In the Village of Paris in Hillcrest Cemetery lie the graves of 7 freedom-seekers. On the middle grave marker an inscription reads: “IN MEMORY OF JOHN ROBERTS, MARY HIS WIFE AND FIVE FRIENDS. BORN WHILE SLAVES, FOUND HOME AND FREEDOM AT PARIS BETWEEN 1846 & 1881.”
John Thomas, a fugitive from Maryland, arrived with another fugitive in Utica in 1844 by way of Philadelphia, New York, and Albany. He made his way to the home of William Johnson, 16 Post Street, Utica. Johnson was active in the Negro Conventions, and was appointed Vice President of a “Convention of colored persons” at the African M. E. church in Rome in May 10, 1853, that passed 10 resolutions opposing Liberia colonization plan.
Post Avenue at that time was a predominantly black residential area, and as such would have been a logical destination of any fugitive in the area. Johnson sent the two freedom-seekers to Wesley Bailey, editor of The Liberty Press, at his home at 63 Genesee Street, Utica. Bailey directed Thomas to the village of Paris, about 20 miles away, where he was harbored by Jesse Thompson, a prominent abolitionist.
Thomas was befriended by John and David Roberts, freedom-seekers from the Baltimore area with whom he eventually purchased a house from Jesse Thompson. Thomas was employed variously by J. M. Simmons, Val Pierce, and Henry Crane, all of whom signed various anti-slavery petitions in 1836, 1837, 1838, and 1845.
We find evidence for this in the United States Census. The US Census provides one method for identifying freedom-seekers. African Americans who claimed a slave-holding state as their place of birth were probably fugitives.
After Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, the value of domestic slaves rose steeply, making it unlikely that bondsmen would be freed. John and Mary Roberts, and John and Sarah Thomas are listed in both the 1850 and 1860 United States Censuses, and all identify the slave-holding state of Maryland as their birthplaces. It is remarkable that they continued to live openly among this white community even after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which strengthened the power of slave-hunters and stiffened the penalties for harboring fugitives. This could only happen if freedom-seekers felt confident of the protection of their white neighbors. There were many abolitionists in the Town of Paris, if the sheer number of anti-slavery petitions (17) and signatures (including those of the people who helped John Thomas) are an indication. In fact, the citizens of Paris sent more antislavery petitions to Congress than any other community in the county except Utica.
Fugitives settled elsewhere in Oneida County as well, and sometimes they lived close enough to be considered small communities.