History

The Search for Freedom in Queens


The Bowne House and Lewis Latimer House Museum Celebrate Black History Month

Highlights from the Bowne and Parsons Families’ Activities in Abolition and the Underground Railroad

Robert Bowne (1744), the great-grandson of John Bowne, was both an early and prominent abolitionist in the family active in the anti slavery movement. In 1785, he joined with Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Eddy, and George Clinton (who was married to Hannah Bowne Franklin) to form the Manumission Society of New York.

The work of the Manumission Society included protesting the widespread practice of kidnapping black New Yorkers (both free and enslaved) and selling them as slaves elsewhere. They also lobbied for the 1799 law which granted gradual manumission of slaves.

Photo of Robert Bowne

Later, a niece of Robert Bowne, Mary Bowne Parsons (1784), and her husband Samuel Parsons (1771) were also both known as ardent abolitionists, as were several of her children. Correspondences, recently discovered in the family archives and in other Parsons’ archives, show a direct involvement by her children, Robert and William, in facilitating the movement of slaves to freedom while they resided in the house.

For example, the archives include a letter dated September 28, 1850, soon after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, written to William B. Parsons by L.I. Jocelyn (believed to be Simeon S.) requesting assistance in the escape of a “colored man.” Parsons was requested to see if he can keep the man perfectly unobserved in his neighborhood, as Williamsburg[h] was considered too close to the city for safety. The letter concludes by stating [t]his is a strong case, and great care and caution is involved. The obituary of Samuel Bowne Parsons, Sr., one of Mary Bowne Parsons’ sons, who ran the Parsons nursery on land near the house with his brother, Robert B. Parsons, noted “his boast that he assisted more slaves to freedom than any other man in Queens County.”

These courageous actions and documents link the Bowne House, the Bownes, and the Parsons to anti-slavery activism and the “Underground Railroad,” a network of sympathetic contacts and protected sites in which enslaved people could be assisted in their flight to freedom. Flushing, in general, also sponsored many safe houses and was a conduit for African-Americans passing north to Connecticut, Canada, and to freedom.

The Bowne House is open for tours by appointment, visitors should call 718-359-0528. For more information, visit http://bownehouse.org.

Lewis H. Latimer: an African-American Inventor, Electrical Pioneer, and Son of Fugitive Slaves

Photo of Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer (1848), who was born to fugitive slaves, was determined to overcome his lack of formal education and taught himself mechanical drawing after serving in the Union Navy and became an expert draftsman. He worked with three of the greatest scientific inventors in American history, including Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram S. Maxim, and Thomas Alva Edison. Latimer played a critical role in the development of the telephone and, as Edison’s chief draftsman, he invented and patented the carbon filament, a significant improvement in the production of the incandescent light bulb. Over the course of his career, Latimer supervised the installation of street lighting and the construction of electric plants in many American cities, as well as London and Montreal.

Take a Tour of the Lewis H. Latimer House Museum

The Lewis H. Latimer House is a modest Queen Anne-style, wood-frame suburban residence constructed between 1887 and 1889 by the Sexton family. Lewis Latimer lived in the house from 1903 until his death in 1928. The house remained in the Latimer family until 1963. Threatened with demolition, the house was moved from Holly Avenue to its present location in 1988.

The Latimer House Museum is open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays from 12 to 5pm. For more information, visit http://latimernow.org.

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