"History comes alive in Troy story"

Date published: 02/25/2010
Publication: Troy Record

By Phil Drew

Freeing Charles book coverAffixed to the exterior of a building on State Street in downtown 
Troy, within sight of the YWCA building on First Street, is a simple 
bronze plaque paying tribute to an event in local history that, this 
being Black History Month, deserves to be better recognized.

A big dose of exposure comes this week with a pair of public events 
marking publication of a new book, and the opening of an exhibition of 
paintings, chronicling the rescue 150 years ago of Charles Nalle by a 
riotous mob preventing the forcible return of a fugitive slave on the 
eve of the Civil War.

“There is a lot of history under our feet here in Troy,” says Scott 
Christianson, historian, author and Sand Lake resident. “This is a 
part of history in Troy and Watervliet that really bears notice. . It 
was an act of civil disobedience to stand up and act in violation of 
the law, although I do believe in this instance it was the law that 
was illegal.”

The notorious Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, made it a Federal 
offense to harbor an escaped slave, requiring instead return to their 
owners if captured. On an April day in 1860 Nalle, bound for return by 
Federal marshals to his former master from Virginia, was liberated 
twice by local citizens, goaded into action by abolitionist and former 
slave Harriet Tubman – the confrontation beginning at the spot marked 
by that plaque.

On Saturday, just about a block away at Hart-Cluett Mansion, home of 
the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Christianson will be on hand 
for the opening of a gallery exhibit of paintings depicting that 
dramatic day by Mark Priest, a University of Louisville faculty 
member. The exhibit is scheduled to remain in place until mid-June. 
Christianson will sign copies of his new book, “Freeing Charles,” just 
published by University of Illinois Press. On Tuesday, at the 
Sanctuary for Independent Media in North Troy, Christianson and Priest 
will join again for a talk on the Nalle incident.

Troy was a key stopping point along the “railroad” — a major 
industrial town with a growing black population in the 1850’s, and a 
prominent “vigilance committee”, the local spearhead of the 
abolitionist movement. Says Christianson, “In Troy, the office of the 
Underground Railroad was located in the building on the present site 
of the women’s Y.”

When the fugitive Nalle reached Troy, locally-prominent abolitionist 
Stephen Myers offered him the choice of continuing on to Canada or 
blending in with the local community and working, in the hope of 
eventually rejoining his family. He chose the latter and Myers secured 
for him a residence in Sand Lake and employment.

“We’re essentially schooled to think of America before the war as 
North-South, the North against slavery, the South for it,” says 
Christianson. “It wasn’t that way. There were plenty of slavery 
opponents in Virginia, some who had helped Nalle escape. There were a 
lot of people in the North who were indifferent to slavery, and some 
even in favor of it, and there was quite a bit of Southern influence 
in an industrial town like Troy and rural towns like Sand Lake.” The 
newcomer Nalle eventually attracted attention from Horatio Averill – 
for whom Averill Park is named – and the marshals were tipped off. 
Headed for a downtown bakery on that fateful day, Nalle was arrested 
and hauled into court to be turned over to Blucher Hansborough.

Tubman, an Auburn resident en route to an abolitionist convention in 
Boston, was in Troy visiting relatives at the time, and learned of the 
fugitive slave’s predicament. With members of the vigilance committee, 
she headed across the street and lay in wait outside the courthouse, 
seizing Nalle when he emerged in leg-irons escorted by Hansborough and 
the marshals. In the ensuing street riot, Tubman spirited Nalle to the 
nearby riverside and a waiting boat. Recaptured in West Troy, as 
Watervliet was then known, but freed again by another intervention, 
Nalle made his way to Niskayuna and a fresh hiding place. Eventually, 
local abolitionists raised $650, an enormous sum then, to buy his 
freedom.

Christianson, with a Ph. D. in criminal justice, has taught subjects 
from criminology to journalism to history at Bard College, RPI and the 
University at Albany. “I moved to Sand Lake in 1991, into a home that 
I found out had been used by the Underground Railroad, and that 
certainly piqued my interest,” he says. He researched the Nalle story 
for 17 years.

He hopes to see his book eventually turned into a film screenplay, and 
should the drama of Nalle’s rescue be captured on film, he says, he 
hopes Troy’s still-authentic streets will see some of that action, an 
echo of its proud and now reclaimed past.

An opening reception for Mark Priest’s exhibit, “A Fugitive Slave 
Rescued: Paintings of Charles Nalle” through June 19, takes place 
Saturday, 5-8 p.m., at the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 
Second Street in Troy. Scott Christianson, author of “Freeing 
Charles”, will speak briefly at 6 p.m. and sign copies of his work. 
For information, visit www.rchsonline.org or call 272-7232.

Christianson and Priest also appear next Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the 
Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., north Troy. Suggested 
donation is $10, $5 for students and low-income attendees. For 
innformation, visit www.MediaSanctuary.org or call 272-2390.

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