Thursday, January 30, 2014

Local Abolitionist Isaac Groot Duryee

Isaac Groot Duryee in 1860. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Isaac Groot Duryee (sometimes spelled Duryea) was born in Glenville in 1810 to William Duryee and Sarah Groot. As a young man, he first worked as a grocery clerk in Schenectady, then established his own grocery business. Duryee was attracted to religion during a revival held in the city in 1832. Following the revival, he became a member of the First Reformed Church.

As a young man, Duryee's devotion to the abolitionist cause became apparent. By the mid-1830s, he was contributing to the American Anti-Slavery Society. During his time as a student at Union College, from which he graduated in 1838, Duryee co-founded an Anti-Slavery Society at the college in 1836, and co-founded the Anti-Slavery Society of the City of Schenectady  in 1838. He also helped to found the first African-American church in Schenectady, known as the African Church (now the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church), in 1837. As President of the Union College Anti-Slavery Society, Duryee wrote that the group would "cease not in every proper way to vindicate [slaves'] cause until their wrongs shall have been redressed and the last vestige of slavery be wiped from our beloved republic." In addition to his public agitation for the freedom of slaves and the rights of African-Americans, his granddaughter, Ruth M. Duryee, wrote in 1937 for a Union College alumni record that Duryee was active with the Underground Railroad, helping “many an escaping negro from Schenectady to the next stop, with the negro lying flat under hay in the back of the wagon.”

Present location of the Duryee Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church at 307 Hulett Street in Schenectady. The church is named on honor of Isaac Groot Duryee, who helped to establish the church's first building on Jay Street. August 2011 image obtained via Google Maps

In 1837, Duryee wrote to the Schenectady Cabinet about Schenectady's African-American community. He decried the racism that members of the community faced, writing that African-American Schenectadians were "represented as a mass of ignorant, slothful, miserable paupers - unable and unwilling to provide for themselves, and almost wholly incapable of moral and intellectual improvement." In contrast, Duryee wrote of the contributions that African-Americans made locally -- financially through their taxes to the public coffers, as well as in the works of African-American temperance and mutual relief societies, and in organizing ably to create a school and church. Duryee also noted that 13 of the 39 former slaves in the community had had to purchase their freedom. In comparison to these efforts, Duryee wrote, "we may safely challenge the [white] community to produce a like example of industry, perseverance, and generosity."

On the subject of education, Duryee remarked that "the cause of education among the people of colour has never received the least support from the school fund. They have paid their full proportion of taxes . .. but [those funds] have all been appropriated for the education of other children. Perhaps it will be said, that coloured children stand as good a chance as white children. It is not so. The doors of our public school are closed against the former, while they are open to the latter -- thereby excluding colored children even from the opportunity of receiving any advantage of the public fund." Duryee insisted that, barring integration of Schenectady's schools, African-Americans at the very least had a right to money from the public funds -- which they had contributed to -- to support a school their children could attend. "A greater outrage was never committed upon the rights of the poor," Duryee wrote in the conclusion of his letter.

Duryee left Schenectady for a period of fourteen years after graduating from Union College in 1838. He graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1841 and married Lydia Auger Budington in 1842, shortly before he became ordained as a minister. He served Reformed Church congregations in Fallsburg and Glenham before returning to Schenectady to serve as the first pastor of the Second Reformed Church, from 1852 to 1858. During his years in Schenectady, he continued to support rights and dignity for African-Americans in Schenectady. In 1854, he was selected as one of eight commissioners to serve of Schenectady's first Board of Education.

The Second Reformed Church was, during Duryee's tenure as pastor there, in this church building at the corner of Jay and Liberty Streets. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Duryee also spoke up among his fellows in the Reformed Church to denounce the institution of slavery. In a meeting of the Reformed Church General Synod in 1855, ministers met to discuss whether to form an ecclesiastical relationship with a North Carolina Classis of the German Reformed Church. During discussion of the resolution, Isaac Duryee objected to receiving the North Carolina Classis because, in his view, owning slaves was a sin. "The question of slavery is the great question of this nation," Duryee said in remarks printed in the New York Daily Tribune, "and when the line is to be drawn I shall not be slow to show which side I am on. Sir, I am on the side of Liberty - Freedom . . . I can say that my inmost soul shrinks from extending the fellowship of our church to slaveholding churches as I shrink from the touch of the torpedo." The Tribune praised Duryee's courage in standing firmly against slavery, given, as they put it, that "the predominant feeling in the Church has been adverse to talking any stand with reference to the great reforms of the day."

In 1859, Duryee again left Schenectady to serve a congregation in Montgomery County. From 1862 to 1865, he served as a chaplain to the 81st New York State Volunteers during the Civil War. Duryee served with that regiment through the war, but became sick during the war and never fully recovered after his return to Schenectady. He died on February 8, 1866, at age 55, leaving his wife and eight children. He is buried in Vale Cemetery. An obituary published in the Schenectady Republican praised his "large experience," his "warm heart," and his "unselfish and elevated purposes." Duryee "was a great friend of the colored race," wrote Edward Corwin in A Manual of the Reformed Church in America in 1902. "He was an Abolitionist and not afraid to speak when it was yet unpopular to advocate the rights of a common humanity for all."

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