enslaved blacks who were being abused. The Society additionally lobbied for passage of the 1799 law in New York which granted gradual manumission of slaves. Initially, children of New York slaves born after July 4, 1799 were freed but indentured until they were young adults. In 1817, a new law passed which freed New York slaves born after 1799, but not until 1827. Nevertheless, fugitive slaves from the South and free blacks in the North still faced significant risks and danger of captivity.

Later, a niece of Robert Bowne, Mary Bowne Parsons (1784) and her husband Samuel Parsons (1771), a Quaker minister she married in 1806, were also both known as ardent abolitionists, as were several of her children. Correspondence recently discovered in the family archives and in other Parsons’ archives show a direct involvement by her children Robert and William B. Parsons in facilitating the movement of slaves to freedom while they resided in the House.

For example, the archives include a letter dated September 28, 1850, soon after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, written to William by L.I. Jocelyn (believed to be Simeon S.) requesting assistance in the escape of a “colored man”. Parsons is requested to see if he can keep the man perfectly unobserved in his neighborhood as Williamsburg[h] was considered too close to the City for safety. The letter concludes by stating [t]his is a strong case and great care and caution is involved.

The obituary of another son of Mary Bowne Parsons, Samuel Bowne Parsons, Sr., who ran the Parsons’ nursery on land near the House with his brother Robert, noted “his boast that he assisted more slaves to freedom than any other man in Queens County”.

These courageous actions and documents link the Bowne House, the Bownes, and the Parsons to anti-slavery activism and the “Underground Railroad”, a network of sympathetic contacts and protected sites where enslaved people could be assisted in their flight to freedom. Flushing in general also sponsored many safe houses and was a conduit for African-Americans passing north to Connecticut, Canada, and freedom.