Underground Railroad Mural

History & Art in Downtown Ithaca

Underground Railroad Mural

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage


**This mural is being repainted in 2021**

The mural titled “Underground Railroad Mural” was designed and painted in 2010 by Jonathan Matas and has also been called 'On the Masters Horse'. Iit is located on Green Street beneath the Aurora Street overpass. According to Matas, “This mural pays tribute to Upstate New York's abolitionist rebels and all refugees of the slave system who passed through Ithaca in their Northbound journeys toward freedom. Represented here are Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman as well as Ithaca's St James AME Zion Church, whose members played a pivotal role in Ithaca's Underground Railroad operations. The Drinking Gourd above was used as a guide on refugees’ journey. George Johnson had a barbershop on State St. where he helped disguise fugitives by giving them haircuts and new clothes before helping them board the Simeon DeWitt steamer, which took them across Cayuga Lake.”

The mural was selected for a revitalization funding project in collaboration with Ithaca Murals in August 2020, by four local Black artists; Maryam Adib, Jackie Richardson​, Cyepress Rite, and Terrance Vann. This re-painting of the mural is scheduled to take place in 2021. According to Ithaca Murals coordinator Caleb Thomas, this revitalization intends to celebrate not only Black leaders of the past but also Black artists and community members from the present. One of the artists, Cyepress Rite, had this to say about the impetus behind refreshing the deteriorating mural: “…it's a perfect opportunity to re-imagine the blueprint that has been laid out and to honor our ancestors and those stories.” Rite also added, “There’re so many particular landmarks in Ithaca that are very related to abolitionist movements and civil rights, so it’s important and special that not only is there representation in a city that does have Black people, does have Brown people, does have people of color but also that this representation is telling our story honorably,”

Viewing the mural from left to right, the first depiction is that of Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913), a household name in connection with self-liberation and the Underground Railroad. Her biography extends far beyond her most well-known role as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Born enslaved as Araminta Ross, Tubman self-liberated and eventually served as a scout, a spy, a guerilla soldier, and a nurse for the Union Army, making her the first African American woman to serve in the United States military. She supported John Brown in his raid at Harpers Ferry. She later married Nelson Davis and spent her remaining years in Auburn, NY, where she established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Above her image on the mural a caption reads ‘Comrade Tubman,’ which has been controversial within the community and deemed “historically inappropriate and anachronistic” by local historian Carol Kammen, who states there is no historic record of Tubman holding communist views or political affiliation.

The next image shows three people on horseback, presumably three enslaved individuals escaping to freedom on the master’s horse.

The St. James AME Zion Church is shown just above the map of the Finger Lakes region. The church is located at 116-118 Cleveland Avenue. St. James was chartered in 1833 by a group of African American Methodists who had previously attended "colored class" Sunday School at Ithaca's First Methodist Episcopal Church. St. James is central to the history of Ithaca’s African American community; most notably, it served as a station on Ithaca’s Underground Railroad network and hosted prominent figures of the abolition movement, including Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Jermain Loguen, called by some the Underground Railroad King for his prolific abolitionist efforts, was St. James' third minister. The building was listed as a local landmark in 1975 and was added to the National and State Registers of Historic Places in 1982. Because the congregation's original stone meetinghouse remains intact within the current structure, St. James AME Zion Church is the oldest standing church building in Ithaca.

To the right of the church is a quote from Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818-1895) as well as his portrait. The quote reads, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters... Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Douglass was born enslaved, and self-liberated in 1838 when he was about the age of 20. Douglass became a prominent speaker, activist, and author in the abolitionist and suffrage movements. Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, described his life and treatment while enslaved. Douglass traveled throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, giving public speeches on the horrific nature and practice of slavery in America and its dehumanizing impacts. Douglass visited Tompkins County numerous times; he spoke to a congregation at St James AME Zion Church in 1852, and he was scheduled to speak in Newfield, NY, on October 9, 1851. A number of Tompkins County residents are recorded as registered subscribers to his anti-slavery weekly newspaper The North Star.


This point of interest is part of the tour: History & Art in Downtown Ithaca


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