A brief entry from June 29, 1848 in the South Family Journal reads: “A runaway slave comes from Indiana to find a hiding place.”
A later notation tells: “James F. to Albany with a runaway Negro to help him on to Canada.”
Between 1848 and 1860, the Shakers at the South Family in Watervliet assisted five fugitive slaves on their dangerous journeys to freedom. There may have been more that were not recorded. Like the Quakers, Congregationalists, Reformed Presbyterians, and other religious groups, the Shakers were a part of the Underground Railroad. Because the Shakers had several African-American members, their communities were perfect hiding places for runaways. By providing them with Shaker clothing, the fugitives could hide within plain sight. And, because Shaker communities were so insular and strictly guarded against non-Shaker visitors, there was plenty of protection.
The Shakers really were ahead of their time concerning beliefs about race and gender equality. Women held leadership positions early on in the sect’s history, reflecting Shaker ideas about balance and symmetry. No one person was more or less important than everybody else. The Divine Book of Holy and Eternal Wisdom, a Shaker religious text, includes extensive passages about the evils of slavery, referencing specifically the issues of race and secular law. This section concludes that slavery may be within the boundaries of the law of the land, but it is not within the boundaries of the laws of God.
The Underground Railroad is not the first time the Albany Shakers had to deal with the issue of human bondage. In the early 19th century, a black man named Prime Lane came to the Shakers with his family. He left the Believers and two daughters, Phebe and Betty, stayed behind. Soon Prime sued the Shakers for his daughters, claiming that his children were, in fact, his slaves. The case took two years and went all the way to the New York Supreme Court, where it was decided that the girls were free people and could make their own decisions. The Shakers had to deal with a few mobs after the ruling. Betty was captured in the first but managed to escape. Things finally settled down, however, and Betty and Phebe lived the rest of their lives as Shakers.
In honor of Black History Month, the Shaker Heritage Society is presenting the lecture “All Souls Are Created Equal: African American Shakers.” SHS executive director Starlyn D’Angelo will explore the stories and experiences of African American Shakers. This lecture is free for SHS members. A $5 donation is suggested for non-members. We hope to see you at this great lecture!