Learning about Abolitionist Samuel Joseph May

Scott Peal, Education Specialist at the Onondaga Historical Association, gave a presentation about abolitionist and reformer Samuel Joseph May at WTB’s Feb. 12 program in recognition of and honoring February as Black History Month.

Peal, dressed in clothing befitting a man from the middle of the 1800’s, came into the Association’s meeting room welcoming the audience of about 20 women and a number of male spouses. For the next hour, he spoke in the voice of Samuel Joseph May (1797-1871), never changing that presentation of himself throughout the whole program and the following question and answer period. He described himself as an abolitionist, promoter of education for all, and a women’s rights advocate. Since May lived such a dedicated life impacting Syracuse, this report will summarize some of what Peal had him say to us. 

Peal described May’s childhood in Boston as contributing to the positions he held as an abolitionist in Syracuse and the lifework he’s done. He was born in 1797 to Joseph and Dorothy May. His father Joseph May was quite well-to-do, and his mother was descended from well-known families  including the Quincys and the Hancocks. A number of experiences led him to devote himself to the kind of life he lived. He was the 10th of 12 children in the family and had a brother who was 2 years older. When Samuel was 4 years old, that brother died in an accident while they were playing together. Samuel was greatly affected by this and couldn’t sleep in the bed he had shared with his brother. He said the brother’s “appearing to him along with angels n his dreams” had a long-term impact. That and other events led him to envision needing to have a useful life of advocacy and changing conditions that he believed were wrong.  

His primary grammar school classes involved children from diverse backgrounds, but he later went to private schools where he “began asking questions.” At 16 years of age he enrolled in Harvard University, where Daniel Webster was one of his teachers. In his junior year, he began reading the Bible and decided he wanted to go into the ministry. He graduated from Harvard and then went into the ministry.

Peal shared some stories that influenced May’s belief systems as he began his early adult life. He became an abolitionist after becoming more aware of the life situations of slaves, relating a story that especially affected him. Traveling south with his sister he observed black men chained together in irons as laborers near Washington, DC, which upset him a great deal  He also shared a few other stories of actions by persons that inspired him. 

During the period of his early ministry, he became a pacifist when he “decided violence was not the way.” At one point he was asked by the sheriff to attend a hanging for a murderer. When he refused to attend, the sheriff then refused to do the hanging. As part of his beliefs in pacifism, he also became convinced that the American Revolution had been accomplished with too much violence.  

As he worked in the church, he challenged customs of the organizations in a number of ways. He wore no robe, did away with silver liturgical vessels and rituals, tried to implement communion for all, as well as having no segregation in the pews. Initially, in his abolitionist activities he was a member of the American Colonization Society, which advocated for a return of Black slaves to Africa. He greatly admired a school for young women in Canterbury, Connecticut, which had been founded by Prudence Crandall. When a black girl was admitted, white parents began withdrawing their daughters. Prudence Crandall then established it as a school for Black young women. Resistance about the integration of the school developed in the community and the state, which forbade Crandall from continuing to educate black young women. May continued with his support for Crandall and spent a night in jail as a result. About this time, May abandoned his interest in the American Colonization Society and became active in Anti-Slavery and Anti-Violence Society.   

Ministers went from church to church, and because of his “preaching” May “was not asked to come back” at times. His wife, Lucretia (Coffin), was one of his staunchest supporters through numerous congregational positions in different places. 

At one point May and his family came through Syracuse on the way to vacation in Niagara Falls.  May visited his colleague, the Rev. Robert E. Storer, and gave a sermon at the Unitarian Church. Syracuse had been known as a “hot bed” of abolitionist activity since the 1830s. The Underground Railroad, which involved accompanying persons to safe houses where escaping slaves could be protected on their way to Canada. While there was a strong abolitionist movement in Syracuse, there was also controversy. Many leaders in the City did not like some of the activities of abolitionists, and some religious institutions split over the issue. 

Peal described in some detail two well-known examples of abolitionists in Syracuse working to free persons who had been in slavery. The first story he told was that of Harriet Powel.

In 1838, Powel was a slave brought to the Syracuse area with a wealthy Southern family named Davenport who were visiting relatives. Powel, a light-skinned young, well-dressed slave, was approached about the possibility of escape by a free person, Tom Lenard, as the family was staying at a hotel named the Syracuse House. The decision to escape was a difficult one for her because she had family members who were still living as slaves with the Davenport family in the South. In the end she agreed and was “whisked away” from a farewell party at the home of a wealthy friend of the Davenports. Lenard had gathered her belongings from the Syracuse House for her. She was taken from one safe house to another until she made it to Kingston in Canada. There she married and had a family. 

After the minister of the Unitarian Congregational Society in Syracuse, Rev. Storer, died (in 1844), Samuel May began his Syracuse ministry here in that congregation in 1845. He worked with abolitionists, specifically Jermain Lougen, a freed slave and activist in the freedom movement, as well as with Gerrit Smith, a wealthy white abolitionist of Peterborough. He worked to improve the school system, worked with the abolitionist activities of the Underground Railroad, worked in the temperance movement because he thought too many people were “slaves” to alcohol, and  advocated for the value of women’s work in society collaborating with Susan B. Anthony and other feminists.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was having very negative effects in Syracuse. To illustrate this, a second story was told of an Underground Railroad escape. May participated with a group of abolitionists in the “Jerry Rescue” in which he had an active leadership role. In 1851, Willam Henry, nicknamed “Jerry,” was a freed slave from Missouri who had lived and worked in Syracuse for some time. He had been taught to read and write and worked as a free man. He was captured by some trying to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, charges were read by a judge, and “Jerry” was put into manacles and held in a “jail” in the area of the current Clinton Square. He eventually was freed by a group of citizens and shepherded from one safe house to another dressed as a woman, until he got to a farm in Oswego and eventually made it to Kingston in Canada. Activists in his rescue were arrested here and stood trial in Albany. Charges were eventually dropped. (Details of this entire episode were shared in such an interesting and detailed way.)

May knew things were moving toward Civil War and he dropped his belief in pacifism thinking the coming war was the only way to free the slaves in the United States.

Samuel May served as minister in Syracuse until 1867. (He died in 1871 in the home of his daughter.) The May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse is named after him.


Many members of WTB lingered in the Onondaga Historical Association for some time talking and viewing exhibits of the historic photo collections of Syracuse. Several people from WTB gathered for lunch prior to the meeting at the nearby Salt City Market, enjoying some of the various ethnic foods available there.