SCHENECTADY Vale Cemetery is the final resting place for runaway slaves who found their freedom and the abolitionists who helped them escape. That history has earned it a designation from the National Park service: Vale has been named a site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
The designation will make Vale eligible for grants, but more importantly, it will highlight Vale’s stories about a very uncomfortable topic.
“Often in public history settings, we ignore it,” said Union College senior lecturer Melinda Lawson.
As a history teacher, she tries to get students to face the facts of their history — even the fact that Schenectady burials were segregated, with a black plot.
“You cannot understand American history if you do not grapple with slavery. It matters terribly what happened. That is what built the wealth of the nation and it is also the root of the racial tensions,” Lawson said. “You or me being uncomfortable can be a good thing. Yeah, that’s my history. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Vale earned the designation through its teaching of the story of Moses Viney, an escaped slave who worked for Union College President Eliphalet Nott.
Researchers, including Vale board of Trustees President Bernie McEvoy, spent more than two years putting together the successful application. Union College intern Erica Fugger did much of the hard work after an initial application was turned down for lack of information.
During their research, they solved a mystery for another site in Maryland.
There, officials listed Moses Viney as one of the escaped slaves who used the Underground Railroad to get away. But they didn’t know what happened to him after he left the slave state.
Researchers from Vale were able to add the rest of Viney’s history: how he reached Schenectady, befriended Union College President Eliphalet Nott, and eventually won his freedom.
Nott sent Viney to Canada to avoid being recaptured by slave hunters, and eventually bought Viney’s emancipation for $250. Viney worked as Nott’s chauffeur, received a bequest when Nott died, and became a prosperous coachman.
At Vale, Viney’s story is retold during almost every tour, when visitors stop at the African American Ancestral Burial Ground.
Teachers use the story to talk about slavery, the courage of slaves who tried to escape, the community of white allies who sometimes helped them and the segregation that followed the Civil War.
“The Viney story speaks to all these dimensions,” Lawson said. “You have this terribly important story. It allows us to have Viney as a springboard.”
For Marsha Mortimer, who also worked on the project, it also finally proved that Schenectady should have a historic role.
“It acknowledged Schenectady’s contribution to the Underground Railroad,” she said. “Schenectady has a rich, rich black history.”
Vale doesn’t simply offer lectures about Viney. Volunteer Walter Simpkins has dressed up as Viney for Juneteenth celebrations, wearing the frock and white gloves that Viney wore when he greeted the Union College president’s guests at the commencement reception each year.
Simpkins, who has a master’s degree in African-American studies from the University at Albany, has portrayed Viney at Vale for years.
He tells his audience that Viney was almost exactly a year younger than his slavemaster’s son, and they played together as children. Although they celebrated their birthdays together, Viney was sent to the fields to work at age 7. His playmate became his master when he was 19, and planned to sell him and a few other slaves to pay off his deceased father’s debts.
The man didn’t sell them after all, but the scare pushed Viney to begin planning his escape.
Viney and other slaves in Maryland were deeply afraid of being sold “down the river” to brutal plantations in the Deep South, Simpkins said. In Maryland, plantation life was far different: the wheat field bosses would offer pennies to the slave who could stack the most sheaves. Viney stacked as many as he could to build a “liberty fund.”
Ran with $20
Simpkins said Viney saved up $20, and at age 23, he ran.
He left with two others on Easter morning, with permission to visit a nearby town. He had hoped that no one would notice their absence for two days because Monday was a holiday, Simpkins said.
When bloodhounds were eventually set on their trail, they didn’t attack. Viney had spent months feeding them and treating them kindly, and he was able to order them back to the plantation, Simpkins said.
The men stole a canoe, ripped apart a fence for paddles, and eventually reached Delaware — where they paid for passage on a steamboat heading to Philadelphia. There, they met Bishop A.W. Weyman, an abolitionist who gave them the names of New Yorkers who would help them get to Canada, Simpkins said.
In New York, abolitionists gave them the name of a man in Troy who owned canal boats that often traveled to Canada. But the men somehow wound up in Schenectady rather than Troy, where a Glenville physician found them work, Simpkins said.
Two years later, Viney was hired by Nott. He lived in Schenectady for nearly eight years before the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, which allowed slave hunters to search for fugitives in the North.
Viney’s old playmate, the boy who became his master, came to Schenectady himself — but Viney spotted him first and ran to Nott, Simpkins said.
In all that time, Viney had never told Nott he was an escaped slave. He confessed, and Nott quickly contacted a judge who confirmed that the master could drag Viney back to slavery. So Nott sent him to Canada and sent his own grandson to Maryland to negotiate with the master, Simpkins said.
Viney had to stay in Canada for two years, working for a family there, before his master accepted $250 for his emancipation, Simpkins said.
Viney worked for Nott as a chauffeur, but also cared for him after he had a series of strokes. Viney prepared his meals and massaged him with such care that one of his doctors asked him to massage other patients as well, Simpkins said.
Nott’s bequest to Viney was enough for him to buy a small home. Nott’s widow also hired Viney, paying him enough that he could buy three more lots. When she died, he bought her horse and carriage and went into business as a coachman, providing rides to the most distinguished visitors at Union College, Simpkins said.
He retired at age 84 and died a successful man. On his casket, mourners laid a floral arrangement spelling out the word FREE.