Moses Viney

This week was Founder's Day at Union, one of the three big academic-procession events of the year (the others being Convocation in the fall, and Commencement in June), and this year's event had a clear theme about race and equality, with the keynote speech being given by James McPherson on Union's connection to the abolitionist movement in the early 1800's.

In addition to McPherson's talk, there was the official unveiling of a portrait of Moses Viney, an escaped slave who came to Schenectady and became a coachman and messenger for Eliphalet Nott, the towering figure of the College's early history, who was president of the college for sixty-two years, from 1804 until his death in 1866. Here's the bio of Viney from the Founder's Day program:

Moses Viney, born March 10, 1817, worked as a slave on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, until he escaped north on the Underground Railroad in 1840. After working several jobs, he was hired as the coachman for Union college President Eliphalet ott in 1847. With the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to reclaim runaways, Viney fled to Canada and remained there until Nott, an abolitionist, could negotiate his freedom in 1852. Viney rejoined Nott and Union, becoming a well-known figure on- and off-campus and a constant companion of Nott during the president's final years.

It's an fascinating story, and the various speakers at the event added some more details to those events (when Viney was in Canada, Nott contacted the plantation owner who claimed to own him, and offered to buy Viney's freedom. The owner demanded $1,900, roughly equivalent to $50,000 today. Nott responded with a message saying that Viney was really quite happy in Canada, and the price was dropped to $250), but I couldn't help being bothered by one thing that's missing from that biography. I'll put it below the fold, in case you feel like guessing.

Eliphalet Nott died in 1866. Moses Viney died in 1908. There are forty-two years of his life missing from the biography, and the stories told about him at the event. The article in the Schenectady Gazette fills in a few of the details.

While I sincerely hope that, for his sake, escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad was the most interesting thing that happened to him in his life, I can't help being bothered by the implication that his story ended with Nott's death. He lived for another four decades, and must have made some sort of life for himself during that time. Surely, he deserves at least some acknowledgment of his own life, beyond his connection with Nott and the college.

This is, I should note, a relatively minor complaint-- the speeches and stories were all very good, and the portrait is a very nice painting. It's great that the college is celebrating its role in the abolition movement, and Viney is a wonderful symbol of that role. I'm just slightly bothered that his role as a symbol seems to have eclipsed his life as a free man.

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