In 1799, New York State enacted the Manumission Act, which required slaveholders in New York State to free any children born to slaves after July 4, 1799. Louis Napoleon, who would later play a critical role in the Underground Railroad, was born to an enslaved woman in New York City in April 1800 and, thus, under of the provisions of the statute, was born free. Napoleon’s father is reputed to have been a man of Jewish decent.
At the age of 14, Napoleon was apprenticed to “Mrs. Miller’s Tobacco and Snuff Warehouse.” He subsequently made the acquaintance of a number of leading abolitionists, including Gerritt Smith, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, George William Curtis and Sydney Howard Gay. As early as the 1830s, Louis Napoleon patrolled the New York’s docks to offer assistance to runaway slaves, and although he was arrested on several occasions, he avoided conviction through excellent legal representation provided by his influential friends.
Napoleon lived around the corner from Gay’s office in lower Manhattan, not far from the ferry terminals. In 1855, Gay offered Napoleon work, ostensibly as a porter for the American Antislavery Society and its newspaper, the National Antislavery Standard. In reality, as historian Eric Foner’s research indicates, Napoleon was “the key guy on the streets in New York bringing in fugitives, scouring the docks, looking for people at the train station.” In 1875, The Brooklyn Eagle observed that “few would have suspected … that [Napoleon] had ever been the rescuer of 3,000 persons from bondage.”
Mr. Napoleon played a role in some important legal cases, including Lemmon v. New York (1852) and Foner notes: “He was illiterate, and yet went to court and got writs of habeas corpus.”
Shortly after the Civil War, Mr. Napoleon and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Sandy Ground in Staten Island, the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlement in the United States, where they remained until their deaths in 1881 and 1905 respectively.
Debbie-Ann Paige. NPS UGRR Louis Napoleon House Site Application (2011)
Andrea Stone. The Little-Known History of the Underground Railroad in New York: Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Eric Foner uncovers the hidden story behind this passage to freedom. January 20, 2015.
Jennifer Schuessler. Words From the Past Illuminate a Station on the Way to Freedom: Eric Foner Revisits Myths of the Underground Railroad. New York Times, January 14, 2015 Freedom.