A Generation Removed: Harry T. Burleigh, Hamilton Waters, and the Embodiment of Citizenship
There are many pictures of Harry T. Burleigh. Whether with friends, colleagues, or family members, the image presented to us 21st century viewers, is one of a black man who is not only successful, but comfortable; one who has found a safe and supportive community amidst nation supported by systemic racial oppression, hatred, and violence. We might forget, then, that Burleigh was two generations removed from being born into slavery: he was born the year after the Civil War, and thirty-one years after his maternal grandfather purchased his freedom.
Hamilton Waters and his mother, Lovey Waters, were freed in 1835 through manumission. They relocated to Ithaca, NY, where Hamilton got to work trying to locate family members who remained enslaved, submitting notices to newspapers and getting involved in the Underground Railroad. Following the death of his mother, Hamilton married Lucinda Duncanson in 1837; the two moved with their first born, Elizabeth, to Erie, PA later that year.
Erie was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and had a small, but strong black community. Hamilton was one of the first students of the Himrod Mission, a school founded in 1839 for Erie’s black residents. Hamilton, his children, and grandchild were active supporters of the school until it closed its doors in 1912.
Growing up in Erie, Burleigh lived, studied, and interacted with free, fugitive, and manumissioned black Americans. As a child, he escorted his grandfather to his weekly lessons at the Mission, where he highly heard spirituals for the first time. He also had one of his earliest photos taken with his grandfather and older brother when he was two years old.
These aspects of Hamilton’s life: walking with his grandson, getting his photo taken, studying without threat of physical punishment, purchasing his and his mother’s freedom, were enactments of citizenship. Though seemingly ordinary, Hamilton’s claim to self-hood, space, and information were radical challenges of the nation’s treatment of black Americans and their families, enslaved and free, before and after Emancipation, actions that his youngest grandson would be able to enact in his own life and career.