Auburn in Harriet Tubman’s Time

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross c.1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents were enslaved and Harriet was rented out as a domestic servant. In 1849, she and two of the brothers escaped. Harriet spent several years helping other enslaved people escape, including her parents, who she moved to Ontario. In 1858 William Seward offered to sell her property in Auburn and she brought her parents with her to Auburn in 1859, settling in a wooden house at 180 South Street.

Harriet would live in Auburn until her death in 1913, witnessing Auburn’s growth from a small city in Central New York into an influential, industrial powerhouse. At the heart of numerous political and social movements, Auburn proved to be an essential settling place for Tubman, where she would devote her life to the abolition of enslaved people and support for the welfare of Auburn’s black community and a woman’s right to vote.

Explore in the gallery below some of the locations in Auburn which played significant roles in Harriet Tubman’s 54 years of life in the city!

All images in use during this program can be found within the collection of the Cayuga Museum. If you would like to research any of the figures mentioned, or would like to use any of these images for professional use, you can put in a research or image request HERE

Central Presbyterian Church was founded in 1861, when Reverend Henry Fowler was forced to leave the Second Presbyterian Church because of his frequent abolitionist sermons. A group of  66 anti-slavery members followed Reverend Fowler. The new members ranged from Presbyterians, Methodists, and individuals from the Theological Seminary, and over half were women. They temporarily worshiped in the basement of this building on Genesee Street, which they called the “basement chapel,”  until they had the funds to build a new stone church on William Street (now Westminster Presbyterian Church).  Harriet Tubman married her second husband, Nelson Davis, in this church in March 1869 and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a lecture in the space.

In her biography of Harriet, Sarah Bradford writes that Harriet and the elderly residents living with her traveled into Auburn every Sunday to attend services at Central Presbyterian and class meetings at the Methodist Church.

Harriet Tubman’s residence was located outside of the city center, at 180 South Street. When she first came to Auburn, it would have seemed completely separate from the busy downtown areas. South Street was just beginning to grow as one of the preferred residential areas of the city’s wealthy industrialists, lawyers, and bankers. As the trolley system grew and other modes of transportation became available, South Street became more populated and the southern reaches of the city more connected to the center.

Besides being a growing and prosperous industrial city, Auburn and the surrounding area was also a hot spot for early social justice movements. Slavery ended in New York in 1827 and the abolition movement had been strong in central New York since the 1830s. A highly organized system for helping formerly enslaved people to freedom was well established by the time Harriet Tubman arrived. A high population of Quakers in the region connected Cayuga County abolitionists to a network of abolitionists in southeast Pennsylvania and Delaware. The fairly large population of African Americans in Auburn also provided a support system for newly arrived freedom seekers. In 1857 William Seward sold Harriet Tubman a seven-acre farm on the south edge of the city. Seward was a well known supporter of the underground railroad and Harriet had used his house as a station many times in her trips to bring formerly enslaved people north. Harriet brought her family and many other formerly enslaved people to Auburn, and eventually settled here herself. William Seward was an important figure in Tubman’s life and she attended his funeral services.

The early 1900s were the start of the Progressive Era. Partly in response to the rapidly changing economic and political landscape, social reformers organized to make the country a better place to live. In addition to abolitionists, Central New York was also home to many of the leaders of the suffrage movement who had been working towards their goal even before the 1900s. Auburn was home to several of the leading figures in the suffrage movement, including Martha C. Wright, Frances Seward, and Eliza Wright Osborne, who organized supporters in the county. In November of 1891, the New York State Woman Suffrage Association held its 23rd annual convention in Auburn, at the Academy of Music (later called the Burtis Opera House). Harriet was a supporter of the women’s rights movement and was invited to speak at several meetings of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association.

The Auburn Weekly Dispatch of March 15, 1888 details a meeting of the Society for Political Education for Women at which Harriet spoke. The paper introduces her as “noted women scout and soldier of the late rebellion.” Harriet spoke to the society about her time helping freedom seekers and her time spent as a scout and nurse during the Civil War. She recounted stories of the many brave women nurses who faced the same danger as the male soldiers. She concluded that “her prayers carried her through and they would eventually place women at the ballot-box with man as his equal.By 1913, the suffrage movement was so large that they staged their first march on Washington as Woodrow Wilson prepared to be inaugurated as President. 

During the Civil War, Harriet left her parents to the care of friends in Auburn and worked as a nurse and spy for the Union Army. After the war, Harriet worked to raise funds to aid formerly enslaved peoples, supported the women’s suffrage fight, cared for her parents, and worked on her biography with author Sarah Bradford. She married Union soldier Nelson Davis in 1869. 

Harriet also worked tirelessly to build a home for elderly Black residents. Bradford’s book Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her People, details Tubman’s quest for funds, saying that she would go into town to ask friends and prominent residents to donate to the cause. In 1896, she was able to purchase 25 acres of land adjacent to her home at auction, with the help of the AME Zion Church and a local bank.

In 1903, Harriet was unable to make the tax payments on the property and donated the home to the AME Zion Church which fully opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly in 1908. Tubman herself was cared for in the home until her death in 1913.

The Thompson Memorial A.M.E Zion Church was built in 1891 and Harriet was a member of the church during her time in Auburn. In Central New York, the A.M.E Zion Church actively assisted the abolition movement and was central to the religious, cultural, and political life of African American communities. By the time Harriet came to Auburn, the A.M.E. Zion Church was well established. In 1838, members of the African American community incorporated the church as the Auburn African Methodist-Episcopal Church. They first met in an old school house on Washington Street before moving to the church on Parker Street, named after Bishop Joseph P. Thompson. Harriet helped raise the funds to build the Parker Street church and Harriet’s funeral was held here before she was laid to rest with military honors in nearby Fort Hill Cemetery. The church was used until 1993, when the congregation moved to a larger church building.


This project was made possible in part by the
Institute of Museum and Library Services.