The Oswego Public Library was founded in the midst of America’s greatest crisis as our country debated the issue of slavery. Gerrit Smith, who donated the money for the library building and materials in 1853, was a noted abolitionist who openly invited fugitive slaves to his estate in Peterboro, New York. “From Peterboro they were sent in Mr. Smith’s wagon to Oswego.”1 Mr. Smith owned a majority of the land on the river’s east side. He made two requirements for the new library:
- locate the library on the East side of the Oswego River
- shut out no person on account of their race, complexion, or condition
Gerrit Smith ran for President of the United States three times and was a close friend of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Below is an 1866 portrait of Gerrit Smith by the artist Alonzo Pease.
From the opening of its doors in 1857 to the present, the Oswego Public Library has had African-American patrons including prominent members of the Underground Railroad and the local community. Early borrowing records confirm that several African-American families used the library during its first years. Tudor E. Grant and his son George Franklin Grant, 11-years-old when the library opened, are listed in the books. George was the second African-American graduate of Harvard’s Dental School in 1870. He went on to become a faculty member, invent the golf tee, and pioneer the treatment of cleft palates. Tudor Grant, David Friman, and Nathan Green were all African-Americans involved in the Underground Railroad. David’s entire family were library patrons along with Nathan’s children Harriet and John. The Greens were fugitive slaves who settled in Oswego instead of continuing on to Canada. Other prominent African-Americans in Oswego Public Library borrowing records from the 1850’s include Mary Smith, sister of barber Charles Smith who partnered with Tudor; Percillia Thomas who lived with the Greens; and Mrs. William Rattery.
The library building was built in 1855 in the popular “Norman” or “castellated” style of the time, recreating medieval castle appearances throughout the East Coast. The Oswego Public Library is the oldest remaining public library building in New York State still being used as a library. When the New York State Legislature chartered it on April 15, 1854, it was the second public library chartered in the entire state.2 Created at the beginning of the free library movement twenty years before Carnegie began funding public libraries, it remains today as an open institution allowing everyone access to books of all types, on all subjects, and to the entire world through free Internet and computers. Today, the Oswego Public Library also offers books read on CD and award-winning and educational videos on DVD.
Tudor E. Grant was born in Westchester County, NY about 1800. He came to the City of Oswego in 1832. By 1855 he worked as a barber, a highly regarded occupation for blacks at this time, and owned his own home valued at $1,000. Tudor was an active fighter against slavery and discrimination. He gave anti-slavery speeches in Oswego County as early as 1836. Tudor had three children and in the City of Oswego he took a firm stand against the discrimination requiring black children to first learn to read and spell before starting school. How, wondered Tudor, are my children supposed to learn if they are not allowed to attend school? "I have not, in common with others," he charged, "the right of choice in schools for my children." Black city residents opened their own school taught by George Hackett, an African-American.
Three of the original Oswego Public Library trustees were active in the abolitionist movement. John B. Edwards, who managed Gerrit Smith's Oswego business affairs, actively assisted the anti-slavery movement. Excerpts from John's letters to Gerrit reflect some of these activities.
July 17, 1847 "Nine poor fugitives from slavery's prison left this port last evening for Canada. They were, I am told, in much fear that pursuers were after them. They said that they left in a company of [one hundred] and that about [sixty] of their number were captured before they got out of the slave states."
July 20, 1852 "I was not before aware that you were expecting 40 to 50 colored people from New Orleans. I will do the best I can to get them employment."
April 29, 1852 "The fugitive slave, Dorsey, came to me today with your letter. I have put him to aboard of a vessel bound for Canada and gave him a $1.00."
March 19, 1860 "The young colored man that was at your house last week arrived at my house last evening. I shall keep him a few days to recuperate."
Edwin W. Clarke was a lawyer, village clerk, historian, and abolitionist. His Oswego home was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Edwin became an agent for the American Tract Society, traveled extensively throughout New York and New England, and assisted in the establishment of dozens of Sunday Schools in Oswego County. The text on Edwin's tombstone, a large boulder in Riverside Cemetery, County Route 57, reads: "Just, fearless, humane... He gave the best of his years and powers to the relief of the oppressed and to the aid and succor of slaves escaping from bondage, having in all he did the effective sympathy and cooperation of his devoted wife."