The following feature appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.
The Mission, a former site for fighting slavery and sin, continuously stands by the intersection of Onondaga and Jefferson Streets, on Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse. A “Restaurant” sign sits above the wooden double doors, sometimes covered by sprigs of ivy that creep up every spring. Long-legged metal chicken sculptures line the sidewalk next to the restaurant. Inside, owner and chef Steve Morrison chops onions in the back kitchen and slides the diced pieces across the wooden cutting board. In a crisp, white short-sleeved shirt, he moves around the kitchen with ease, no movement wasted as he preps for the day.
The building was once a Wesleyan Methodist Church-turned-Underground Railroad stop, part of an abolitionist community in a Syracuse that stormed the police office and rescued a captured fugitive slave. It’s now a Pan-American restaurant that serves burritos in tender tortillas, tapas, and huevos rancheros. Most nights, bustling dinnertime crowds sit close in wooden chairs under a blazing blue ceiling. The clay-and-dirt tunnel that used to shelter escaping slaves still runs beneath the restaurant floor.
“The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 demanded federal officials help slave catchers. Syracuse stopped complying with the law by 1852. The Wesleyan Methodists closed ranks — slave catchers were no longer welcome.”
In the 1840s, Methodists were splitting from the Methodist Episcopal Church, no longer able to stomach slave-owning preachers in the South, nor the Church’s tepid stance on slavery. They needed more, so they sought it in themselves and formed their own churches. The Syracuse Wesleyan Methodist Church opened in 1843 in the building now occupied by The Mission. The church’s main business was prayer and abolition as the central depot in New York on the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 demanded federal officials help slave catchers. Syracuse stopped complying with the law by 1852. The Wesleyan Methodists closed ranks — slave catchers were no longer welcome.
Breaking slavery law was a well-established community activity. Luther Lee, the first pastor of the Syracuse Wesleyan Church, was suspended from the Methodist Church in 1838 for preaching against slavery. He later posted his own address, admitted to helping 30 slaves escape in the previous month, and invited arrest since his abolitionist friends would be willing to level the jail to the ground “before the next morning” anyway.
Children’s books like to portray the North as a shining star of freedom, but no slave was free until they crossed into Canada. They could be dragged back at any point before then. Syracuse, with its militant abolitionists, remained the crucial endpoint. “Into this uncertainty, runaway slaves streamed with the hope for freedom, and it is against hope, fear, and uncertainty that the record of the abolition movement in Syracuse stands out,” write Douglas Armstrong and LouAnn Wurst in their archaeological study of the tunnel.
The North didn’t promise much more freedom than the South. Anti-blackness was rampant in Ohio and other places in the North, and trust was a luxury. Yet, “history shows that arrival in Syracuse meant freedom,” Armstrong and Wurst write.
The Mission’s dining room retains the narrow rectangular space of the old Methodist meeting hall. A well-stocked bar with Lagunitas, Dos Equis, and Great Lakes beer on tap lines the north wall. The tunnel below takes a sharp turn to the side before continuing on a straight path so that from the entrance, it appears to be a dead-end. The design most likely kept voices and light from spilling out into the open air. It leads into a small clearing with a coal furnace and a ledge cut from the wall, where archaeologists believe slaves rested and warmed themselves.
Fugitive Act supporters invited Senator Daniel Webster to speak in May 1851, during which he threatened everyone with a metaphorical pitchfork and the fullest extent of the law. He promised those who defied the Act at the next anti-slavery convention would be prosecuted.
“An angry crowd gathered and managed to break Jerry out the first time, but he was dragged back. A second crowd, bigger than the first, raided the police office where he was being held. They ignored the pistol shots and shoved a battering ram through the jail door.”
Five months after Webster’s open threat, the only slave to ever be arrested in Syracuse was caught. William Henry, nicknamed “Jerry,” had been working in Syracuse as a barrel maker for a year when a three-city coven of law enforcement officials arrived and arrested him at work. Abolitionists, including Wesleyan Methodists, organized a plan. An angry crowd gathered and managed to break Jerry out the first time, but he was dragged back. A second crowd, bigger than the first, raided the police office where he was being held. They ignored the pistol shots and shoved a battering ram through the jail door.
The church building lay vacant for decades before Morrison, the current owner of The Mission, leased and opened the restaurant in 2000. He majored in sculpture at Syracuse University. He worked with found objects, repurposing items into new presentations and meanings, such as a Methodist church with a Technicolor alter ego.
The interior now shimmers with color. Wooden floors flow into melon orange walls, an assortment of art pieces brought back from Mexico, stained glass ceilings behind the bar, then a cornflower blue ceiling, almost liquid in its saturation. Paper star lanterns swing from wooden beams in the middle of the room.
Morrison hired an art shipper to help him shepherd boxes full of art from Rosarito, a Mexican border town near Tijuana. Grimacing painted masks, which hang behind the bar, come from that haul. Colorful geometric tiles and blue and white star tiles run across and around the serving window in the back.
Most of the basement is renovated now. The tunnel lies behind a splintered gray blue wooden door about two feet off the ground. The door swings open at an angle. Behind it, a ragged chunk of plywood bridges the gap. Chairs, bottle caps, a blue wooden door, and cobwebs litter the walls of the tunnel. Seven faces, rumored to be sculpted by passing slaves, used to decorate the tunnel walls. Both the faces and the church’s ties to the abolitionist movement were forgotten for decades. Schoolchildren who saw the faces in the church basement thought the janitor crafted them as Halloween decorations. They shivered and wondered about them. An SU team decided to do an archaeological study in 1994, but their origins still aren’t clear. They rest now in a display at the Onondaga Historical Association.
After hours, the neighborhood settles into silence. Some of Morrison’s employees have told him they’ve sensed ghosts in The Mission. He’s been at the restaurant all hours of the night but never felt ghosts himself. Even if he did, he wouldn’t be scared. “When you think about the history of it, it’s a very cool, genuine history. It’s not like people died here. It helped people,” he said. “So I think it has good karma.”
written by Natsumi Ajisaka