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Broome County Through the Abolitionist Movement, Uncovering the Underground Railroad

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Broome County connects with the abolitionist movement -- a turning point in black history where whites and blacks - against slavery helped fugitives flee to the north along Underground Railroad. Community members have tried to uncover information about an African American woman who lived in the household with an anti-slavery family during the movement.

17 Old Nanticoke Road, where an abolitionist family -- the Gates -- used to live. Now owned by Stephen Beukema who's proud to say he owns a piece of history.

"My realtor emphasized was that it was a history teacher and I certainly would take good care of the place," said Stephen Beukema, homeowner.

The home was just one stop along the Underground Railroad. Slaves made their way from the south along secret routes, hiding in homes like the Gates' home as they made the journey north -- but even those homes weren't completely safe.

Broome County Historian Gerald Smith said, "It wasn't just a southern institution. We may think the majority of slaves were in the southern states but slavery was still legal in much of the north in New York state and finally served gradually into the 1820s, we had slaves right here in Broome County."

A new law in 1850, gave more incentive for to bounty hunters to travel to the northern states and return blacks to the south -- often for a cash reward.
All the more crucial for homes like the Gates' to have secret hideaways -- but also forbidden.

Smith said, "The Fugitive Slave Act was meant to stop the Underground Railroad it actually backfired and did the exact opposite. But it made it a severe legal penalty if someone was caught harboring an escaped slave the owners or their agents."

On the other side of a hidden door there's about a 20 foot space and that's where runaway slaves would hide if needed.

Beukema said, "The bottom shelf has a kick out panel still with leather tabs on it and a little hook on it."

Oral history claims there was a woman named Margaret Cruiser who lived and worked as a free woman for the Gates family.

Cruiser was an ex-slave who the lived in the town of Maine in the late 1800's.
but there are two sides to cruiser's story.

"Multiple sources that talk about Margaret Cruiser being a runaway slave that stayed at the house," said Beukema.

Smith said, "But she's not an escaped slave she was born here in Broome county a slave. "

Since Cruiser lived before there were birth records -- especially for African Americans there is no way to tell which story is correct.

Smith said, "The trouble is we don't know everything we want to know because it was an illegal activity. They didn't write down that they were harboring slaves."

What we do know is she was a member of the First Baptist Church in Maine which is still standing.

And census records indicate she did live in the Gates home. The Gates family also claims Cruiser was buried in the family plot behind the house, right underneath the lilac bush.

Beukema is just happy to call his place home.

"It's special and I think sometimes that I do take it for granted you know when I get back in touch with people that would say 'are you still in that old house' and I'm like 'yeah' and they're like, 'It must be great' and I think, 'yeah you know what... yeah it is'."